FOR ALL THE BRIDGES LANE KIFFIN TORCHED ON HIS WAY OUT OF KNOXVILLE, THE Tennessee faithful can be thankful for a blaze he ignited before he left town, one in the heart of running back Tauren Poole. It seems far away now, some 20 months and 1,000-plus yards later, but in November 2009 Poole was an afterthought on Kiffin's lone Volunteers team, a sophomore with 32 carries in two years. So when the coach approached Poole in the waning minutes of a Nov. 7 laugher against Memphis, telling him to enter the game, the fourth-stringer's answer was surprising. "No," Poole said, the menial serving of playing-time scraps insulting him as much as none at all. "I'm good."
The act of recalcitrance contained dual meanings: one refusing Kiffin's orders and the other correcting the coach's presumed assessment of his talents. Kiffin, for his part, told Poole to head to the locker room; Poole listened that time, getting a head start on his normal postgame routine as his teammates closed out a 56--28 win. He also called his mother, Nina, who was at home in Toccoa, Ga., honoring her son's request to stop making the three-hour trip to games lest she shed more tears as he remained idle on the sideline. "When I walked off that field," Tauren told her, "I felt like it was for the last time." Nina told her son to cool off and sleep on it. In the morning they would discuss what would be.
Nina had not taught Tauren—nor her two daughters—to be a quitter. There was no easy way out for Nina, raising the trio alone in Toccoa while working the graveyard shift at US Engine Valve across the border in Westminster, S.C. She'd tuck her kids into bed at 9:30 before heading to the plant, returning by 8:15 the next morning and staving off sleep for much of the day in order to cook, run errands and help with homework. There were lessons in her taxing routine, in how she refused to feel like a victim, but also in her refrains. Among them: "If you want something, work for it."
And so the day after that Memphis game Tauren's cooler head began to prevail. He met with Kiffin, prayed and pondered his options. He remembered the first of hundreds of recruiting letters from myriad schools he received when he was at Stephens County High, when he set his mind on becoming a big-time college player, and the way fans cheered his name the first time he visited Knoxville. He thought of all his mother had done to ensure that he could make it out of Toccoa in the first place, and the effort he would need to make it on his own. The next time he spoke to Nina she posed a question: If Tauren left school, would his heart still remain at Tennessee? It would. He decided he should stay.
Kiffin had other plans for himself, bolting for USC that January. Derek Dooley was hired, and Poole did his best to impress the new regime, earning the open starting spot in camp. Nina began coming to games again, and she was there to see Tauren's first touchdown and his first 100-yard game, both in the opener against Tennessee-Martin, and his 111-yard first quarter against Oregon the next week. As Nina wept for joy, Tauren smoldered, his 1,034-yard, 11-touchdown junior campaign driven by an underlying urgency and a lingering sense of being slighted. "Every time I play the game, I'm thinking, There was once a time when nobody believed in you but yourself," he says. "So you gotta keep fighting."