He may not carry the football much this fall but one Tennessee player will be carrying one of the most famous names in American history … and doing so proudly.
Ralph David Abernathy IV is named for his grandfather, noted civil-rights activist Ralph David Abernathy II, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and served as president of that body following the assassination of close friend Martin Luther King Jr.
“When you carry such a great man’s name, you have to know where you come from,” said RDA IV, who joined the Vols as a graduate transfer from Cincinnati earlier this summer. “As far back as I can remember, when I walked in my grandmother’s house there’s pictures up of when their house got bombed (by racist reactionaries).
“You ask the questions because you see all of the pictures around. Then she goes in-depth about stories. As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been told about my name.”
Whereas his famous grandfather spent his life changing the culture, RDA IV is spending his time adapting to a new culture. He says the one he encountered at Tennessee is significantly different than the culture he left at Cincinnati.
“It’s more focus and more seriousness,” he explained. “At Cincinnati we got our work done and did what we needed to do. But here, when there’s all eyes on you at all times, you have to take that extra precaution. You think a lot more before you take certain actions. You don’t go out down here. You stick around the team. It’s just a way more serious level. I think it comes with being in a tougher conference.”
Easing Abernathy’s adjustment to the Vol culture is the fact he has the same head coach in Knoxville that he had back in Cincinnati … Butch Jones. Moreover, the boss hasn’t changed much.
“He’s exactly the same, actually,” Abernathy said. “And the coaches expect the same things from you in practice. They’re all really the same. There hasn’t been one major change where I’ve said, ‘Wow!’”
Jones’ heavy reliance on catch phrases is nothing new. Abernathy says he heard many of them when the Vol head man was filling the same role at Cincinnati.
“One of his big things is 63 (6 seconds of hustle with 3 efforts),” Abernathy said. “He used that at Cincinnati. And ‘power of the position’ he used at Cincinnati. If it works, though, you just let it roll. He was kinda successful at Cincinnati and now he’s going to be successful here.”
Asked if Jones ever vowed to rebuild Cincinnati’s program “brick by brick,” Abernathy replied: “No, it was more ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’”
After mere weeks on campus RDA IV says he feels as if he’s been a Vol for years.
“The team’s welcomed me with open arms,” he said. “I’ve adapted just fine. I’m honored and blessed to be here.”
Proving that good things come in small packages, the 5-foot-7, 161-pounder averaged 25.1 yards in three-plus seasons as Cincinnati’s kickoff-return specialist. He also posted 917 rushing yards and 540 receiving yards for the Bearcats. When heel and hamstring injuries sidelined him for most of the 2014 season, he petitioned the NCAA for a fifth-year of eligibility. Given a favorable ruling, he decided to spend 2015 in another program. As fate would have it, younger brother Micah, a senior at Greater Atlanta Christian High School, was mulling college options at the same time.
|Tennessee head coach Butch Jones|
“I told my parents I didn’t want his decision to be predicated on me,” RDA IV said. “I wanted him to have the opportunity to go to the school he wanted to go to. Once he made his decision (Tennessee), I guess you could say I followed him. I wanted to be with my little brother and I wanted to be back with Coach Jones, be with a familiar group.”
Five years apart in age, the Abernathy boys have never been teammates till now.
“We never played together before — no level, no sport,” Ralph David said. “Playing with your brother is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I love it.”
Still, if RDA IV wants to be a featured running back he came to the wrong place. Tennessee’s 2015 carries will be shared by 2014 starter Jalen Hurd and heralded junior-college transfer Alvin Kamara. Still, Abernathy believes he can contribute.
“I feel like I bring a smart, tough, hard-nosed player … a quick-twitch player who is best in space,” he said. “But I’m willing to do anything. If they told me to run down and hit a 300-pound lineman I’d do it. I just want to contribute to the team.”
Most likely RDA IV will fill the role vacated by 2014 Vol senior Devrin Young — contributing as a return specialist with occasional touches from scrimmage on screen passes and fly sweeps.
“Best-case scenario would be getting to be a part of special teams, whether I’m blocking or returning,” Abernathy said. “I don’t really need to touch the ball that much. This is already an explosive offense, so I just want to do what I can to contribute, whether I’m blocking or I’m a decoy or the ball’s in my hands.”
Despite what projects to be a limited role, RDA IV is glad he transferred to Tennessee. He already found two quality perks in playing for the Vols.
“The facilities, for sure,” he replied. “Everything is in close proximity, whereas at Cincinnati you might have to walk to certain places (weight room, training room, coaches offices). And the food down here is amazing. It’s a weekly thing around here that you get a steak or a filet. That’s something that never happened at Cincinnati … unless you won a game. And, here they give you three meals a day, whereas at Cincinnati during the summer you’re paying for all of your meals yourself.”
Having played two years for Butch Jones at Cincinnati, Abernathy already has the head man’s respect. Heck, this graduate transfer didn’t even have to start fall camp with a black stripe on his helmet, identifying him as an unproven newcomer.
“No,” he said with a laugh. “In football years, I’m like 50 years old.”