REMEMBERING JOHNNY MAJORS
On a cold November day in 1956, I attended my first college football game. I saw the Tennessee Volunteers defeat the Kentucky Wildcats 20-7 at Shields Watkins Field on the campus of the University of Tennessee.
I was only four years old, and I really didn’t understand football at all. But as I sat between my mother and father wrapped in an orange blanket, I loved the show. I loved the band, the cheerleaders, a hotdog, the roaring crowd, and the orange and blue-clad men running on the brown field. (No fake green turf in those days.) I loved every minute of my first college football game.
At one point during the game my father pointed to one player on the field who wore the number 45 on his orange jersey. “That’s the best player in college football!” Dad exclaimed, and he was right.
That player was Johnny Majors.
I did not realize at that moment that Johnny Majors would become a major figure in my life… a hero I would admire as I grew up and became a passionate Tennessee Vol football fan. I grew to admire not just Johnny Majors, but the entire Majors family, the First Family of Tennessee football.
I watched his brothers Billy and Bobby wear the orange and white as well.
When I was a freshman at UT in 1971, I attended Majors Day at Neyland Stadium. The entire Majors family was on the field, including the patriarch, Coach Shirley Majors, and brothers Johnny, Joe, Larry and Bobby. Sadly brother Billy was not present as he had perished in a car wreck years earlier when he was an assistant coach at UT.
Bobby Majors played for the Vols that “Majors Day,” returning a punt for a touchdown in leading Tennessee to victory over Penn State.
I was back in Neyland Stadium in 1977 when Johnny came marching home again to be the Vols head coach.
In the ensuing years I was with Johnny on some of the greatest days in Tennessee football history including the upset of Notre Dame in 1979 and the victory over Alabama in the Bear’s last visit to Knoxville in 1982. And I was in New Orleans on a memorable night of January 1, 1986 when Johnny led the Volunteers to a Sugar Bowl rout of the Miami Hurricanes.
I met Coach Majors on several occasions over the years at UT Alumni events. I have a picture of him he signed for me at one of those gatherings. “To my good friend, Bill Haltom,” he wrote, although I had to spell my name for him.
I last saw Coach Majors back in August when he was a featured speaker at the Tennessee Episcopal Laymen’s Conference in Monteagle, just a few miles from the Majors family home in Suwanee. Even at the age of 84, he was contagiously enthusiastic and a joy to be around. I shook his hand and thanked him for being my hero for over 60 years.
I did not realize I was saying goodbye to him. I am glad I got to see him one more time and thank him.
Johnny passed away yesterday morning, but his spirit – the Spirit of the Hill – remains with us. He was and will always be THE VOLUNTEER.