From then on, in every Vols huddle, Stephens "was smiling and clapping his hands like a little kid on Christmas morning," said senior fullback Will Bartholomew after the game. "Then he'd go and just shred people." Bartholomew, who has nicknamed his tireless teammate the Energizer Bunny, says of Stephens, "He's little, but he's a bruiser. He sees a hole and runs straight and hard through it."
The same can be said of Tennessee senior defensive tackle John Henderson, a friend of Stephens's from their days in Nashville-area high schools. Henderson bulled his way through the Florida offensive line pestering Gators quarterback Rex Grossman all game. "I tell these guys every week that the game is going to be won up front, and this time they believed me," said Henderson, who also knocked down two first-quarter passes.
That performance was sweet vindication for the Vols' defense—whose sloppy play in the fourth quarter against Georgia on Oct. 6 was responsible for Tennessee's lone loss—and specifically for Henderson, who has been slowed by a high-right-ankle sprain that he suffered in the season opener against Syracuse. Last year's Outland Trophy winner, Henderson is again a finalist although he has only four sacks. (He had 12 last season.) "That's a nod to John's emotional leadership on the field," says defensive line coach Dan Brooks of his 6'7", 290-pound linchpin.
Although listed as questionable early last week, Henderson said that "nothing in the world" could have prevented him from playing against Florida—a game he almost certainly would have missed had it been played on its originally scheduled Sept. 15 date. (It was postponed because of the Sept. 11 attacks.) Henderson's motivation has been strong ever since he was forced to sit out the 1998 national championship season as a partial qualifier, because his SAT scores had left him ineligible to compete as a freshman. "No player on this team has been hungrier than big John," says Brooks.
Except maybe Stephens, who met Henderson when he was piling up huge numbers at Clarksville and Henderson was building a reputation as a standout defensive lineman at Pearl-Cohn High. Although the two never played against each other, they would run into each other at parties or at sporting events and talk about the day when they would lead the Vols to a national title. "We were both around in 1998, but neither of us believed we made the impact we felt we could have made," says Stephens.
Stephens made quite an impact on Saturday. His 34-yard and 68-yard runs in the fourth quarter set up a pair of short touchdowns by Jabari Davis, a 6'0", 230-pound freshman tailback. "I ran into the huddle, pretty scared, and there was Travis waiting for me," said Davis. "He told me to hold it tight and run north and south."
After the game Travis—eager to get home to Tanisha, who at his behest had stayed home and watched the game on TV, to avoid "the crazy crowds" at the Swamp—was as elusive as he had been during it. After searching the field for "the little guy with the big heart," Henderson finally found him in the locker room, where Stephens had retreated while his teammates lingered in the south end zone to join the Tennessee faithful for a last, hoarsely sung rendition of Rocky Top. Big John rumbled over, bent down and threw his arms around Stephens. "I had to give that big heart a hug," said Henderson. "Travis and I decided that we're not finished with this thing. Not even close."