Remembering Jimmy Streater, the ‘Sylva Streak’

By Tom Mattingly

On Nov. 26, 1977, sophomore quarterback Jimmy Streater led the way in John Majors’ first SEC triumph, a 42-7 victory over Vanderbilt. He was pictured on p. 1 of the Sunday News-Sentinel sports section, with story sub-head that read, “Streater scores 3 TDs, passes for 1…” It closed out a 4-7 first season for Majors. The 1977 season marked Streater’s first significant varsity action.

He was termed “probably the most celebrated of the Vol signees” in the 1976 recruiting class. He was a “can’t-miss” prospect who didn’t.

In the 1977 season opener against California Sept. 10 in Majors’ debut as Volunteer head coach, Streater had electrified the capacity crowd with an 80-yard touchdown run that had the Vol Network’s Bill Anderson cheering his every move as John Ward described the moment.

There were a number of great moments for Jimmy over the next three years. He led the Vols in total offense in 1977-79, was a 1979 All-SEC selection by UPI, and was a team captain that season, joining Craig Puki and Roland James.

The cheering ceased after a couple of years in the CFL. Chris Cawood, author of “The Jimmy Streater Story” (©1999), put everything into perspective. The years had begun taking their toll on Jimmy, mentally and physically.

“Jimmy Streater’s story runs deeper than football,” Chris wrote. “It is a story of successes and failures, of ups and downs, of exhilaration and depression, of good choices and bad, of freedom and slavery.”

Then came the Feb. 20, 2004, phone call, the caller saying that Willis James Streater III had died in Asheville at age 46.

The Baptist church uptown had offered its sanctuary for the service, but Jimmy had wanted to be at home, “home” being Sylva’s Liberty Baptist Church. It was a small church, but nobody seemed to mind.

His friends and loved ones packed the church, but the small sanctuary was also filled with the requisite virtues of faith and forgiveness. As it had been at Sylva-Webster High School and the University of Tennessee, Jimmy Streater was once again playing to a full house.

Everyone had their own special memories of the small-town hero who carried Sylva’s hopes and dreams to the University of Tennessee and beyond, but who also retained the love and adulation of those who knew him best.

Eric Streater, Jimmy’s brother, told the gathering that his brother, known as “Jim-Bob,” “Bird,” the “Sylva Streak,” or “Uncle Sunshine,” “was the winner, once again, and was being carried off the field of life.”

In a service marked by song and testimony, including some moving piano artistry by his mother, Shirley, there was tribute paid from the Rev. Anthony Sweat of the Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Waynesville.

“Our loss is heaven’s gain,” said Rev. Sweat. “Jimmy fought the battle and won the victory. He’s been through the valley and seen what we’ve never seen. No one is exempt from the valleys of life, none of us. We may think so, but sometimes it takes the mail a little while to be delivered. Jimmy knew he was saved and had been bought with a price.”

Former Vol signal-callers Condredge Holloway and Heath Shuler, as well as teammates Kelsey Finch and Steve Davis, long-time friend Bert Bertelkamp, and UT administrators Gus Manning, Bud Ford, Judy Constantine, and I were present.

“Strong stuff, touching moment, powerful message,” Marvin West wrote Feb. 20, 2006. “Tennessee never forgets a Volunteer, even when he hits the wall.”

In one of the most moving moments of the day, Holloway, who helped blaze the trail for the Jimmy Streaters of the world and many others, pinned an orange and white Lettermen’s T-Club pin on the lapel of Jimmy’s suit coat, noting that it was “one of the hardest things I have ever done.”

While players may come and go over the years, No. 6 on an orange and white jersey should always belong to Jimmy Streater.

“He touched our hearts in a way we’ll never forget,” Eric Streater said. “I can imagine that the angels in heaven are arguing over who gets him on their side. For him, there’s no more dialysis, no more depression. He’s back in his prime, heading toward the goal with the ball under his arm.” All across the gathering, members of the audience dabbed at their eyes, wiping away tears they hadn’t suspected were coming.

Somewhere on the road from Waynesville to Sylva, there was a sign at an establishment called Smacker’s Grill that expressed it best. The sign read, “Good Bye to the Sylva Streak Jimmy Streater.” Maybe not really “good-bye,” but a heartfelt, “See you soon.”

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