Townes tackles sickle cell anemia

Considering recent results, it seems inconceivable that Tennessee would have ever picked off 36 passes in a given season.

But that's what happened in 1970.

Since then, the Vols have had four seasons with fewer than 10, and not once in the 2000s have the Vols had half the total of that team 37 years ago.

During a three-year period (1970-72), Tennessee recorded a remarkable 82 interceptions. UT has had 89 over the past seven years.

In 1970, UT set school records for interceptions in a season and game (eight against Alabama). In 1971, the Vols set NCAA records for interception return yards (782), average per return (31.3) and interceptions returned for touchdown (seven). They also set a school mark with 214 return yards against South Carolina. The Vols had four games during that stretch in which they returned two picks for scores.

The leaders during that era were Tim Priest (18 career interceptions), Conrad Graham (15) and Bobby Majors (13). Majors had 10 interceptions in 1970, Priest had nine. Graham was the leader in 1971 and '72.

But the most improbable star of the group was a slightly built 170-pound walk-on from Bearden High School named Tim Townes. He had no offers from other colleges, not even small colleges.

``I was too short and didn't weigh enough and wasn't fast enough and nobody offered me a scholarship,'' Townes said. ``But other than that, I thought I had a pretty good chance.''

He arrived at Tennessee along with more than 100 other freshmen. He was the fifth-team strong safety – on the freshman team.

``I just remember praying that I'd do my best,'' Townes said. ``If it was good enough, fantastic. If it wasn't, at least I knew I tried. I just didn't want to later on wonder if I could have made it.''

Townes made it, and he became one of most feared hitters in the SEC. He said he learned how to tackle from Jim Smeltzer, his high school coach. He honed his secondary skills under Gary Wyant and Buddy Bennett.

``You couldn't have two better defensive backs coaches,'' Townes said. ``Both were phenomenal.''

Wyant remembers the time the Vols played at Georgia Tech in 1972. The Yellow Jackets ran the veer option and liked to fake a handoff and throw to a 270-pound tight end behind the linebacker and underneath the safety. Townes read the play.

``I got a pretty good head of steam and make a good hit,'' Townes said.

A good hit? The tight end went backwards and was so shaken up, he wobbled into the UT defensive huddle.

``I saw a few stars on that hit, too,'' Townes recalls. ``It was fun.''

A few years later, Steve Sloan, the former Alabama quarterback who was offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech at the time, ran into Wyant and had a pointed question: ``Who was that cold-blooded killer?''

During Townes three seasons at UT, the Vols were 31-5. The only losses were to Auburn (three times) and Alabama (twice).

Which team did he dislike the most?

``Probably Auburn, although my son is at Auburn,'' Townes said. ``We had great games against Auburn and Alabama. We always thought we could win until the very end. We could have possibly gone undefeated for three years.''

The most disappointing defeat was to Auburn 10-9 in 1971. The Vols led 9-3 with three minutes left. They were driving at the 14-yard-line. A field goal would have put the game away. A fumble opened the door for a brilliant Auburn comeback, an 86-yard drive engineered by eventual Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan.

Receiver Dick Schmalz, the complement to All-American Terry Beasley, caught two 20-yard passes to spark the march.

I hit him hard both times and he held onto the ball,'' Townes said. ``I'd like to have another shot at that one, I'll tell you that. I could not believe he caught those passes.''

In 1971, Tennessee's defense scored 62 points.

``We had a swarming defense and everybody got to the ball,'' Townes said. ``We had 11 guys going full speed on every play.''

Nowadays, Townes is going full speed in the lab. He is chairman and professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. He joined the UAB School of Medicine in 1984. He has a Ph.D. in Microbiology.

In 1997, he discovered a method to genetically engineer mice to create an animal model for studying sickle cell anemia in search of a cure.

``I think we have a strategy now that's going to be successful,'' Townes said.

He was selected as one of Tennessee's six Stories of Character from the SEC's first 75 years.

Townes said he was ``surprised'' and ``honored'' to represent UT.

``I know there are lots of people who could have represented the school,'' Townes said.

But none better than Tim Townes.


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