IT ISN'T EASY being a Commodore. Hell, it wasn't easy even becoming one. I was an all-state player coming out of high school in Aiken, S.C., but no Division I schools really recruited me. With the help of a local newspaper writer, I put together my own highlight tape, picked out 10 schools that had top 20 broadcast journalism programs and mailed it out. Eight schools offered football scholarships. I picked Vanderbilt.
But not long after I arrived on campus I began to wonder whether anyone even knew we had a football team. It wasn't as if there was an unbelievable amount of buildup before games. Compared with other SEC schools, the hype was pretty moderate. But keep in mind, our student body is relatively modest in size (about 11,600 strong), and its focus isn't always on football. For most students game day might be Monday, when that exam or thesis is due.
While that level of scholarly dedication is admirable, it was tough to appreciate as a competitor—and proved especially frustrating anytime Tennessee visited us in Nashville. You want to talk about atmosphere? Imagine playing your rival on your home field, and you walk out of the tunnel and the entire stadium is covered in orange. I mean, not a black shirt in there!
We were just as overmatched on the field in my first game against the Volunteers. My four-year career coincided with Peyton Manning's. When we played against each other as freshmen, his team throttled mine 65-0. After that game, rather than beat ourselves up, we took it upon ourselves to never get humiliated like that again. Each year thereafter the games got more competitive—we lost 12-7 the following year, 14-7 the next, then 17-10 my senior season. That never-say-die spirit stayed with the team long after I left until, for the first time since 1982, we broke through and beat the Vols with Jay Cutler under center in 2005. (You know I had to say something to Peyton; he still can't believe it.)
That victory meant everything to the Vanderbilt program. By small measure it might even have changed the perception of us within the SEC. Before, people could just write us off as a joke. Now we're more like that pesky neighbor who never turns off his sprinklers. Our lawn might not be the greatest, but we're starting to get on your nerves. And that's a good thing.
There's plenty of glory to be had at Vanderbilt for the player who wants it. If I had a chance to talk a high school kid into going with the Commodores over other SEC schools, I'd tell him to have the same dream that I had—be the one who turns it around. It was a struggle for me to do it, and I failed. (I started 44 consecutive games...and we won 12.) If you want to go to Vanderbilt and be successful, you have the biggest challenge of your life ahead of you not only on the football field playing in the best conference in the country, but in the classroom, too. I mean, you're going nose-to-nose with damn near grown men on Saturday afternoon then, Sunday through Friday, competing against people who are ready to join the job force. It's the best of both worlds.
But then again, you can always take the next best offer—or, as it's better known among us Commodores: the easy way out.
Pro Bowl defensive back Corey Chavous of the St. Louis Rams graduated from Vanderbilt in 1998 with a degree in human and organizational development.