The Lucky Linebacker

As Omar Gaither surveyed the landscape of playing linebacker at Tennessee for four years, he felt like the lucky one.

Lucky not to have suffered two torn anterior cruciate ligaments and a broken ankle like Kevin Simon.

Lucky not to have suffered a torn ACL in the season opener against Alabama-Birmingham like Jason Mitchell.

Lucky to have played with two warriors like Simon and Mitchell.

``A lot of people would have given up with all the things that happened to Kevin,'' said Gaither, who was second on the team in tackles in 2005 and third in 2004. ``He pushed through and it seems like he didn't miss a step on the field. Anytime he gets hurt, he works hard, and keeps his head up and gets back out there.

``That's one of the good things about Kevin Simon - he doesn't quit and it showed on the field.''

The story of Mitchell was even more remarkable. Mitchell, Gaither's roommate, suffered a torn ACL in the season opener. It wasn't detected until early October. Rather than have surgery at the time, Mitchell decided to play with pain so he could run through the ``T'' for the final home game, then have the operation.

``That's the kind of guy he is,'' Gaither said. ``If something's wrong with him, he's not going to tell you.

``We're doing drills in practice, we're working hard and he's got a torn ACL. We're telling him, `Sit out, you don't need to be doing this.' But he wouldn't even sit out. He practiced hard with the torn ACL.''

Mitchell's heart led Gaither to speak from the heart when he said: ``I'm going to miss him. I love him to death. I'm glad for the opportunity to play with him.''

Many people advised Mitchell to have the surgery right away. He refused.

``He said he loved playing so much, he was going to play his last few games at Tennessee,'' Gaither said.

What advice did Gaither give Mitchell?

``I told him to make his own decision,'' Gaither said. ``I'm glad he played. I don't know if it was the best thing for him. I think he'll be all right.''

Gaither said one of the joys of playing at Tennessee was developing relationships with players like Mitchell, who is from South Louisiana. Gaither is from Charlotte. Simon is from California. Jesse Mahelona is from Hawaii. The diversity is intriguing.

``One thing you observe when you get here as a freshman is that everybody is different because they're from somewhere else,'' Gaither said. ``They talk different, the language is different, everything is different - what you do, what clothes you wear. But by the time you're a senior, you invent your own language, you're all wearing the same thing.

``I think all those different cultures and languages merge together and become one. I think that's one of the fun things at a place like UT. They have a lot of people that come from different places, and by the time you go through the program and get to know each other, you're almost the same.

``I learned a lot of things about a lot of other parts of the country that I did not know when I got here. It's fun to travel to a lot of places to play. I'll miss it.''

Gaither will also miss running through the `T'. He'll miss the Vol Walk. He'll miss the chest bumps with assistant coach Trooper Taylor.

``Actually, coming off the field, sometimes you're tired and you don't want to chest bump,'' Gaither said. ``One time he got me and I fell down. That's all a part of it with Trooper. He's a great guy and brings a lot of energy to the field. I'm glad they have a guy like him.''

Gaither experienced a few ups and downs during his UT career. His first two seasons, he was on special teams because he didn't want to redshirt and couldn't crack the linebacker lineup. An injury to Simon opened the door for him to start as a junior.

Gaither played in the SEC Championship game one year and went 5-6 the next.

``Sometimes it just doesn't bounce your way,'' Gaither said. ``It's just unexplainable.''

After a loss to Vanderbilt, several players threw their helmets in disgust and left them on the field at Neyland Stadium.

``It's kind of hard to explain to someone who wasn't out there fighting with us,'' Gaither said. ``You do things in a moment of passion you regret in the end. I don't think it'll ever happen again. All the players that left their helmets apologized.''

Gaither saw another side of the issue: Players cared enough to be upset during the midst of a disastrous season.

``That lets you know how much passion and how much energy they played with to be upset like that,'' Gaither said. ``That lets you know they gave their all. . That's not always a bad thing when something like that happens.''

While Tennessee's defense held its end of the bargain last season, the offense was awful. The Vols had their worst scoring average since 1964. Still, Gaither said, the defense never resented the offense for its struggles.

``What we tried to do was uplift the offense,'' Gaither said. ``It didn't happen. That was a good thing for me to see this season - nobody ever gave up on anybody.

``The win-loss column doesn't say the offense played bad and the defense played well or the defense played bad and the offense played well. It's about getting Ws and we weren't able to do that this year for whatever reason. . In the great scheme of things, we're still a team.''

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