Stuck behind future NFL standouts Jamal Lewis and Travis Henry, Stephens rarely got to carry the football in his first four years as a Vol tailback. His role changed dramatically as a fifth-year senior in 2001, however.
When Stephens was tabbed the starter in '01, many observers complained that the 5-foot-9, 190-pounder was too small to carry 30 times per game. Undaunted, he matched the school record with 41 carries for 206 yards in a 13-3 Game 2 defeat of Arkansas at rain-soaked Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
"Of course, that stuff motivates you when people doubt you," Stephens recalled recently. "They doubt LeBron James. They doubt any athlete in some kind of way. They have a negative thing to say about everybody but that just motivated me and made me work harder to get ready for my senior season. I had a lot of stamina."
Obviously. Stephens carried 291 times in 2001, setting a single-season program record that stands to this day. He also set a single-season yardage record (1,464) that stands to this day. Those are remarkable feats for a guy who waited four years behind Lewis and Henry before getting a chance to show what he could do.
"It was an obstacle that occurred," Stephens says philosophically. "That happens. I was patient, stuck in there. Good things happen to those who wait."
|Travis Stephens works his way upfield for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during a 2003 preseason game.|
"There was a lot of pressure on all of us," Stephens recalls. "Somebody had to wait because there were three of us, so somebody had to sit behind and get the opportunity later. That's what I did, and it was a blessing because I was able to accomplish the things I wanted to accomplish."
Ultimately, all three tailbacks became stars. Lewis started in 1997 and set Tennessee's freshman rushing record with 1,364 yards. He tore an ACL in '98 but Henry and Stephens picked up the slack in helping the Vols go 13-0 en route to the BCS championship.
Stephens redshirted in '99, while Lewis and Henry split the tailback duties, then Lewis left early for the NFL. Henry got his big chance in 2000 and ran for 1,314 yards to become Tennessee's career rushing leader. When Stephens got his turn in '01, he promptly became the single-season rushing leader.
"I was able to do my thing," he said.
Indeed he was. In addition to his 41-carry effort at Arkansas, Stephens gave one of the great performances in Vol history in the 2001 regular-season finale at Florida. Facing a Gator team coached by Steve Spurrier, ranked No. 2 nationally and playing at home, Stephens rushed for 226 yards in sparking a 34-32 upset victory.
"That was one of the highlights of my career," he recalls. "The team was prepared. You have to be prepared mentally for games like that, and we were prepared. Coach (Phillip Fulmer) didn't even have to say anything to get us pumped up and ready. We knew a lot was riding on that game, and we knew the national title was at stake."
As Big Orange fans surely recall, the Vols climbed to No. 2 in the BCS rankings after beating Florida. Then, needing only to beat LSU in the SEC Championship Game to play for the national title in the Rose Bowl, the Big Orange self-destructed.
"Unfortunately," Stephens recalls, "we lost that next week."
Tennessee bounced back to maul Michigan 45-17 in the Florida Citrus Bowl, however, enabling him to close his college career on a high note. His five years in the program saw Tennessee go 52-11 with two SEC championships and a national title.
"It means a lot because you know you were part of a good era, especially when you see what the school's going through now," Stephens said. "Schools have their ups and downs, as far as winning and losing. I was playing with great players, and it gives you an appreciation for that era."