Giving thanks

InsideTennessee goes beyond the scores to reveal the people inside the Vol uniforms. Check out this insightful story on how several football players feel blessed this Thanksgiving:

The 2013 season has been a major disappointment but Tennessee's football players are convinced they have plenty to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

InsideTennessee spoke with several of them this week and, despite a 4-7 won/loss record, found that they feel blessed in a multitude of ways. No Vol spoke more passionately about his blessings than senior defensive lineman Marlon Walls.

"I'm most thankful for Vol Nation," he said. "It means the world to me, man. It's been a blessing. You take things like that for granted but, knowing Tennessee's tradition, it's a blessing to walk on that field.

"It's a blessing to have great fans like we have. Through the ups and downs, they've been a consistent thing around here. They've backed us through losses and wins. My hat's off to ‘em. I love ‘em and I'll never forget ‘em. I respect ‘em for showing love the way they have through these tough years. I love Vol Nation and appreciate all they've done for us."

Senior offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James also expressed gratitude to all of Big Orange Country, noting: "I'm thankful for the opportunities I've had at the University of Tennessee. I'm thankful for the state of Tennessee, my teammates and everybody who's been a part of this career I've had."

Senior linebacker Dontavis Sapp is another Vol who feels blessed by his time on The Hill.

"I'm thankful for Tennessee … just my whole experience here," he said. "It taught me a lot of lessons – life lessons and football lessons, as well. This experience really helped me and it's going to help build me as a man in life."

Another Vol who appreciates the opportunities he found at Tennessee is senior running back Rajion Neal, who has 990 rushing yards heading into Saturday night's finale at Kentucky.

Oh, man," Neal said, pausing to gather his thoughts. "I'm thankful for four years of being here … almost a graduate … 10 yards from a thousand … still healthy. I've got a lot to be thankful for."

Senior guard Zach Fulton also cited health as a blessing, noting: "I'm thankful just to be alive … to wake up every day and be healthy."

Redshirt sophomore safety Brian Randolph, who missed most of 2012 with a knee injury, also includes health among his blessings this Thanksgiving season.

"I'm thankful for being able to make it through another season, to be back on the field with my teammates and not on the couch this year watching it," he said. "I'm just thankful for that."

Punter/place-kicker Michael Palardy, who has enjoyed a fine senior season after struggling earlier in his career, is thankful for those who stuck by him.

"I'm thankful for a lot of things to be honest," he said. "I'm thankful for my family and the support they've given me over the years … their unwavering support, to say the least. I'm thankful for the fans and the opportunity I've gotten to play here. It's been an absolute honor and a blessing to be able to play here in front of these great fans and the great state of Tennessee. I'll never forget it.

"I'll always be a Vol For Life. Once you've worn that orange I think that sticks with you for a long time. To be able to play for four years here has meant the world to me. I think over Thanksgiving I'll be thankful for that the most."

Senior defensive end Jacques Smith and senior center James Stone also list family among their greatest blessings.

"I'm thankful for my family and being able to have them as my support staff," Smith said. "I don't know what I would do without them but I know for sure I wouldn't be here, so I thank them."

Stone virtually echoed those comments, noting: "I'm just thankful for my family … my UT family and my immediate family. I don't get to see them much but I'm thankful God led me here to the University of Tennessee and people that care about me."

Earlier this week head coach Butch Jones was asked what he's thankful for this Thanksgiving. He answered with characteristic enthusiasm:

"You have to step back and be thankful and grateful for everything that you have. We have our health. We have our families, and we're here at the University of Tennessee. I'm excited, and it makes you work that much harder. We had over 97,000 people at that (Vanderbilt) game Saturday night, in the elements, watching our football team. That's very encouraging to me because, when this thing really gets going, it's going to be special.

"We have a lot to be thankful for. I told our coaching staff today (Monday): We are where we're supposed to be. I think there's (difficult) times like this when you have to step back. There are a lot of things to be thankful for."

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