He may please crowds with his quicksilver moves and yardage-swallowing runs, but Tennessee senior tailback Travis Stephens has never cared much for being in the limelight. When crossing the sprawling campus in Knoxville, he walks with his head down and his coat collar up, so as not to be recognized. After some games, he ducks out a back door of the locker room so he doesn't have to face the media. When his wife, Tanisha, asked him to make a speech to the guests at their wedding reception last June, Travis looked as if she had suggested that he deliver the State of the Union address. "Travis," said an exasperated Tanisha, "how on Earth do you play in front of so many thousands of people each week?"
Travis, in his church-quiet voice, replied, "When I have my helmet on, I can do anything."
It seemed that way last Saturday when Stephens rushed for 226 yards and two touchdowns to help the Volunteers knock No. 2 Florida out of the national championship picture—and inject themselves into it—with a 34-32 win in the Swamp. The victory, Tennessee's first in Gainesville in 31 years, gave the Vols the SEC East title and earned them a spot in Saturday's SEC championship game against LSU, which Tennessee beat 26-18 on Sept. 29. The Volunteers also moved up to No. 2 in the Bowl Championship Series rankings and, given a win on Saturday, will meet Miami for the national title in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 3.
Not bad for a team that the oddsmakers had made an 18-point underdog to Florida. "After [the line was released] Travis and the rest of the seniors decided that we were going to hold off on the fun rituals that we usually do in the last week of regular-season practice," sophomore quarterback Casey Clausen said after last Saturday's game. "They told us we'd soon be practicing to get ready for the SEC championship in Atlanta." Asked about his players' confidence, coach Phillip Fulmer—an offensive lineman on the last Tennessee team to win in the Swamp—narrowed his eyes and said, "Those 70 guys who got on that airplane to Gainesville might have been the only ones in the country who believed we could win."
The 5'9", 190-pound Stephens, for one, has never stopped believing in his ability. The 1995 Tennessee Class 5A Mr. Football coming out of Northeast High in Clarksville, for which he rushed for more than 4,000 yards, Stephens saw limited playing time in his first two years in Knoxville. As a freshman he was third on the depth chart, behind Jamal Lewis and Travis Henry, and played in eight games. The next season, 1998, he had 107 carries and was Tennessee's leading ground gainer (60 yards) in its 23-16 national championship victory over Florida State. Still stuck behind Lewis and Henry in 1999 but unwilling to leave the team he had grown up worshipping, Stephens decided to take a redshirt year.
The off year also allowed Travis to spend valuable time with his father, Leonard, who that fall had been told that he had advanced colon cancer. "I'd sit beside his bed at the hospital, and we'd watch Tennessee games on TV," says Stephens. Leonard, a career Army man, succumbed to the disease in March 2000.
Before he died he asked Travis to do two things: take care of his mother, Juanita, and strive to succeed in football and in life. "Travis's father's death made him mature very quickly," says Tanisha, who graduated from Tennessee last year with a degree in advertising and is a personal asset manager for a Knoxville investment firm. "He was quiet for a few months, but then football took over." Motivated by the memory of his father's brave struggle and wearing wristbands stitched with the initials L.R.S., Travis labored through a 2000 season in which he backed up Henry and rushed 81 times for 359 yards.
Last summer, while preparing for his first season as a starter, Stephens increased his training. Three afternoons a week in the sizzling Tennessee heat, he ran stadium steps and performed footwork drills that reduced his 40-yard-dash time from a 4.33 to a 4.2. "I was as ready and focused as I had been in my life," says Stephens, who has rushed for 1,427 on 277 attempts this season and is a finalist for the Doak Walker Award. "I was pretty sure I'd paid my dues."
The hard work showed right away. Stephens erupted for 206 yards in the conference opener against Arkansas on Sept. 8 and broke the century mark in each of the Volunteers' first seven games. Along the way, he has been inspired by thoughts of his family. "During the Florida game I was thinking about my father, and I was saying to myself, This is for you, Daddy. This is for you," said Stephens. "I'm sure my wife was saying, 'There's my husband.' My mom was saying, 'There's my boy' And my dad up in heaven was saying, 'There's my son.' I know they're all very proud."
Expecting Florida's defense to zero in on Stephens, Tennessee offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said he went into the game planning "to give Clausen and the receivers and tight ends a chance to make it happen through the air." All of which opened up things for Stephens. Around the time that Stephens burst through the middle for a 49-yard run with 8:51 remaining in the first half, Sanders said he realized that "our receivers could easily pull five guys out of the box to open up the run." Sure enough, Stephens exploded with a 35-yard touchdown run in the third quarter to put Tennessee, which had trailed 20-14 at half-time, ahead by a point.