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Travis Henry made most of opportunity

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Posted: Friday January 01, 1999 02:48 PM

  Henry leads the Vols with 970 yards rushing and seven touchdowns Tom Hauck/Allsport

By B.J. Schecter, Sports Illustrated

TEMPE, Arizona -- He packed his bags and left Knoxville with a sour taste in his mouth. Tennessee sophomore Travis Henry thought he was the Vols' best running back during spring practice. He rushed for a game-high 141 yards in the spring game, but found himself third on the depth chart. In essence, he was told he wasn't going to play much, something Henry had a hard time accepting. So, last June Henry pulled out of summer school and left for his home in Frostproof, still boiling as he rolled out of town.

Henry knew he could be an every down back if given the opportunity. In high school he rushed for 4,087 yards ... in one season. He just needed the ball, and if he couldn't get it at Tennessee then he would go somewhere else.

"I was finished with Tennessee. When I left I honestly thought I was never coming back," says Henry. "I couldn't handle not playing."

A funny thing happened when Henry came home; his mother kept telling him he didn't belong there. "You're giving up too easy," she told him. "Be a man, go back there and wait your turn. And when you get your chance, make them see that they can't afford not to play you."

It took about four weeks to set in, but Travis Henry finally got the message. After constant nagging from Mom and a little prodding from Vols coach Phillip Fulmer, Henry returned to Knoxville for two-a-days in August.

The first day of preseason practice Henry received several pep talks, but a heart-to-heart with junior quarterback Tee Martin really hit home. "I waited for two years behind Peyton Manning," Martin told Henry. "I knew there was a very small chance of me getting into the game. But I had to be ready. I worked my butt off every day and you know what, here I am. I'm the starter and I'm not going to let anyone take it away from me."

Henry was humbled.

He would be ready when called upon. The chance came much earlier than expected. At the end of Tennessee's fourth game at Auburn, starting running back Jamal Lewis tore the MCL in his left knee. Although Henry wasn't the starter immediately, he made the most of the opportunity. And by season's end Travis Henry was the man: a team-leading 970 yards, including five games of 100 yards or more, and seven touchdowns.

Tennessee will need a big game out of the 5-foot-11, 220-pound back if it is to beat Florida State -- which boasts the No. 1 defense in the nation -- in the Fiesta Bowl on Monday and capture its first national title since 1951. As Henry sat in Sun Devil Stadium on Thursday morning, his front gold tooth sparkled in the radiant Arizona sun as he visualized himself bowling over the Florida State defense.

His teammates call him cheese because he slices up the defense. He's also harder to cut up than mold on cheese, another reason Henry's peers have labeled him with such a peculiar nickname. Cheese is acting like the Big Cheese nowadays. Henry doesn't sulk anymore; he runs harder every time he gets the ball, flattening anything that enters his path.

"I'm thinking end zone on every play," says Henry. "When I score I think of all I went through to get here, and it sure seems like I've come a long way. This is what I dreamed of all my life. Playing for the national championship. Tennessee is a great place, I'm sure glad I stuck it out."

Sports Illustrated writer-reporter B.J. Schecter will file daily reports from the Fiesta Bowl for

Related information
Schecter: Co-champs? It could happen
Luck? No killer defense? Vols have something to prove
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