By Tom Mattingly
The 1990 Mississippi State game created a number of memories for those Tennessee fans who survived the heat and humidity of a Sept. 8 afternoon game in Starkville, Mississippi. The game was part of the former WTBS television (Channel 17) package and kicked off mid-day. The Vols won 40-7.
Tennessee tailback Tony Thompson gained 248 yards rushing on his way to leading the SEC. Nobody had expected that from the little guy from Lake Wales, Fla., but Tony spent a career at Tennessee waiting patiently for an opportunity and delivering every time his name was called.
For all Vol fans knew early in his career, Tony might as well have been in the witness protection program. His identification was just one line of type underneath his picture in the game program. As author Russ Bebb noted, Tony’s career had been marked by “injuries, brief stints on defense and long stints on the bench.”
He came off the planks in the 1988 Memphis State game and again in 1989 against Vanderbilt to lead the Vols to victory in each game.
Thompson’s biggest opportunity, however, came in the 1990 season’s third game. Chuck Webb had messed up a knee the week before against Pacific and was out for the season. Vols fans wondered who might pick up the slack.
Here came Tony, charged up and ready for action. With a chance now to play week after week, he carried 219 times for 1261 yards, 16 TDs and was named All-SEC. That helped lead to another SEC championship banner being hoisted in Knoxville. With all the talent the Vols had at running back in the 1990s, Tony was the only first team All-SEC selection over that time frame.
He began the Mississippi State game with an early fumble but recovered from the miscue to score on runs of 80 and 68 yards.
He added 236 yards and four scores in the season finale against Vanderbilt, the latter mark shared with five other Vols. In the 23-22 Sugar Bowl win over Virginia in January 1991, he scored twice, including the game-winner in the final seconds, and rushed for 151 yards.
When John Majors announced the captains at the end of the 1990 season, the Monday before the Vanderbilt game, Tony was the choice. There was a brief moment of surprise, followed by the realization that no one deserved it more.
After the season, he won the Mickey O’Brien Award for overcoming physical obstacles and making a valuable contribution to the team. He also won the Bill Majors Award, given to the player who best emulates the example set by John Majors’ younger brother during his Vol career (1958-60). He played in the 1991 Senior Bowl.
It’s amazing what can happen with perseverance and taking advantage of opportunities that arise.
Another of the biggest plays that day in Starkville belonged to offensive lineman Bernard Dafney, all 6-7, 300 pounds, of him.
He ran for a score on a play called the “fumblerooskie,” a play that might have been invented by Pop Warner or Amos Alonzo Stagg. It also momentarily flummoxed everyone in the press box, including the Vol Network crew. No one knew who had the ball, at least initially. Then came the realization that an unexpected someone had it.
“Andy Kelly took the snap, then laid the ball on the ground behind the right ankle of center John Fisher,” Bebb wrote. “Kelly faked a handoff and rolled toward right end. As the pursuit followed, Dafney scooped up the ball and rambled around the other end.”
It was all perfectly legal until someone at the NCAA with too much time on his hands jumped into the fray.
The rule-makers decided it didn’t fit the spirit and concept of football as they understood it. The “fumblerooskie” went into the annals of Vol history, never to be heard from again.
John Majors got a big kick out of the play and said so after the game. There was something exciting about seeing an offensive lineman headed goalward with ball in hand, he said.
What he didn’t say was how things might have appeared had Mississippi State done it.
Then it probably wouldn’t have been as delightful.
Dafney, who died Jan. 11, 2006, in Conyers, Ga., had one other high moment as a Vol. He was introduced pre-game at the 1991 Notre Dame game as “Bernard Daffy.” Of such moments are legends created.
In your recollections of a hot day in Starkville, Miss., Sept. 8, 1990, remember the names of Tony Thompson and Bernard Dafney.