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October 18, 2013Fans and players alike will tell you in terms of the traditions of Tennessee football, two of the greatest are the 'Vol Walk' and running through the 'T' to take the field.
Saturday those two famed traditions will be as special as they have ever been as they are key elements on a special weekend for Tennessee football.
Tennessee has always honored the past. They have honored coaches. They have honored legends and they have honored championship teams. But never have they honored the entire past until this weekend with a Tennessee football reunion that will include over 200 former players from all eras.
"We are inviting back the very people who poured the footers and laid the foundation for us to starting building brick by brick," Vol for Life Coordinator and former All-American Antone Davis said. "They are as much as part of this as anyone. So we are basically saying come back and let us show you our appreciation for what you have done. Tennessee is not coming out of the ground for the first time. We are just rebuilding on the same strong foundation we have always had. So come back let us show you our appreciation for you. Let us put you in the spotlight a little bit. Join us on the 'Vol Walk' and run through the 'T.' Here's the cool thing about it. It's one of those things that didn't dawn on me at first. We all talk about the 'T' and what a rush and honor it is to get to run through the 'T.' Then it hit me about half way through the RSVP process that we have guys that have won national championships for Tennessee. Guys that have given their all for Tennessee but they have never experienced running through the 'T.' So for the first time you are going to have 60-, 70-, 80-year-old men running through the 'T' who have never done it. I think it's going to be a great experience for everyone."
"It's about all generations of players getting together so show we really are one Tennessee."
The gesture has spread word of mouth, through text chains, and email chains and the response has been overwhelming to Davis. The program will welcome back many who have been around the program for years and others who haven't been around like former fullback William Howard and former quarterback Tony Robinson who hasn't been on campus since the end of the 1985 season.
"I think that is of the upmost importance that all eras are coming back," Davis said. "I think it's very easy for us as former players to cling to our head coach or our era or our friends and teammates. The truth is we are all playing for Tennessee. We all love Tennessee and that's really the message. United we will conquer. We will do a lot of things as a whole. We got a little separated. We got a little disjointed for a while with all the changes and I think to bring everyone back under one roof is critical. To literally have me and a Pat Shires and a Al Wilson or a Dewey Warren running through the T together saying we are one team. We are one Tennessee. It's Tennessee and to have everyone taking part in it is critical."
Former Vol Buck Fitzgerald admits his adrenaline is already running in anticipation of Saturday, but he's also happy that everyone is being included.
"It's going to feel amazing and be an incredible rush doing that again," Fitzgerald said. "Mostly, it's going to be fun just to catch up with ex-teammates and the guys before me who I looked up to and the young guys I try to be a leader to. But, it's also going to be fun getting the love from the Vol fans."
Running through the 'T' and the 'Vol Walk' are two important parts of the weekend, but it's not the only focus. Friday night there is a dinner and will be hours of storytelling. Davis said the whole weekend concept was created by a collection of people.
"That was really a conglomerate idea from everyone," Davis offered. "We just said let's bring them back and let's do it. Mike Volmer has had a huge part in it. Carmen Tegano has had a huge part in it. Jimmy Delany, really there were a lot of us who put our heads together and said what can we do to really make this a special weekend and something that they will never forget. This is will the first time some guys run through the T and it may be the last time some of them run through the T. We just wanted to make it one heck of a weekend to show thanks to our players.
"Friday night we are having a dinner/cocktail hour or two where guys get together and tell new lies and old lies about how great they were when they played. We are going to watch some old videos, and laugh. It's just comrodery. It's everyone getting together in the same room. We are all on the same team. We are all in this together."
Former defensive lineman Wes Brown, who after his playing career was asked to leave the complex during winter workout, admits the invitation to return to campus means more than anyone would know.
"It means everything to me," Brown, an Alabama native, said. "All I've ever wanted to do as a kid is play for Tennessee. I was blessed with an opportunity, and to be asked to come back and be apart of it, it makes me appreciate everyone in our program so much more. Cut me open, I swear to you I bleed orange!
Davis said Brown's reaction isn't the exception, it's the rule from the 200-plus VFLs he's been speaking with for months.
"They are excited. They are grateful. They are grateful to coach Jones for having an open door, open arm policy to welcome them back," Davis said proudly. "They are appreciative that someone is reaching out to them and letting them feel connected to the program. It's been so funny we are doing the dinner and people have said how much does that cost? It free. Just come and be a part. You have already paid your dues. There just so much excitement and there's been more and more people wanting to participate as it's gotten closer to the date. It's been a long time coming. Guys just want to feel they are a part of the program they gave their blood, sweat and tears for."
Feeling a part and being a part is something that Fitzgerald believes will continue to pay big dividends not just to the former players but the current players as well.
"It's very important to have the former players around, because if you look at the most successful programs usually they have a strong presence with ex-players," the Nashville native said. "When we were at our best at Tennessee, we had a strong presence of ex-players and didn't want to let them down.
"And the young guys on this team, I know a bunch of them, they appreciate when we're around. They want advice, want wisdom and they know we appreciate their efforts and what they do."
Saturday, the past will join the present arm in arm in their continued efforts to make the future better than it's ever been.