That type of persistent passion alone is enough to make Poe a genuine inspiration, but it's only when viewed against his background that his achievements can truly be appreciated.
In some respects the Covington native's story reads like the litany of a man forsaken by fair fortune. He lost his mother in the seventh grade. A year later, his home was destroyed by fire, consuming a lifetime of possessions and keepsakes. In the fourth game of his sophomore year, Poe tore the ACL in his left knee and missed the rest of the season.
Then just as he was beginning to emerge as a high school football star, Poe suffered a torn ACL in his right knee during a preseason game of his senior year. A minor grade deficiency kept Poe from entering Tennessee in the fall of 2001 and he enrolled in Coffeyville Community College. A setback in his rehab sidelined Poe as a freshman and he was forced to redshirt. Last fall he returned from a two-year absence to have solid season for Coffeyville, which finished the year 9-3 with a bowl victory over Rochester CC.
On Christmas Day, nearly two years after he committed to Tennessee, Poe graduated from junior college. Now he returns to the place he nearly started and will fulfill his dream of being a Tennessee Vol by participating in spring football drills. He brings with him a history of overcoming hardship and adversity. He brings the type of leadership qualities the Vols crave. He brings an energizing zest for life, but he doesn't come with any baggage.
"The best thing about John Poe is what a leader he is, just a super young man," said Coffeyville head coach Jeff Lieker. "He played Mike backer for us and was just kind of the heart and soul of the team. He's just a wonderful kid and it was great to have in the program."
While Poe put together a good senior season with 76 tackles and four sacks, he didn't get through the campaign unscathed by adversity. He missed a couple of games to allow his post-surgical knee a chance to recover, as he adjusted to game competition following two years of forced inactivity. However Poe didn't throttled down his motor, avoid contact or get discouraged.
"He just never had a bad day," said Lieker. "He's always in the kind of mood where he'll have a positive comment or a smile no matter how he feels. That's just the way he is."
Besides the veritable treasure of intangibles Poe brings to Tennessee's team table, he also offers an equally tantalizing tapestry of physical talents. Checking in at 5-111/2 and 240 pounds, Poe runs a sub 4.6 time in the 40 and bench presses in the neighborhood of 450 pounds, which is definitely the high-strength district.
Poe's prowess in Covington's high school weight room was nothing short of amazing. He power cleaned 305 pounds, pressed 405 in the bench and snatched 230 pounds. He maxed out at Covington's 500-pound limit in the squad and recorded a 30-inch vertical leap. Lieker isn't sure of his current totals, but said Poe is stronger now than he was when he arrived in Coffeyville 18 months ago.
Poe figures to fit into Tennessee's middle linebacker rotation, but could also contribute at fullback, a position he played through high school as a two-platoon performer.
"I could see him playing middle linebacker and he could play fullback," said Lieker. "He's just so physical, I mean he will just hammer you. He will bring it.
"He's just getting settled into a position this year. He had to miss a couple of games will the knee, but he was always ready to go. John's best days are ahead of him."
Poe could see significant early service if those best days are spent at fullback, where the Vols power-I attack lacked the sledgehammer presence of a big, physical fullback last season. Poe's wide-body build, Herculean strength and take-no-prisoners mindset meets Tennessee's need to a T. Additionally, Poe has the quick-twitch muscle makeup that enables him to explode from a stance at top speed, allowing him to get to the hole and on top of linebackers in a hurry.
At the very least Poe, who has three seasons of eligibility remaining, could become a special teams mainstay and a solid reserve linebacker for Tennessee. The only things currently holding him back are a need for repetitions and a tendency to sacrifice technique for extreme velocity. Both of those problems should be resolved with experience and coaching.
"John only knows one way; that's fast, go hard," said Lieker. "We were pretty pleased with his technique considering how aggressive he is."
There's also reason to believe Poe could be completely healthy. Tearing ACLs in both knees in a two-year span seems almost too cruel to be coincidence and may in fact be a related to a physical condition Poe was born with.
"Considering he's so conscientious and he is so physical we figured it was something genetically with his ACL," said Jake Linville, Covington's strength and conditioning coach. "As far as his quads and lower body, he's the strongest person to come through our program in five years."
Poe appears to leave a favorable and enduring impression everywhere he goes, and Coach Lieker will miss him, but what he'll remember of John Poe says as much about the way he lives as it does about the way he plays.
"He made plays but the thing that sticks out in my mind is the person he was and what he brings to a team with his contagious type enthusiasm," Lieker said. "I'd love to have him for four years. He's just one of those kind of kids, a great kid, a great leader, just always had a smile on his face — one of those type of guys. He's just a joy to be around all the time. He's a pleasure to coach and we'll miss him."
In a sport where character counts, John Poe is an invaluable addition.