He may please crowds with his quicksilver moves and
yardage-swallowing runs, but Tennessee senior tailback Travis
Stephens has never cared much for being in the limelight. When
crossing the sprawling campus in Knoxville, he walks with his
head down and his coat collar up, so as not to be recognized.
After some games, he ducks out a back door of the locker room so
he doesn't have to face the media. When his wife, Tanisha, asked
him to make a speech to the guests at their wedding reception
last June, Travis looked as if she had suggested that he deliver
the State of the Union address. "Travis," said an exasperated
Tanisha, "how on Earth do you play in front of so many thousands
of people each week?"
Travis, in his church-quiet voice, replied, "When I have my
helmet on, I can do anything."
It seemed that way last Saturday when Stephens rushed for 226
yards and two touchdowns to help the Volunteers knock No. 2
Florida out of the national championship picture--and inject
themselves into it--with a 34-32 win in the Swamp. The victory,
Tennessee's first in Gainesville in 31 years, gave the Vols the
SEC East title and earned them a spot in Saturday's SEC
championship game against LSU, which Tennessee beat 26-18 on
Sept. 29. The Volunteers also moved up to No. 2 in the Bowl
Championship Series rankings and, given a win on Saturday, will
meet Miami for the national title in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 3.
Not bad for a team that the oddsmakers had made an 18-point
underdog to Florida. "After [the line was released] Travis and
the rest of the seniors decided that we were going to hold off
on the fun rituals that we usually do in the last week of
regular-season practice," sophomore quarterback Casey Clausen
said after last Saturday's game. "They told us we'd soon be
practicing to get ready for the SEC championship in Atlanta."
Asked about his players' confidence, coach Phillip Fulmer--an
offensive lineman on the last Tennessee team to win in the
Swamp--narrowed his eyes and said, "Those 70 guys who got on
that airplane to Gainesville might have been the only ones in
the country who believed we could win."
The 5'9", 190-pound Stephens, for one, has never stopped
believing in his ability. The 1995 Tennessee Class 5A Mr.
Football coming out of Northeast High in Clarksville, for which
he rushed for more than 4,000 yards, Stephens saw limited
playing time in his first two years in Knoxville. As a freshman
he was third on the depth chart, behind Jamal Lewis and Travis
Henry, and played in eight games. The next season, 1998, he had
107 carries and was Tennessee's leading ground gainer (60 yards)
in its 23-16 national championship victory over Florida State.
Still stuck behind Lewis and Henry in 1999 but unwilling to
leave the team he had grown up worshipping, Stephens decided to
take a redshirt year.
The off year also allowed Travis to spend valuable time with his
father, Leonard, who that fall had been told that he had
advanced colon cancer. "I'd sit beside his bed at the hospital,
and we'd watch Tennessee games on TV," says Stephens. Leonard, a
career Army man, succumbed to the disease in March 2000.
Before he died he asked Travis to do two things: take care of
his mother, Juanita, and strive to succeed in football and in
life. "Travis's father's death made him mature very quickly,"
says Tanisha, who graduated from Tennessee last year with a
degree in advertising and is a personal asset manager for a
Knoxville investment firm. "He was quiet for a few months, but
then football took over." Motivated by the memory of his
father's brave struggle and wearing wristbands stitched with the
initials L.R.S., Travis labored through a 2000 season in which
he backed up Henry and rushed 81 times for 359 yards.
Last summer, while preparing for his first season as a starter,
Stephens increased his training. Three afternoons a week in the
sizzling Tennessee heat, he ran stadium steps and performed
footwork drills that reduced his 40-yard-dash time from a 4.33
to a 4.2. "I was as ready and focused as I had been in my life,"
says Stephens, who has rushed for 1,427 on 277 attempts this
season and is a finalist for the Doak Walker Award. "I was
pretty sure I'd paid my dues."
The hard work showed right away. Stephens erupted for 206 yards
in the conference opener against Arkansas on Sept. 8 and broke
the century mark in each of the Volunteers' first seven games.
Along the way, he has been inspired by thoughts of his family.
"During the Florida game I was thinking about my father, and I
was saying to myself, This is for you, Daddy. This is for you,"
said Stephens. "I'm sure my wife was saying, 'There's my
husband.' My mom was saying, 'There's my boy.' And my dad up in
heaven was saying, 'There's my son.' I know they're all very
Expecting Florida's defense to zero in on Stephens, Tennessee
offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said he went into the game
planning "to give Clausen and the receivers and tight ends a
chance to make it happen through the air." All of which opened
up things for Stephens. Around the time that Stephens burst
through the middle for a 49-yard run with 8:51 remaining in the
first half, Sanders said he realized that "our receivers could
easily pull five guys out of the box to open up the run." Sure
enough, Stephens exploded with a 35-yard touchdown run in the
third quarter to put Tennessee, which had trailed 20-14 at
halftime, ahead by a point.
From then on, in every Vols huddle, Stephens "was smiling and
clapping his hands like a little kid on Christmas morning," said
senior fullback Will Bartholomew after the game. "Then he'd go
and just shred people." Bartholomew, who has nicknamed his
tireless teammate the Energizer Bunny, says of Stephens, "He's
little, but he's a bruiser. He sees a hole and runs straight and
hard through it."
The same can be said of Tennessee senior defensive tackle John
Henderson, a friend of Stephens's from their days in
Nashville-area high schools. Henderson bulled his way through
the Florida offensive line pestering Gators quarterback Rex
Grossman all game. "I tell these guys every week that the game
is going to be won up front, and this time they believed me,"
said Henderson, who also knocked down two first-quarter passes.
That performance was sweet vindication for the Vols'
defense--whose sloppy play in the fourth quarter against Georgia
on Oct. 6 was responsible for Tennessee's lone loss--and
specifically for Henderson, who has been slowed by a
high-right-ankle sprain that he suffered in the season opener
against Syracuse. Last year's Outland Trophy winner, Henderson
is again a finalist although he has only four sacks. (He had 12
last season.) "That's a nod to John's emotional leadership on
the field," says defensive line coach Dan Brooks of his 6'7",
Although listed as questionable early last week, Henderson said
that "nothing in the world" could have prevented him from
playing against Florida--a game he almost certainly would have
missed had it been played on its originally scheduled Sept. 15
date. (It was postponed because of the Sept. 11 attacks.)
Henderson's motivation has been strong ever since he was forced
to sit out the 1998 national championship season as a partial
qualifier, because his SAT scores had left him ineligible to
compete as a freshman. "No player on this team has been hungrier
than big John," says Brooks.
Except maybe Stephens, who met Henderson when he was piling up
huge numbers at Clarksville and Henderson was building a
reputation as a standout defensive lineman at Pearl-Cohn High.
Although the two never played against each other, they would run
into each other at parties or at sporting events and talk about
the day when they would lead the Vols to a national title. "We
were both around in 1998, but neither of us believed we made the
impact we felt we could have made," says Stephens.
Stephens made quite an impact on Saturday. His 34-yard and
68-yard runs in the fourth quarter set up a pair of short
touchdowns by Jabari Davis, a 6'0", 230-pound freshman tailback.
"I ran into the huddle, pretty scared, and there was Travis
waiting for me," said Davis. "He told me to hold it tight and run
north and south."
After the game Travis--eager to get home to Tanisha, who at his
behest had stayed home and watched the game on TV, to avoid "the
crazy crowds" at the Swamp--was as elusive as he had been during
it. After searching the field for "the little guy with the big
heart," Henderson finally found him in the locker room, where
Stephens had retreated while his teammates lingered in the south
end zone to join the Tennessee faithful for a last, hoarsely sung
rendition of Rocky Top. Big John rumbled over, bent down and
threw his arms around Stephens. "I had to give that big heart a
hug," said Henderson. "Travis and I decided that we're not
finished with this thing. Not even close."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO Busting out Stephens, never a starter before this fall, found sure footing in the Swamp, rushing for 226 yards and two touchdowns.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO Extra effort Grossman did all he could, completing this eight-yard shovel pass and throwing for 362 yards, but it wasn't enough.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO Gator Getter Henderson made his presence felt by frequenting the Florida backfield.
"Those 70 guys on that airplane might have been the only ones
who believed we could win," said Fulmer.
"I tell these guys every week that the game is going to be won
up front, and this time they believed me."