Nichols: Jabari Davis, “Legends of Tennessee” bring orange-blooded connection for Vol fans young and old

“It’s the heartbeat of this state. This generation needs to realize that. East, middle, west, you have that Power T on, you know it’s family.”

The name “Jabari Davis” is one that will strike a chord with any Tennessee fan born before 1998.

A Georgia native and self-proclaimed #GatorKilla, Davis starred at Tennessee from 2001 to 2004 and racked up 1,228 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns in an illustrious career.

Those runs came during some of the Vols’ best days, too. Better known as “Juice,” Davis delivered backbreaking sprints, leaped over piles and showcased high-kneed celebrations in his four years on Rocky Top. But after No. 34 stormed through the line, defenses still had to deal with a dual-threat quarterback in the frosted-tipped Casey “Ice Man” Clausen, who dove over pylons and heaved bombs to Jayson Swain or Jason Witten if the line of scrimmage was clogged.

So, yeah — that era was pretty good. And Davis was at the forefront.

But Davis’ recognition doesn’t just come from his stats, or from early-2000’s Tennessee watchers who still live in the past.

Rather, with what Davis and his fellow VFL’s have done through the past three years, that recognition transcends age limits.

Fans in their mid-20’s and above were kids when Davis played. They’re the ones who know him for his on-field success, for the #GatorKilling he helped to achieve.

Kids these days know Davis, too, though. 

Not necessarily for “killing Gators,” which no Tennessee player has done since 2016, but for teaching how that killing took place — with the fundamentals of football.

Camp Chronicles

Since the summer of 2018, Davis has run “Legends of Tennessee,” a non-profit organization and camp that unites former Volunteer greats to help younger generations learn about the game.

To embark on such a journey, Davis used lessons gleaned in his inaugural event, Tennessee Training Camp.

“It was something to get us out of the house on Saturday mornings,” Davis said of himself and fellow VFL Chris Treece. “We just grinded. We were doing that and just built a name for ourselves.”

That “Training Camp,” Davis said, is where he first began connecting with different communities throughout the state.

Then came the “Legends” event, the first of which was held at Northview Academy in Kodak in the summer of 2018. That event originally started as a Hall of Fame camp run by former Tennessee coach and athletic director Phillip Fulmer, who could no longer host the affair once he took over as AD. So he handed the reins to “Juice,” who rebranded the event and brought in former Vols from different eras.

And when that VFL reconnect finally happened?

“It’s like magic when guys connect back together,” said Davis, who lives in Maryville. “I was only seeing some of my teammates once or twice a year (before).”

The list for camp coaches reads like a “Who’s Who” of Tennessee greats: Tony Robinson, Eric Westmoreland, Gerald Riggs, Cedric Houston, Ramon Foster, Troy Fleming, Justin Harrell, Trey Teague.

Davis said they even tried to get Al Wilson, a Jackson native, to the Hub City’s 2021 camp. But Wilson wouldn’t have been able to make the trip from Atlanta due to prior engagements.

With or without “Big Al,” the camaraderie is paramount.

“Even though we’re from different eras, we still share those same locker room memories,” said Davis. “You share those same feelings, and it’s cool to connect with those guys. You share the same type of memories.”

“You don’t even have to coach,” he continued. “Just come out and let the kids see you, encourage them. Help give them the opportunity to wear the uniform we were blessed to put on.”

That’s where the real key comes in for this camp — the uniform, which features an underlying history that breaks generational barriers.

Tennessee Tradition from Border to Border

Former Vol players don’t just teach fundamentals and basics to the younger generations. They also reiterate the pride they feel every time they put on the Power T, and they do their best to convey why the game and the history are so important here.

“It’s the heartbeat of this state,” said Davis. “This generation needs to realize that. East, middle, west, you have that Power T on, you know it’s family. You know it’s love, conversation and chemistry.”

“It’s good that we can teach these kids the fundamentals of the game,” added Robinson, “and let them know the history of UT.”

At that first camp at Northview, Davis told the Knoxville News-Sentinel that he hoped the inaugural event would stretch statewide at some point.

Three years later, it has performed exactly as Davis said: East, Middle and West.

As he talked with VR2 on SI on Friday, Davis was driving to Dickson, Tennessee, for the group’s first camp of the spring. 

After a meet-and-greet at Dickson’s Back Alley BBQ, Davis & Co. were joined by Dickson County great and VFL Bryan Kimbro for the event on Friday night at Burns Middle School. 

The “Legends of Tennessee” poster for their Dickson camp on March 5, 2021.

The camp will continue in west Tennessee on Saturday at Jackson Christian School — where the group hoped to lure Wilson — before wrapping up the first weekend in Paris, TN, on Sunday.

Overall, Davis said he looks to host the camp in 13 cities across the state, with an emphasis on football-rich communities whose local players can help Tennessee legends teach the game they all love.

That’s quite a leap from the first summer at Northview, but it’s also an incredible reach after the camps were cut short last year.

As the COVID-19 pandemic raged in the summer of 2020, Davis was forced to shut down eight events.

After a disease-induced break, the former Tennessee running back decided to hold a camp for one weekend in July last summer at Pigeon Forge High School.

“Every coach wore a mask, we wiped down equipment,” said Davis, who also coaches an East Tennessee youth 7-on-7 team. “Kids didn’t have anything to do, so I said, ‘I’ve got to do something.’”

Now, the camp has returned in full force, but not without some new struggles.

“The success we have at these camps depends on people in the community,” Davis said. “It’s hard putting this stuff together. It’s very difficult to even get a field.”

According to Davis, it’s also been difficult to get sponsors that are essential for travel and camp scholarships, so that less fortunate kids can experience the same orange-tinted exposure.

Still, Davis and his fellow VFL’s have managed. And they’ve even put together some adult-tailored events for after the final whistle blows.

“Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em”

When he wore orange, Davis was known for smoking defenders. He didn’t discover cigar smoking until connecting with a friend in Nashville.

During visits to his friend’s home, Davis got to sit back, smoke cigars and drink some whiskey with his buddies.

“It was just something you enjoy as a man,” he said. “Smoking, drinking, fellowshipping. Talking about life, football, career, business.”

At a certain point, Davis said the kick-back session was something he wanted to do “about once a week.”

That routine led the VFL to a Twitter connection with Legends Cigar Company.

The name similarity struck a chord with Davis’ “Legends of Tennessee,” and the two began a partnership deal.

Davis released the first batch of VFL cigars last week at his fundraiser, Sips and Cigars. He’s also bringing more to Jackson this weekend for a post-camp event from 6-8:30 p.m. CT on Saturday at Redbone’s Grill & Bar.

There are different options for purchase, said Davis. $10 sticks are the minimum, but the pricing can stretch from $150 to $300 and higher for the boxes, which can hold different cigar options.

Each type, Davis said, can pair differently with different whiskeys.

“The best,” he added, “are Nicaraguans, which is as close as you can get to Cubans without being illegal.”

And that’s without even factoring in an autographed box, which would feature signatures from the legends that coach each kid at these camps.

Whether each cigar kit comes with a signature or not, every one still comes in a sealed orange holder, with Tennessee’s official VFL sticker on top.

“When you open up that box, it’s catered to you,” he said. “That orange, that VFL, you’re a part of the family.”

The same can be said for Tennessee as a whole. And, despite recent struggles, that orange-blooded link is still what the Vols’ fandom and culture special.

Note: For more info on an event for you or your child, head to the link here