''Nobody cut me or anything,'' he said. ''I was just stepping.''
Team doctors immediately feared ACL damage, and told him to expect the worst. Further examination proved the preliminary diagnosis correct.
''They told me out on the field that was probably what it is,'' he recalled. ''I didn't sleep very well last night. Let's say that.''
Sophomore Karlton Neal, voted the most improved defensive player of spring practice, stepped into Ritzmann's first-team end spot during Wednesday's practice and looms as the likely starter at the position. Head coach Phillip Fulmer noted recently that Neal was pushing hard for a starting job, so his availability may soften the blow of losing Ritzmann a bit. So does the remarkable promise exhibited by a pair of freshman ends.
''It helps that Karlton has played as well as he has,'' Fulmer said. ''It also helps that we've had a couple of really unusual freshmen, J.T. Mapu and Jason Hall. Both are unusual in that they're bright kids and understand the tempo we're trying to play at. They need time and work to get stronger but they are well ahead of where most freshmen are when they come in. We're fortunate to have those guys available.''
Because Ritzmann has a redshirt year available, he will be able to return to the Vols and play his final year of eligibility in 2003. That's some consolation, at least.
''That's the good thing,'' Ritzmann said. ''I probably would be really sick right now if this were my last year and I couldn't come back.''
Although he's trying to be philosophical, Ritzmann appeared shell-shocked as he faced reporters following Wednesday's practice.
''I'm sure I'll be frustrated for a couple of weeks ... a little sad and stuff,'' he said.
An exchange student from Germany, Ritzmann said he had some minor arthroscopic surgery on his knee earlier in his career but ''nothing like this.''
Pegged as a good pass rusher but weak run-stopper early in his career, he worked hard to shed that tag and was penciled in as a starter heading into the 2002 season. That made this setback particularly disappointing.
''Life is crazy sometimes,'' Ritzmann said, trying to be cheerful. ''God has a reason for a lot of things. I guess this is a chance for me to come back next year stronger and better.''
Fulmer echoed that thought, noting that the injury ''could be a blessing in disguise.'' He then issued a challenge to the other Vols.
''When you lose a good player, somebody else has to step up,'' the head man said. ''I would expect that somebody -- and our team as a whole -- will step up to replace a quality player like this. That's very unfortunate but it's a part of football. It's a physical game.''
The game will be a little less physical for Tennessee, however. Noting a rash of nicks and bruises among his players, Fulmer has decided to cancel the scrimmage work he had scheduled for Thursday night. Instead, the Vols will start preparing for the Aug. 31 opener against Wyoming. It isn't the ideal situation but the head man feels he has no choice.
''We can't afford any more injuries,'' Fulmer said. ''The backup quarterbacks need 11-on-11 work but we can't afford to keep doing that.''