Catching Up: Billy Ratliff

Nov. 11, 2011


Remember Burlsworth, Too

Tennessee fans remember Billy Ratliff as the guy who recovered the fumble from the infamous "Stoerner Stumble." Yet Ratliff reminds UT fans to pause and remember his opponent from that game, the late Brandon Burlsworth.

Burlsworth was killed at the age of 22 in a car accident near Alpena, Ark., returning from a workout in Fayetteville to his home in Harrison. It was five months after the epic game in Knoxville and just 11 days after the former walk-on turned All-American had been selected in the third round of the NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts.

"We were all shocked," Ratliff recalls. "I remember reaching out to his family. I wrote a letter to his mom letting her know what a good kid he was. Everybody we heard talk about him said the same thing, that he was a great guy. I can't imagine, having kids myself now, losing a child at that age."

Ratliff says Tennessee fans who became Colts followers after Peyton Manning joined the team would have loved Burlsworth as well.

"I can most definitely say that if he were still with us today, he would be in the Pro Bowl every single year," Ratliff said. "I compare him to a Nate Newton-type of player. He just got the job done."

After his death, the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation was established to provide underprivileged youth a chance to attend Razorbacks and Colts games.

Today, the foundation also awards the Burlsworth Trophy to the most outstanding college football player who began his career like Burlsworth, as a walk-on. Tennessee's Nick Reveiz was a finalist for the inaugural Burlsworth Trophy in 2010.

Of course Billy Ratliff remembers the fumble recovery. Who doesn't?

Ratliff caused the "Stoerner Stumble" and fell on the resulting fumble, and Tennessee rallied for an improbable 28-24 win over Arkansas nearly 13 years ago this weekend on its way to the very first BCS National Championship.

The actual date was Nov. 14, 1998, and the Vols had just climbed to No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for the first time in 42 seasons. Arkansas arrived in Knoxville having matched Tennessee's 8-0 start. The Razorbacks were ranked 10th, setting the stage for a classic SEC showdown with everything on the line.

Ratliff vividly remembers the play that changed the game's outcome. He's told the story a thousand times and happily would tell it to all 106,365 who were in attendance that day at Neyland Stadium.

"Most fans when they see me, that's the first thing they ask," Ratliff said. "How does it feel to be the guy who tripped up Clint Stoerner and made that play?"

But Ratliff also remembers what was going on prior to his being involved in one of the most famous plays in Tennessee football history.

"I was getting my tail whipped all game long," Ratliff said with a laugh.

Nothing to Show
The numbers verify Ratliff's claim. The junior defensive tackle from Magnolia, Miss., had exactly zero tackles through the first 58 minutes of play against the Razorbacks. His stat sheet showed nothing across. No tackles, no pass breakups -- nothing.

And the reason was simple and staring straight at him every down through a pair of thick black glasses: Brandon Burlsworth.

"I was going against one of the best offensive linemen I've ever played in my life," Ratliff said. "I have never seen a guy dressed like him play as good as he played."

Burlsworth stood 6-foot-4 and weighed 308 pounds. His jersey didn't seem to fit, and through those glasses Burlsworth looked like a cross between Steve Urkel and Drew Carey. Yet he was an All-American that season and played like the second coming of Anthony Munoz.

"Of course, on defense we talked a lot of trash," Ratliff said. "This guy wouldn't say a word back to us. He just ran me over time after time."

Not only was Ratliff's personal battle against Burlsworth going poorly, the Vols were watching their national title hopes vanish just as quickly as they had appeared.

Arkansas had raced in front 21-3 and still was clinging to a 24-22 advantage when Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin threw incomplete on fourth down with just 1:54 remaining. The Vols had one timeout remaining, but even if the defense forced a three-and-out, only seconds would remain and UT would be stuck deep in its own territory.

Yet for some reason, Ratliff remained optimistic.

Keep Your Helmet On
"That's just the way we had been coached," Ratliff recalls. "Coach (Phillip) Fulmer said after we finally beat Florida that even the Dallas Cowboys couldn't beat us now.

"I remember Tee threw incomplete on fourth down and the ball goes over. As Tee was coming off the field, I told Tee -- no one believes it, but it's true -- I told Tee, `Keep your helmet on. We'll be right back.' "

Ratliff immediately made his first tackle of the game, for a 2-yard loss, of tailback Chrys Chukwuma. Tennessee used its final timeout with 1:47 left.

"So first play, I make a tackle for loss in the backfield," Ratliff said. "Maybe Burlsworth was getting tired."

Facing second-and-12 at the Razorbacks 49, Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt relayed the offensive call to his quarterback Stoerner. It was a run-pass option, with Stoerner sprinting out from center after faking the handoff. Stoerner said after the game he was going to keep the ball in an effort to run time off the clock.

"I don't know what Coach Nutt was thinking," Ratliff said. "I guess he thought if he got a first down, the game's over. Personally, I thought if he just downed the ball the game was over.

"I'm lined up and I'm going to jump the snap and get in the backfield. As I came off the ball, I pushed Burlsworth back and didn't even think about the possibility of the quarterback being run over by the guy."

Ratliff's shove of Burlsworth was such that the Arkansas lineman stepped back onto the foot of the retreating Stoerner, causing the infamous stumble. Attempting to break his fall, Stoerner put the ball on the ground and it slipped from his grasp.

Oh My Goodness!
Time seemingly stopped as everyone in Neyland Stadium could see the football lying just outside the Power T logo in the center of the field. CBS play-by-play veteran Sean McDonough shouted, "Oh my goodness!" Ratliff pounced on the ball, just a split-second before Burlsworth piled on top of him.

"It was unbelievable," Ratliff said. "You would have thought I had won the lottery. The play was like it was in slow-motion the whole time. It seemed like the ball sat there for 30 seconds. You heard everybody on the field yelling, `Ball! Ball! Ball! Ball!' I just jumped on it."

The rest is history.

Travis Henry carried five straight times, scored the game-winning touchdown and Tennessee came away with a 28-24 win. The Vols then blitzed Kentucky and blanked Vanderbilt, rallied late to beat stubborn Mississippi State in Atlanta and put it all together on a glorious night in the desert, edging Florida State to win the first BCS National Championship trophy.

"People say to me that we were lucky that year," Ratliff said. "I say just think about the last 60-something national championship teams. They were lucky too."

Ratliff remained in Knoxville after graduation and now works for Verizon Wireless.

"God had a different plan for me," he said. "I thought I would make it to the NFL, but after I finished school I had to find a job. I worked for the Knox County Trustees after college and have been with Verizon for about two years. Everything's great, and it's been a dream job."

And he still relives the dream of making that big play to help Tennessee to an undefeated national championship season.

"I'm usually not one to take credit for anything," Ratliff said. "l like to spread the credit around to everyone else. But when it comes to this story, I don't sugarcoat it. I tell it exactly the way it happened."





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