Bryson City, N.C., is probably the only town in America with a stretch of pavement known as the Road to Nowhere. It was supposed to be the road to Knoxville, Tenn., cut right through the Smoky Mountains as the federal government's payoff to Bryson City for displacing 600 of its families in the 1940s to build Fontana Dam. The government, however, dropped the highway after paving only 5.6 miles, leaving the road a monument to broken promises and faded dreams. It's ironic, then, that this is where Heath Shuler, after a fabulous senior season as quarterback at Swain County High in 1990, decided to turn down Alabama and North Carolina to attend Tennessee. "I went up there and prayed about it," Shuler says. Then he adds, without a hint of braggadocio, "I guess you can say I sort of paved that road into Tennessee."
Three years later, as the 6'3", 212-pound Shuler heads into his junior season in Knoxville, he has become a mountain legend. On his first day of practice as a freshman, he threw a ball so hard that it deflated when it hit a receiver's helmet. After spending 1991 as understudy to senior Andy Kelly, Shuler last season rushed for 286 yards and 11 touchdowns and passed for 1,712 yards and 10 more TDs in guiding the Vols to a 9-3 record. This year he is expecting even better things for his team. "We deserve more recognition nationally," Shuler says. "When you say college football, whom do you think about? Notre Dame and Miami. Why not Tennessee?"
Here, of course, Shuler is revealing a weakness in gridiron history. The Vols have a winning tradition that long ago earned them respect far beyond the South. What is true, though, is that Tennessee has never had a Heisman Trophy winner. Two Volunteers came close: Hank Lauricella, a single wing tailback, finished second to Princeton's Dick Kazmaier in 1951, and Johnny Majors, another single wing tailback, was runner-up to Notre Dame's Paul Hornung in 1956.
Now comes Shuler. Majors, who recruited Shuler and was his head coach until resigning at the end of last season, often said that Shuler's skills were ideal for a single wing tailback. In addition to his outstanding rushing and passing performance last season, Shuler booted a "pooch" punt against Louisiana State that rolled dead at the Tigers' half-yard line.
Shuler seems to be a throwback off the field, too. It's fitting that while in high school he ran a car wash called Mr. Clean. He signs autographs cheerfully and patiently, has made 60 speeches this year on responsibility and leadership (including one to the graduating class at a prison) and takes such good care of his body that he shuns soft drinks because of their caffeine and carbonation. As for vices, he does concede an affection for cheeseburgers with coleslaw on top from Na-bers Drive-In in Bryson City.
The son of a mailman, Shuler keeps close ties to Bryson City (pop. 1,200). During the season he tapes a weekly radio show for the local station there. "I just try to be natural and remember where I came from," he says. "I want to remain a small-town guy even as I expand my world some and move on to see more." Shuler is certainly now on the Road to Somewhere.
The Tennessee quarterback did not get stuck on the Road to Nowhere.