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Starlit Night In Year 1 of the post-Peyton era, Tennessee claims to have no standouts, but the Volunteers produced a celestial effort in upending Florida for the first time since 1992

Sept. 28, 1998
Sept. 28, 1998

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Sept. 28, 1998

Starlit Night In Year 1 of the post-Peyton era, Tennessee claims to have no standouts, but the Volunteers produced a celestial effort in upending Florida for the first time since 1992

With his left arm thrown around the shoulder of his 13-year-old
daughter, Brittany, and a fistful of victory cigars clutched in
his right hand, Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer surfed through a
rolling orange sea of worshipers until he reached the mouth of
the narrow walkway through which his players would exit the
field. One by one the Volunteers squeezed free from the on-field
celebration of their 20-17 overtime victory against Florida last
Saturday night, an eruption that brought down the goalposts at
Knoxville's Neyland Stadium in under a minute, and one by one
they embraced Fulmer before plowing inside to their own private
party.

This is an article from the Sept. 28, 1998 issue

How many times had Fulmer and his players heard the question,
sometimes phrased politely, sometimes not: When are you going to
beat Florida? A year ago, after falling to the Gators for a
fifth straight time, Tennessee recovered to win the SEC title,
but the inquisition persisted. "We've lost three SEC games in
three years," Fulmer said early last week, "but people only want
to talk about Florida. I share their passion, but it gets
frustrating."

The streak ended dramatically, in the first overtime football
game in either school's history. Tennessee's Jeff Hall kicked a
41-yard field goal on the first possession of OT, and Florida's
Collins Cooper hooked his get-even attempt from 32 yards wide
left, after which the stadium thundered as if it were rolling
down the hillside toward the Tennessee River. Fans stormed the
field, foraging for souvenirs. Two small boys fought viciously
over one of the orange-and-white strips that had flown atop the
north goalposts before they reached a truce, ripped the banner
in half and ran off joyfully in opposite directions.

Fulmer waited until the last of his players had escaped before he
followed them to the dressing room, soaked with sweat. In the
first season of the post-Peyton Manning era, the Volunteers are
now a robust 2-0, loading the Florida victory onto the back of a
last-second win at Syracuse. They are No. 4 in the nation, and
Fulmer is ready at last for anyone who mentions the Florida
troubles of years past. "Screw 'em," he said after the game, his
whisper brimming with satisfaction. "Screw 'em if they bring it
up."

The plan was hatched last winter, not long after the Volunteers'
conference championship season had ended in a crushing 42-17
Orange Bowl loss to co-national champion Nebraska. In late
January the Vols gathered for the start of their off-season
conditioning program, during which teams across the country
attempt to set a tone for the year ahead, and noticed the
glaring absence not just of Manning but also of cornerback Terry
Fair and wideout Marcus Nash--both of whom would also go in the
first round of the NFL draft--plus nine other Vols who would be
either drafted by the NFL or signed to free-agent contracts. A
theme was assigned for 1998: no stars. "The captains and seniors
got up and talked about it," says senior middle linebacker Al
Wilson. "For the last few years we've been relying on a few
people to win games for us: Peyton, [running back] Jay Graham,
[linebacker/defensive end] Leonard Little. It was time for us to
become a team."

Unspoken but understood from the start was that the no stars
mantra would be most crucial when Florida came to Knoxville.
Curiously, over the last three seasons Tennessee's greatest
strength, Manning, became its biggest flaw when the Vols faced
Florida. It wasn't that Manning played poorly against the Gators
but simply that his role in the game became outsized. "There was
all this pressure on one guy's shoulders," says Fulmer. The rest
of the Volunteers seemed content to watch Manning's quest to
conquer the Gators. Manning is such a Tennessee icon that
there's a wax statue of him in the Vols' indoor football complex
(it looks just like Peyton's older brother, Cooper), and a
street near the stadium is named after him, yet for the purpose
of beating Florida, Tennessee might have been better off without
him.

Manning's Volunteers tried to outscore opponents with a
high-powered passing game that covered for a timid,
read-and-react defense. That approach has been turned on its
head. "Our players bought into the notion that you could win
football games with more than a couple of heroes," says
Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. The defense
attacked Florida all night, holding the Gators to minus-13 yards
rushing, forcing five turnovers and sacking Florida's rotating
quarterbacks, Jesse Palmer and Doug Johnson, five times. "Our
defense was balls to the wall for four quarters," said Tennessee
center Spencer Riley, "and what a thing that was to see."

On offense Vols junior quarterback Tee Martin attempted only 20
passes, completed only seven and threw for only 64 yards. One of
the completions, however, was a 29-yard touchdown pass to senior
wideout Peerless Price in the third quarter that gave Tennessee
a 17-10 lead. The Volunteers also rushed for 171 yards and
committed but one turnover. It was a physical game decided by
field position and mistakes, a game Cutcliffe characterized as a
heavyweight fight. Tennessee was the tougher fighter.

As for the no stars business, that may require some reassessing.
From his linebacker spot Wilson forced three of Florida's four
fumbles with tackles of a running back at the line of scrimmage,
a wide receiver in the open field and a quarterback in the
pocket--a hat trick of mayhem. The 21-year-old Wilson's
permanently furrowed brow and battered nose make him look like a
man of 50, but his relentless enthusiasm makes him seem like a
child of 15. It was Wilson whose impassioned halftime speech
ignited the Vols' SEC title-game victory over Auburn last
December, and it's Wilson who fiercely lobbied his teammates to
accept the all-for-one, one-for-all theme.

Another stellar nonstar is running back Jamal Lewis, who spent
most of last year's 33-20 loss to Florida on the sideline. A
true freshman at the time, the six-foot, 220-pound Lewis was
anchored to the Tennessee bench, dying to play but paying dues
instead. "I remember watching that game and wanting so badly to
get on the field," Lewis said last week. After that loss he
became, in quick succession, a starter, rushing for 155 yards
against Mississippi in the Vols' next game, and then a standout,
with 1,364 yards in a season that began three games late. Last
Saturday, Lewis gained 82 yards on 21 carries as a reliable
ground option, something Florida lacked.

No one in orange, however, influences the outcome of a Tennessee
game more than the quarterback. Manning and Martin became good
friends during their two years together, but they are strikingly
different in background and style. Manning came from privilege,
Martin from unspeakable hardship. It has been widely chronicled
that Martin and his mother, Marie, moved in and around Mobile 22
times in 18 years. "To tell you the truth," Tee said last week,
"it might have been 23 or 24. I'm not even sure." Martin also
lost several friends to violent crime. A high school buddy named
Gary Simmons was gunned down outside a friend's house and died
in Tee's arms. "He was shot all over his body," says Martin. "I
remember I had an appointment with a recruiter from Alabama that
same night." Such were the conflicting currents in his life.

Like so many others in similar circumstances, Martin survived
with the help of sports. Like far fewer, he also cultivated an
infectious charm that rubs off instantly on teammates. He shares
few of Manning's on-field gifts but has some of his own. "Tee's
ball buzzes into your hands," says Price. "Peyton's was softer.
Tee makes my fingers hurt. Peyton would yell at you in the
huddle, get right in your face. Tee is a little more supportive,
pumping you up." Manning ran only in desperation or on the
occasional blind bootleg. Martin is a threat to scramble
anytime. In his endless film work Manning concentrated mostly on
pass coverages. Martin studies the opponent's line, to assess
the run defense.

After home games the autograph and interview crush on Manning
was so suffocating that he would be ushered out a special side
exit from the locker room and driven by golf cart to a distant
parking lot, where he could tailgate in peace with his family.
Ninety minutes after Saturday's victory, Martin wandered around
a cavernous parking garage adjacent to the stadium before
finally stumbling upon his car. "Got a little lost there," he
said sheepishly.

To calm himself before Saturday's game, Martin talked to Marie,
who told him, "Just play like it's Blount High," referring to
the fierce rival of Tee's Williamson High in Mobile. Martin's
statistics against Florida were unimpressive, but as in the
34-33 win over Syracuse two weeks earlier, he made plays at
opportune times and did nothing to lose the game. His most
telling moment came in the Volunteers' first overtime
possession. After Tennessee started at the 25-yard line, two
incomplete passes to the end zone and a holding penalty left it
facing third-and-23 from the 38. The Vols called timeout, and
Martin huddled on the sideline with assistant coach Randy
Sanders. "Go through your reads and, if nothing's there, get us
in position for a field goal," Sanders told Martin, relaying
Cutcliffe's message from the coaches' box.

It was much to ask of a quarterback making his first start in
the emotional cauldron that is Neyland Stadium, but Martin
followed the instructions perfectly. When Florida dropped back
into pass coverage, Martin scrambled 14 yards up the middle,
leaving Hall with a very makable kick, when an incompletion
would have left him with a 55-yard attempt.

Now it was up to Hall, a fourth-year senior who twice before in
his career had won games with field goals, including this year's
opener at Syracuse. From the age of nine Hall had two dreams:
"To be a kicker," he says, "and to play for the Volunteers." His
father, a former high school football player with the melodious,
SEC-ready name of Billy Wayne Hall, and his mother, Paula,
attended Franklin County High with Fulmer in Winchester, Tenn.
Billy Wayne indulged his son's dreams by serving as the holder
while Jeff kicked off a wooden block through two maple trees in
the family's backyard. When Jeff turned 10, Billy Wayne bought
him a kicking tee. "Jan Stenerud model," says Jeff, "with an
instruction book." Jeff attended what seemed like every kicking
camp in North America. His heroes, bless his heart, were Jason
Elam and Al Del Greco.

In dense humidity, with light raindrops falling, Hall walked
through his mechanical routine as the teams lined up for the
attempt. "Four steps back, two steps to the left, look up once
at the goalpost," he says. "Then I don't think about anything,
because thought clutters the routine." It was long past midnight
as he recounted his story for the first of what will be many
times in the coming years. The moment will never need
embellishing. "The tee and the book cost about five dollars, I
think," Hall says.

The state of Tennessee would agree: good investment.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS Gator getter Cornerback Steve Johnson let Florida's Travis Taylor know that this wasn't the old, passive Vols defense.COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Breakout Unheralded fullback Shawn Bryson scampered untouched for a 57-yard first-quarter score.COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Rerouted Deon Grant's fourth-quarter interception left Gators wideout Nafis Karim awaiting a delivery that never arrived.COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER To a Tee Martin's poise on this TD strike showed that he was, if not Manning, man enough to beat Florida. [Tee Martin throwing pass over leaping defender]
In the absence of Manning and 11 others who headed for the NFL,
Tennessee adopted a theme for 1998: no stars.
Fulmer's new answer for those who ask about the Vols' past
troubles with Florida: "Screw 'em if they bring it up."