Remembering Johnny Majors: From Lynchburg to College Football Legend

Volunteer Country Staff

Johnny Terrill Majors: Heisman Trophy runner-up, legendary College Football Coach, Lifelong Tennessean, and proud Vol For Life. The 21st head football coach for the University of Tennessee will forever be remembered for these things and many others, but one element of his life that is often looked over is the determination and grit he put on full display during his time in Knoxville — especially when he was transitioning to the Collegiate waters after choosing to attend the University of Tennessee.

If you were one of his teammates at the time you probably wouldn’t know it, but Majors was petrified when he first arrived in Knoxville. The former Tennessee head coach told the story before his death this year and it was aired in the recent ESPN documentary: Johnny Majors, Straight Ahead. “I wanted to play College Football,” said Majors. “I knew I was going to go to a big school, and I did come to Tennessee. We came on a Greyhound or Amtrak bus — one or the other — and I’ll never forget they let us out at Ellis and Ern’s Drug Store, right beside Tennessee’s stadium.”

Majors continued the story in one of the more serious tones that he would use. “Tennessee’s stadium was big, and I had nightmares about coming to Tennessee in the summer. I didn’t know whether I could stay alive or not — I thought they’d kill me up here. I didn’t think I’d survive the first scrimmage, I was very, very anxious — I’d say scared — but I had to show up.”

Majors certainly did show up, as the young kid from Lynchburg would quickly transform into one of the greatest College Football players in history. He would receive the Southeastern Conference’s most valuable player award in 1955, and would even finish as the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 1956 — only ending up behind Notre Dame’s Paul Hornung in the voting results. In fact, many College Football historians say that Majors should have won the award, and was cheated out of it simply because of the historical success of the Fighting Irish. To this day, Hornung is the only player to ever win the Heisman with a sub .500 record.

“John unfortunately didn’t win the Heisman,” said Bill Petty, a Knoxville attorney and friend of the Majors family. “That darn guy who did (win it) threw three touchdown passes and thirteen interceptions that year, and they gave him the Heisman Trophy. They won two games and lost eight.” Petty shook his head in disgust as he continued. “Unbelievable, unbelievable.”

Despite missing out on the Heisman Trophy, Majors is remembered today as one of the best players to ever wear the orange and white — mentioned alongside legends such as Peyton Manning and Reggie White. He was able to achieve that through his determination and will-to-win. It would have been easy for Majors to just decide to walk away when he was terrified that day when he was dropped off in Knoxville outside of Ellis and Ern’s Drug Store, but he didn’t. He didn’t because his name was Johnny Majors, and he was determined to go to a “big school” and become a College Football legend. 

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