The raging party on the floor of Sun Devil Stadium tried to swallow Al Wilson whole, but he'd have nothing of it. He wanted only solitude. So, as his Tennessee teammates smoked fat cigars and let the repeated strains of Rocky Top wash over them after the 23-16 Fiesta Bowl defeat of Florida State that gave the Volunteers a 13-0 season and their first national championship in 47 years, Wilson, the senior All-America linebacker and locker room preacher who was the soul of the Vols, ran into a tunnel and then walked briskly toward the Tennessee locker room. "I just knew, I just believed," said Wilson. "So many times we needed to make something special happen, and we always did. Always." He bowed his head and tears fell at his feet.
Sometimes a national title is an unblemished work of art, a portrait of irresistible class. Other times it's a patchwork of courage and opportunism that's somehow stitched together, big play by big play, into perfection. The last of Tennessee's big plays came with slightly more than nine minutes left in a grinding game of field position, punts, amateurish miscues, costly penalties and seven turnovers. With the Vols leading 14-9, junior quarterback Tee Martin threw a fluttery spiral toward senior wideout Peerless Price. On the sideline Wilson watched the ball descend as if it were dropped down a chimney. "I knew Peerless would catch it," Wilson said. He just knew.
The play was called 69 All Go, meaning that three wideouts ran straight down the field. "Their defensive backs had been having trouble jamming us all night," Tennessee flanker Jeremaine Copeland, one of those who ran deep, said after the game. As the pass fell, Florida State cornerback Mario Edwards leaped and missed. Price caught the ball and ran joyfully into Volunteers history. It was a perfect throw by a quarterback who came to Tennessee from a horrible Mobile slum and had the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of folk hero Peyton Manning.
"It wasn't pretty early this year for Tee," said Manning after the Fiesta Bowl, which he attended with girlfriend Ashley Thompson. "He kept plugging and plugging. He's gotten confidence." The two quarterbacks, as different in background as could be (one from privilege, the other from poverty), remain close. "We roomed together on the road," said Manning. "A couple of times he got phone calls telling him that friends had been killed. I'm thinking, Jiminy, this is unbelievable, but Tee is such a strong person, mentally and spiritually."
Late Monday night Martin walked the length of the field from Tennessee's locker room toward the team bus. After spoon-feeding him offense for much of the year, Tennessee's coaches had dumped the entire playbook on his shoulders for the Fiesta Bowl, and he threw for 278 yards and two touchdowns. "I told Peerless I'm going to miss him next year," said Martin, wearing just a T-shirt in the chill desert night. He'd worn a white wristband on his left wrist during the game, on which he had written MOB, for Mobile. "Death was a part of my life in Mobile. I lost 12 friends, and there isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about them. This one was for Mobile."
Tennessee's championship rewarded a team steeped in the workaday precepts of selfless play and glamourless labor. The Volunteers had conceived a No Stars theme last winter that carried over to their practices in Arizona last week, when they broke their offensive huddles with the chant "One, two, three...underdogs!" This was in dramatic contrast to the Tennessee teams of the recent past, which stocked NFL rosters like a farm club but couldn't ride their star power to victory over Florida, much less to a national title game. Five players from the 1997 team were taken in the first three rounds of the NFL draft, including Manning, who, despite a sensational college career, became the poster boy for greatness falling short.
This year's Volunteers were talented too, but, in the subtle way that often distinguishes a championship team, that talent was blended like batter until it was difficult to tell the excellent players from the merely good ones and the good ones from the merely mediocre. Wilson took control of the team by launching into a tirade at halftime of the 1997 SEC championship game, an episode that endured through '98 for the Volunteers who witnessed it. Tennessee's best running back, Jamal Lewis, a gifted player with a Heisman candidacy in his future, was lost for the season with a knee injury four games into the season and replaced by sophomores Travis Stephens and Travis Henry, whose nickname is Cheese because of his resemblance to a block of same.
You could trace a map of the Volunteers' gritty path to the national championship on the face and body of 295-pound junior center Spencer Riley. A footlong purple surgical scar on the outside of his right arm came courtesy of an operation needed to repair the torn triceps he suffered in the first quarter of Tennessee's embarrassing 42-17 loss to Nebraska in last year's Orange Bowl. That victory propelled the Cornhuskers to a piece of the national title and the Volunteers, humbled and bullied, to the weight room. "We got beat up, period," says Price. Riley underwent a difficult six-month rehab, of which he remembers, "It's not easy to wipe your butt with your left hand." That's not a pretty image or a polite metaphor, but the Vols' final step into the ranks of champions was similarly challenging.
Sprouting from Riley's chin is a gawdawful, scraggly beard, a ZZ Top affectation that he began growing in mid-October and vowed not to shave off until Tennessee lost a game or won the national title. Riley's whiskers were an apt symbol for a season in which the Volunteers won three crucial games in grungy fashion. In its season opener Tennessee was assisted by a questionable late-game pass interference call on fourth-and-seven in beating Syracuse 34-33. Two weeks later Florida lost four fumbles and missed a short field goal in overtime in a 20-17 Vols win. On Nov. 14 Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner fumbled with 1:43 to go to give Tennessee the last-gasp possession it needed to pull out a 28-24 victory. The cumulative effect of these escapes was to make the Volunteers feel that they were destined and to make others feel that Tennessee was lucky.
In Arizona the Vols embraced the former belief more passionately than ever and used the latter as motivation. "We'd rather earn respect than have people give it to us," Riley said before the game. The Volunteers spent most of their free time secluded in their Scottsdale hotel, venturing out only for meals and the occasional trip to a virtual-reality parlor. "Miami last year, now that was a fast town," said junior defensive tackle Darwin Walker. "This ain't Miami, and we're a different team." Price took pride in saying that he was in bed by 10:30 on New Year's Eve. (The once infamously raucous Seminoles were even duller; they voted to skip Tempe's rollicking New Year's Eve Block Party.)