Booker, 16 seniors make final stand vs. UT

NASHVILLE-- Before Saturday's season-ending game against Tennessee, senior Chris Booker stood at the middle of Dudley Field to be recognized alongside his family for his gridiron accomplishments. Then he took the field one last time.

Three-and-a-half hours later, his football career was over. The weary warrior laid down his pads for the last time.

Following the game, outside McGugin Center, he fought to hold back his emotions as that fact slowly sunk in. Booker, who had fought through injuries big and small in his five-year career, realized he and 15 other seniors would never again don the black and gold uniform. And five seasons suddenly passed in review for him.

"I wish we could have gone out with a win," Booker said wistfully. "But it's been a great five years."

He thought back to his freshman year, when as a raw, undersized rookie he had been pressed into service at defensive end, largely because there were few other options. He'd played in Bobby Johnson's Vanderbilt debut in 2002, a 45-3 wipeout at the hands of Georgia Tech.

He thought about the countless hours of practice under the blistering sun at the John Rich Practice Facility.

He thought about his two debilitating knee injuries, the second of which cost him a season in 2004, and which might have caused lesser men to give up football entirely. He thought about the 18 seemingly endless months of rehabbing the knee. He remembered sitting out the Tennessee game in 2004, and the helpless feeling of being unable to help his teammates.

He remembered the pain of losing his teammate Kwane Doster, with whom he had entered Vandy in the same recruiting class.

He remembered all that diligence paying off, and winning his starting job back for the 2005 and 2006 years. He remembered the stirring wins at Arkansas and Tennessee last year, and at Georgia this year.

He also remembered the losses... lots of them.

It all came flooding back Saturday afternoon, as the sun was setting just beyond Vanderbilt Stadium.

"It's bittersweet, that's for sure, because I'm ready to move on. I'm ready to get a job and join the workforce," he said, with eyes glistening.

"But this team... they mean the world to me. Next year they're going to be absolutely incredible. I'm going to look forward to watching them."

Senior defensive end Chris Booker, flanked by his family on one side and Vanderbilt's Chancellor and Vice Chancellor on the other, acknowledges cheers from the crowd before the Commodores' football finale vs. Tennessee Saturday. (VandyMania / Brent Wiseman)

After Saturday's 39-10 loss to Tennessee, Booker said he didn't have a single body part that wasn't hurting-- fingers, knees, legs, not to mention a bum shoulder that he has dealt with for most of the season. He has surgery scheduled in December to repair the shoulder.

After his second knee surgery in 2004, many fans assumed his career was over. It would have been ridiculously easy to give it all up, and finish up his degree as a medical hardship. Yet something deep inside him wouldn't let him quit.

In his final two years, the tireless Booker earned the admiration and respect of his coaches, fellow players and fans. He became one of the cornerstones of a defensive line that made tremendous strides under Coach Rick Logo and developed into the Commodores' most improved unit.

"He has just thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed these five years at Vandy," said his mother Kristi, who beamed with justifiable pride Saturday. "It's been so wonderful for him. We just praise God he's had such a wonderful season."

What kept him going through all the adversity?

"He just never quits," said his Mom. "When he gets focused on something, and when he wants something, he won't quit until he gets it. His heart is just amazing. I'm just so proud of him."

"I love the game," was Booker's only explanation. "And I love my guys. Your teammates-- that's who you want to play for. With my knee and all, I just couldn't call it quits. I wanted to really battle back. I'm glad I did."

Booker and the other seniors will now move on. After graduating next May with a prestigious dual degree in Engineering Science and Economics, the Mississippian said he plans to stay in Nashville and start his own company in the field of networking systems. "I've got a few options," he laughed.

Football-wise, the fifth-year senior feels that this year's seniors have laid the cornerstone for a legacy of good things to come. He feels they left the program much better than they found it.

"This team-- I'll be really surprised if this team isn't a Top 25 team next year," he said. "They're losing four or five starters at most. It's great to think that we were the team that started it all.

"Now they've got to finish it."

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