The long, bloody day was nearly done. "Just make the play,"
Tennessee's junior quarterback, Tee Martin, said in the huddle
to Peerless Price, the senior receiver who so often this season
had seized victory for the Volunteers. "I've been getting hit
all night, so I'm throwing it to you early."
This most harrowing and humbling of Saturdays had begun with
UCLA, No. 2 in the Bowl Championship Series rankings, losing
49-45 in Miami. Then No. 3 Kansas State had gone down in overtime
of the Big 12 Championship Game against Texas A&M. Now, in what
would have been the biggest upset of the day, No. 23 Mississippi
State had scored on a 70-yard interception return and a
fourth-quarter 83-yard punt return for a 14-10 lead over No. 1
Tennessee, the last of the unbeaten, untied contenders for the
Tennessee's problems revolved around Martin. He had been unable
to solve the Bulldogs' varied jack-in-the-box defensive packages.
As time wound down, Vols offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe
was running out of patience. With 6 1/2 minutes remaining, he
called for Price to run his simplest route, a straight streak
toward the left corner of the Mississippi State end zone.
Against the cloudy white Georgia Dome ceiling, the ball seemed to
be dropping out of the heavens. Price gathered it in, fending off
Bulldogs cornerback Adesola Badon, and landed on his right foot
just inside the end zone. "I didn't know the defender was there
until I looked up at the replay," Price said. "I was so tuned in
to the ball."
With that 41-yard touchdown, Price arrested the momentum of the
day. This is how you do it, he seemed to be saying, and his
teammates followed his example. On the next play from scrimmage
the Volunteers forced and recovered a fumble by Bulldogs
quarterback Wayne Madkin. Martin took the next snap and hit
sophomore Cedrick Wilson for the 26-yard score that capped
Tennessee's 24-14 victory. It was not just a touchdown that Price
had snatched out of the air. It was deliverance.
"Peerless was always a really good receiver," says Tennessee
coach Phillip Fulmer, "but this year he's made more big plays
than anybody we've had here in some time." The six-foot Price is
not the biggest receiver in the country, nor the fastest,
nor--with 61 catches for 920 yards and 10 touchdowns this
season--the most prolific. He should be chosen in the first two
rounds of the NFL draft next spring, but he might not be the
first receiver taken. If he isn't, it will only be because the
scouts don't recognize the truth of his first name.
When Price rescued Tennessee--for at least the fourth time this
season--he was merely triumphing over his surroundings. He has
been doing as much all his life, and it all comes down to his
name and to the mother who blessed him with it. Were he a Price
by any other name, he says, "I probably wouldn't be in college.
I'd probably be just another guy in the neighborhood, standing on
the corner, selling drugs or whatever I could just to get by.
Just doing anything not to die."
"It was the name of a moving company I'd seen ads for," his
mother, Vinder Burress, says. "I liked the name, so I looked it
up in the dictionary. It means without equal."
The neighborhood of West Dayton, Ohio, into which Peerless
LeCross Price was born in 1976 was deteriorating fast. His
mother was worried about the growing violence and drug use. "I
believed there was something special about him," she says of her
second son, and by chance she discovered the handle that would
see him through. At eight months he was walking. "See, he's
already living up to his name," she said at the time. When he
was two, she taught him his name, cutting the letters out of
construction paper and asking him to hand them over--"Give me a
P"--like a gentle cheerleader.
They didn't stay in any one house or apartment for long.
"Sometimes my mother couldn't afford to pay the rent, and we
would be evicted," Price says.
"We were just trying to find a decent place to live," his mother
says. "My kids, they saw everything: drug dealing, prostitution,
fighting--husbands and wives fighting, cutting each other. It was
Burress and her husband, Perry Price, had five
children--Peerless, his older brother, Diego (named after a
character in the Zorro movies), and three younger sisters:
Letitica, Annie and Sabre--but the couple divorced in 1995.
According to Peerless, his mother was disciplined, religious, a
teetotaler. It was she who took the children to church every
Sunday and never let Peerless go outside to play until he had
finished his homework. "The other children in the neighborhood,
who maybe wouldn't see their mothers for a day or two because of
all the crack cocaine that was going around, our house would be
open to them, too," Burress says. At various times she worked at
a school for the mentally handicapped, served as a substitute
teacher, worked at drugstores. Before Christmas she would take
on a second job so she would have enough money to buy presents
for the children. "If we didn't get them on Christmas Day, then
we got them on New Year's Day," Price says.
For Burress, education was the goal. "Peerless and Letitica, they
were always A or B students," she says. When Peerless made his
football debut in eighth grade--she talked him out of playing
until then--she was surprised by his talent, stunned by how fast
he ran. At Meadowdale High, Peerless made the SuperPrep
All-America team as its 15th rated wide receiver in the country.
Football paid for his college education. "My mother always said
she would find a way to put me through college, but I know she
never could have afforded it," he says. Tennessee was famous for
its wide receivers, and when Price arrived in Knoxville, his
future was made all the brighter by the fact that the
quarterback was a sophomore named Peyton Manning. As a freshman
Price dashed from off the depth chart into the big nationally
televised games of the Vols. "In sports I felt I had to prove
myself because of my name," he says. "They say your name doesn't
make a difference, but it really does."
His mother says he phoned home seven days a week, four or five
times a day. In October of his freshman year, even as he caught
passes in each of his first three games, he was still threatening
to transfer to Ohio State to be closer to her. She and his first
coach at Meadowdale, Pat Masters, persuaded him to stay at
Price played in every game as a sophomore, but on the last day
of spring practice in 1997, a walk-on defensive back collided
with Price on the goal line and shattered his right ankle.
Within two hours he was undergoing surgery to repair a fractured
fibula and two torn ligaments. It should have taken him eight or
nine months to recover. He was back on the field in 4 1/2.
"Peerless would come in the morning and end up spending six to
seven hours a day here," says head trainer Mike Rollo.
"Basically he went through his rehab routine twice each day and
cut his recovery time in half. He did as good a job as anyone I
can remember." He started every game that year, Manning's final
His reward has been a kind of isolation. Fourteen players from
last year's team were drafted or signed as free agents by NFL
clubs this season. Price had expected to be among them. "I
didn't think I would be here as a senior," he says. But he never
fully regained his speed or confidence last year, averaging 14.5
yards on 48 catches. He chose to return for a final season and
put himself at the mercy of the new quarterback, Martin, who had
completed just eight passes in his two years at Tennessee.
Price spent last summer establishing a relationship with Martin,
catching scores of passes from him daily. At the same time Price
worked his ankle back into shape. He doubts that he is as fast
as he was before the injury, but his coaches can't see the
difference. "I'd see Peerless coming out of our indoor field,
all sweaty, and I'd realize he had been running routes on the
turf by himself," says Martin, who took the example to heart.
"On Friday nights I would run on the track, me and [freshman
wide receiver] Eric Parker. It would be three in the morning,
and we'd be out there running, knowing everyone else was out
Virtually all the starting players practiced together daily,
without the coaches, in the brutal Tennessee heat. "We would go
seven-on-seven against each other," Price says. "That summer
taught me that this team can take constructive criticism, that
team is the first concept--not me or I but team."
Price's leaping touchdown catch against Florida in September led
the Vols to their first victory over the Gators in six years and
helped to set Martin on his way. In October, with Alabama
threatening a comeback, Price returned a kickoff 100 yards to
keep the Tide at bay. In November, Tennessee was trailing
Arkansas 21-3 when Price hauled in a bomb from Martin just
before the half to begin a miraculous recovery.
Last Saturday, with Martin struggling, the Vols looked to Price
for redemption once again. Fulmer told Cutcliffe, "David,
there's a play out there somewhere. Just throw it in the area
code of Peerless and something good will happen." Martin was on
his back when his person-to-person call reached Price in the end
zone, and he heard the roar. By the time he made it to his feet,
he saw Price behaving almost casually, as if he had expected
nothing less than what he had just done. Even so, says Price,
who led all receivers with six catches for 97 yards, "I'm not
there yet. Right now I'm just halfway through the threshold.
Hopefully on January 4, for all the marbles, I'll step all the
He was talking as he walked out of the stadium with a small
pyramid of black polished stone tucked like a football under his
arm. The inscription on the trophy read,
SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE 1998
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
His girlfriend and 10 members of his family were waiting for him
outside the stadium. Price looked in his mother's eyes close
enough to see his own reflection. "I'm taking this home with
me," Burress said, laughing as she tapped the trophy. When she
gave her son his name, she merely wanted him to stand up for
himself, to become his own man regardless of the prevailing
tides. He didn't have to be the best. But that he was on this
night: a man without equal.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER [Time-lapse photograph of Peerless Price running, jumping up, and catching football]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [Peerless Price in game with opponent]
Since 1988, 12 Tennessee wide receivers have been taken in the
NFL draft, a total second only to Miami's 15. With five of those
12 having gone in rounds 1 or 2, the Vols clearly are peerless
producers of pass catchers. Which is fitting, given that in the
next draft Peerless Price (who has 61 catches for 920 yards and
10 touchdowns this season, including the game-winner at right in
last Saturday's SEC title game) should add another Tennessee
name to both lists.
MOST WIDE RECEIVERS DRAFTED SINCE 1988
FLORIDA STATE 10
PENN STATE 8
SAN DIEGO STATE 8
TENNESSEE WIDE RECEIVERS TAKEN IN THE FIRST TWO ROUNDS SINCE 1988
PLAYER DRAFT YEAR ROUND PICK NFL TEAM
ANTHONY MILLER 1988 1 15 Chargers
ALVIN HARPER 1991 1 12 Cowboys
CARL PICKENS 1992 2 31 Bengals
JOEY KENT 1997 2 46 Oilers
MARCUS NASH 1998 1 30 Broncos
"Peerless was always a really good receiver," says Fulmer, "but
this year he's made more big plays than anybody."