“The real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back. That’s real glory. That’s the essence of it.”
My college career was a struggle. I don’t think I ever lived up to my potential in college and for years it was something that bothered me. I was a pretty average football player in elementary school and junior high. I was a lot better at basketball and baseball. I just had a love and passion for football. Through hard work, sacrifice, and discipline, I developed into a great high school player. I had as good of a high school football experience as you could have hoped for in every way. I was a three year starter as quarterback, punter, and kicker. I was in the newspaper, on the local news and the radio every week. I made All-District, All-West Tennessee, and All-State, I had offers to play college football. I had great coaches and teammates. Heck, I even got to escort the homecoming queen my senior year!
My high school experience was so good that I had tremendously high expectations for my college career but it never really panned out. I had a few games where I played great and looked like a college quarterback but for the most part I think I underachieved. College was not like high school for me and it left me discouraged and down on myself as a player which in turn affected the way I felt about myself.
Wayne Brantley UT Martin Pacers 1988
I really didn’t want to go to school at UT Martin or play football there. To be honest there was not a lot about the place that appealed to me. The school was in a very rural area in northwest Tennessee, I didn’t know anybody there, and I hated their colors. They were orange and blue for crying out loud! I didn’t like the University of Tennessee, and that’s where my degree would have been from, good grief! What was I thinking!
I had been recruited heavily by UT-Martin, Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee, Arkansas State, Tennessee Tech, Murray State, Morehead State, Ouachita Baptist, and Lambuth University. I also was slightly recruited by Louisville and Ole Miss but no offers. Of course hind-sight is 20/20, but, if I could do it all again I probably should have chosen Austin Peay. I felt at home there during my visits and I did a week long football camp there and it seemed like a great place. Partly because I won MVP of the camp!
The head coach at UT Martin was Don McLeary who had been a high school teammate of my father at North Side High School in the 1960’s, because of that I felt a lot of pressure to play for him. To be clear, that pressure was self imposed, I never felt pressure from Coach McLeary but I did want to please my dad. Coach McLeary had been a star player for North Side High school and the University of Tennessee and was one of the early run and shoot disciples. He had a good career as an assistant coach in the Canadian football league and the USFL and learned under Mouse Davis and John Hadl. He also coached future Hall of Famer Steve Young in the USFL. Coach McLeary was the head coach at UTM for ten seasons and was very successful. I liked Coach McLeary a lot but I never got a chance to be very close to him. One big regret that I have from my college experience is not doing more to forge a relationship with him. I really believe he is a great man and I would have benefited from knowing him better. After football Coach McLeary has made a very big contribution to the Jackson, Tennessee community by serving as a congressman and making a difference for the people in his district. We live and we learn, right? If I could go back and be 18 again I don’t think I could be stopped! I guess we all feel that way. Youth is wasted on the young, right?
I spent one year at UT Martin. I didn’t fit in, I didn’t have very many friends, I was bullied and hazed constantly by a group of older players who were infamously known as the “piss pacers”, and I was homesick. I sound like a real sissy, don’t I? I was the third string quarterback, not bad for a freshman, and I actually played really well in practices and scrimmages in the pre-season. I was the fastest QB on the team and I impressed the coaches with my toughness and ability to stand in the pocket and deliver a throw while being hit. But, once the regular season started I was relegated to only a few reps per week with the offense during the team sessions. I did get to dress for every game and travel for every game. So, I must have been doing something right!
Most of my work in practice after the regular season got going was during QB drills and with the offensive line. There was a period everyday in practice where I would go and work behind the offensive line. I would take snaps and hand-off to the third string running back as the line executed their run blocking schemes against a scout defense. It was an interesting ten minutes for me everyday because of the offensive line coach, Denver Johnson. Coach Johnson was one of the largest and meanest human beings that I have ever encountered. He stood 6’7 and weighed 310 pounds. He had played pro football for five years on the offensive line for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and then for a few USFL teams. He made it abundantly clear to me on day one that he did not like little sissy quarterbacks like myself. He said, “Brantley, there are two kinds of people in this world. Milk and cookie guys and bourbon and coke guys. I love bourbon and coke guys. Brantley, you are a milk and cookie guy.” He also told me that if I ever fumbled a snap or messed up a hand-off in his drill that he would, “rip off my head off” and do other unpleasant things to me! He would even chew me out on the sideline during games for taking up space! He tried to insult me on a daily basis because I didn’t drink or cuss or have any tattoos and the offensive linemen would get a good laugh at my expense. Coach Johnson was a bully and a jerk, and I was convinced that he hated me, but, for some reason I really liked him. I thought he was one of the most genuine and honest coaches that I encountered on the college level. I have always liked offensive line coaches and he was THE offensive line coach. There is just something genuine about them that I admire and the offensive line group is the purest and most important on the team. I am thankful that I got to play for him even though it was just for one season. I think about him almost everyday, he impacted my life in a positive way.
Denver Johnson OL Coach UTM
My quarterback coach at UT Martin was Todd Berry. He was a good family man, he was young, and he was smart. He taught me a lot about playing quarterback and a lot about coverages. He is one of the main reasons that I decided to become a coach so I am really thankful for him. I saw a lot of myself in him. He left after my freshman year to become the wide receiver’s coach at Mississippi State. When he left that was probably the final nail in the coffin for me. I didn’t have a lot of reasons to stay after Coach Berry told us he was leaving. Coach Berry has had a ton of success in the football world. He has been a Division I head coach and offensive coordinator at multiple schools and also served as the president of the American Football Coaches Association. I have enjoyed following his career and he has had a huge impact on the game!
Todd Berry, President AFCA
I left high school very confident in myself but I came home after that one year at UT Martin unsure of myself and who I was. I listened to lies that the enemy planted in my head and it hurt me. I felt like a failure for a long time for not sticking it out and transferring. It was in my head that I was “soft” and “a loser” for getting homesick. It was also really hard on me to be a backup player and having the feeling of not really being valued as a player or person by the coaches and the “piss pacers”. I don’t think I ever regained my confidence as a football player after that year. I know that paints a bad picture of UT Martin, but that is not my intention. I take full responsibility. I should have been more mature and tougher. Like I said, I was a sissy quarterback! Keep in mind that I was also a kid, a young freshman, and I had a lot of faults. I hold no ill will and I try to only focus on the good times now.
I do have some really good memories of UTM. My first time on a plane was flying to a game in Texas and I got to go to a lot of places that I had never been to up until that time in my life. I had never been to Kentucky or Texas so those road games were special. We also played against Samford in Birmingham who was coached by Terry Bowden and Jimbo Fisher was a part of his staff. Five years later those two would lead Auburn to an undefeated season. We won the Gulf South Conference Championship that season, made the DII play-offs and played on ESPN! I did form some good relationships. There were some great people there. Leon Reed, Earnest Jackson, Emmanuel McNeil, John Burch, Mark Guy, John Denton, Chris Langley, Anton Duke, Joe Robinnette, and Joey Elmore were great friends and teammates. I can still hear “Big” Sam Dudley saying, “Brantley, you ain’t nothin nice” or “good luggage” after I would throw a good pass in practice or make a jump shot in a pick up basketball game. I have no idea what he was saying but he was hilarious! I have great memories of them and I appreciate the impact that they had on my life during a really tough time.
I knew for sure that I was not going to return to UT Martin for my sophomore year even though we had gone 11-2 and won the Gulf South Conference Championship the year before. It was just a bad place for me. But, I felt like I wanted to try and continue to play college football somewhere. I’m not sure I really even thought that I had an option not to, I think I felt expected to play. I think my family expected it, my high school coaches expected it, and I expected it. So, I really didn’t have a choice did I? I used to have bad dreams about it and I still will every now and again. I remember walking across campus at UTM and thinking to myself how it would be so great to just be a normal student. Then I would remind myself that I had no choice. I had to play football. I seriously considered going to Alabama and walking on, but because my confidence level was so low I didn’t really look around for the right school. Isn’t that weird, I would go from thinking about how nice it would be just to go to school and hang out with friends because I wasn’t enjoying playing football to thinking I would walk on at a place like Alabama. I was confused and I needed leadership and guidance. Eventually, I just chose to go to a college in my hometown. Lambuth University.
Honestly, I can’t say that football was that much better at Lambuth for me as a player, I started at QB off and on for three years. I had a few really big games and we won a lot of those but mostly I played pretty average. As I mentioned earlier, my expectation level for myself was just too high.
I have learned in my life that forgiveness is a powerful thing. Forgiving others and forgiving yourself can determine a whole lot about your attitude and how you feel about your life and other people. Christ died for us and forgives us for all of our shortcomings. We are also commanded to forgive others. The blood of Christ covers it all. It took me a long time to forgive myself for not having an all-American football career in college. I know that might sound crazy to you but when your identity is in being a football player it can kill you if you think that you are not meeting expectations. I had to find my identity in Christ. He gives me joy and a peace that passes all understanding. Mostly, now, I just want my former teammates and coaches to think of me as a good man.
Me and my Grandmother (Martha Wyatt) after a Lambuth game.