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UT-Georgia game in ’68 memorable on several Vol, SEC, NCAA levels

The date of Sept. 14, 1968, wasn’t just memorable because it was the first-ever UT football game a tiny little boy from Madisonville got to watch from the stands of “giant” Neyland Stadium.

(Giant in the eyes of a small child, even though it was some 40,000 seats smaller than today).

My Big Orange brainwashing started that day, something I’ve been able to shake in recent years.

The timing was outstanding for a memorable experience, as UT football history was made on some important levels that day — and one national “groundbreaking” note, so to speak.

First of all, in a modern era when African-American athletes annually make up about 70 percent of the Vol roster, it wasn’t until this game — the ‘’68 season opener against Georgia, that an African-American ever caught a pass, scored a touchdown or made a tackle in Vol Orange on Rocky Top.

Specifically, catching passes.

Sophomore wide receiver Lester McClain was UT Athletics’ Jackie Robinson

Going up a few floors at the stadium, this game gave birth to “Give ’em Six” and “Did He Make It? He Made It, Touchdown Big Orange” in the broadcast booth.

It was John Ward’s first UT football broadcast, beginning 32 years to winning over almost all Vol fans to his memorable calls and sharp, witty lines punctuating big Tennessee game moments.

Though Ward had been the basketball Voice of the Vols for a few years prior, the local and regional broadcasting legend cut his Vol Football teeth in what turned out to be a dramatic 17-17 tie.

The game was also broadcast nationally on ABC Television.

Then there was playing surface at Shields-Watkins Field, and the resulting concerns about it from UGA Bulldogs legendary head coach Vince Dooley.

All the fuss was over some new kind of weird, artificial grass called Tartan Turf. Dooley reportedly threatened to pull his team out of the game before relenting.

Footwear was perhaps a concern, and for good reason.

Neyland Stadium was one of the first outdoor football venues in the country, college or NFL, to cover over its grass field with this newfangled stuff.

As a result, this was the first-ever game in Southeastern Conference history, and one of the first outdoor college football games in the nation, to be played on an artificial surface.

Before SEC schools began reconsidering the alleged harm of artificial turf in the early 1990s — specifically knee injuries making it easier for “grass surface” schools to recruit against “artificial turf” schools — nine of the 12 current SEC schools laid down artificial turf on their home fields.

Auburn, Georgia and LSU are the only three SEC schools never to have changed over.

Tennessee scored a touchdown on the last play of the game to pull within 17-15, then receiver Bubba Wyche, brother of former NFL football head coach Sam Wyche, caught the game-tying two-point conversion vs. UGA.

Then guess what happened. Wyche promptly punted the ball into the stands out of joy, resulting in an NCAA rule change making “ball abuse” a 15-yard penalty that still stands today.

Not a bad piece of UT, SEC and NCAA football history to witness for a little boy’s first college football experience.

Award-winning sports writer and columnist Chuck Cavalaris returns next week on the second page of sports for his twice-monthly "Ask Chuck" column. Send questions, comments or column topics ideas to him at Cavalaris can also be reached at 865-769-9295.


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