published Saturday, February 19th, 2011

Condredge Holloway ahead of his time

Audio clip

Condredge Holloway

The faded television footage begins early in the ESPN documentary "The Color Orange: The Condredge Holloway Story," which airs Sunday at 8 p.m.

It's Sept. 9, 1972, at Georgia Tech's Grant Field, Tennessee all set to open its football season against the Yellow Jackets.

That's when Holloway's historic Big Orange football career officially began. And where—to hear the Southeastern Conference's first black quarterback tell it—this time under center almost ended.

"You just didn't see many black quarterbacks anywhere in college football back then, especially in the South," Holloway said last week. "But you had two starting that day on national TV—me and [Tech's] Eddie McAshan. Now that's high profile."

High profile and high risk.

"I threw a pass into the flat—a pass I knew better than to throw—and it was intercepted," Holloway said. "Everyone in the stadium thought it was going to be returned for a touchdown, but I knew if I didn't catch him I was probably going to be a defensive back the next week."

Amazingly, despite having to run halfway across the field, Holloway brought the defender down 6 yards from the end zone. Tech settled for a field goal. UT ended up winning 34-3, the Volunteers' largest victory margin over the Yellow Jackets to that time.

"Best play of my career," Holloway said with a grin.

Inside Sports Illustrated the next week appeared the following paragraph: "People have yet to see some of the things Condredge Holloway can do," announced [UT coach] Bill Battle after the game, sounding an ominous chord for future opponents.

And it was, of course. By the time his UT career was done at the close of the 1974 season, Holloway—known as the Artful Dodger—had amassed 4,068 total yards, thrown 18 touchdown passes and led the Vols to a 23-9-2 record, which still remains the fifth most wins by any Vols quarterback.

Chesney's hero

But those numbers and that on-field success are far from the only reasons ESPN asked country music star and lifelong Holloway admirer Kenny Chesney to make the documentary airing Sunday.

"We liked Kenny telling the story of his childhood hero," ESPN producer John Dahl told the media earlier this week. "We had this Year of the Quarterback initiative coming up. We had an opening for a documentary, and we had Black History month. ... You learn a lot about somebody that you should know about."

There's much to learn about Holloway. Such as he initially wanted to be a Catholic priest, "until I learned priests can't play professional sports."

You'll also learn that during his 13-year Canadian Football League career, according to a teammate, "Condredge would call plays with blood coming out of his mouth, that's how tough he was."

But most of it understandably focuses on Tennessee and Chesney's sensitive portrait of his favorite Vol.

"Condredge Holloway was the reason I wore No. 7 in high school. Condredge was one of the reasons I love sports, period," said Chesney, who played wide receiver at Knoxville Gibbs, despite being at least an inch or two shorter than Holloway's 5-foot-10.

"When I was in the second grade, they were taking our class picture. Everybody else was dressed the way they should be, but I had this football jersey on that was probably torn because I wanted it to look like Condredge's tearaway jerseys. That's how much he meant to me."

This is how much Chesney now means to Holloway: "Other than a couple of friends back in Huntsville, there's no one else I would trust to do my life story than Kenny."

Multisport star

Ah, Huntsville. Holloway was such an outstanding athlete at Lee High School that before his junior year he received a letter from UCLA basketball coach John Wooden asking him to consider the Bruins, who were in the middle of winning an unprecedented seven straight NCAA titles at that point.

"I still believe basketball was his best sport," said former Lee High basketball coaching great Jerry Dugan. "[UT basketball coach] Ray Mears once told me that if Condredge had played basketball he'd have been an All-American. He could do something most point guards couldn't do back then, and that was shoot. We had a big game one time where he had 30 points by halftime. If they'd had the 3-point line, he would have had 40-something. He was that good."

Holloway's first love was baseball, however, and he was so good at that sport that he was drafted fourth overall by the Montreal Expos and offered a $100,000 signing bonus, a huge sum of money in 1971.

"But his mother Dorothy wanted him to get an education," Battle said, "and we were fortunate that she did."

The Vols also were fortunate that Alabama coach Paul "Bear" Bryant told Holloway the Crimson Tide fan base wasn't yet ready for a black quarterback.

"A lot of people thought I should be mad about that," Holloway said, "but I never looked at it that way. I admired Coach Bryant for being honest with me. He could have told me anything, then moved me to wideout when I got there. But he let me know from the beginning that quarterback wouldn't be open to me."

Bear's loss was Battle's gain, the irony being that Battle was a Birmingham native who'd played for Bryant.

"We never talked about it," Battle said earlier this week. "I'm just glad it worked out in our favor."

SEC pioneer

It does all seem somewhat unbelievable now. Every team in the Southeastern Conference has had at least one black starting quarterback at some point during the past 12 seasons. Tennessee in 1998 (Tee Martin), Florida in 2006 (Chris Leak) and Auburn this past season (Cam Newton) have won national championships with a black leading the way.

But 2011 was not 1971.

"Yeah, I heard things and read things," Holloway said, "even though I think they tried to shield me from them. But that's not important and it's not worth dwelling on. I'm not Martin Luther King. I'm just a former football player who loved his time at Tennessee."

Yet asked if those racial slurs extended from opposing fans to opposing coaches and players, Holloway softly said, "Everybody."

It was apparently different in Tennessee, the SEC's northernmost state except for Kentucky. Even black high school players of that time apparently didn't hear the racial epithets in the Volunteer State that so many of their counterparts farther South endured.

"I've known Condredge since I was in high school. He's one of my closest friends," said Sweetwater, Tenn., native Kippy Brown, the former Tennessee assistant coach and current Seattle Seahawks assistant who starred at quarterback for Memphis in the 1970s.

"Condredge hosted me on my recruiting trip. He was also the reason I didn't go there. I told him, 'Why should I come here and sit behind you?' because I knew I couldn't beat him out."

Brown does question the notion that Holloway's success somehow made it easier for black quarterbacks to find acceptance in the South.

"There's no question that Condredge was a hero for a lot of black kids," he said, "and there's not a finer person anywhere than Condredge, but I don't know that he made it that much easier for me as a quarterback. I always thought the fans judged me a lot more on our wins and losses than the color of my skin."

Still, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit believes a different, harsher standard remains for black quarterbacks.

"There's still a stereotype," he said. "You still hear buzz words like 'athletic' applied to African-American quarterbacks. There's still work to do."

Vick before Vick

But not so much work as then, as witness Michael Vick, who also wears No. 7.

"Oh, if Condredge could play in the NFL today, with the offenses they have now, he'd be devastating," said Jon Gruden, who coached Tampa Bay to its only Super Bowl win. "I was a [graduate assistant] for Johnny Majors at UT when Jimmy Streater was quarterback and we beat Notre Dame, where my dad was an assistant. After the game my dad told me, 'Good thing Condredge wasn't the quarterback or it would have been a lot worse.'"

Asked if he ever sees himself as Vick, Holloway said, "Actually, I see him as being like me, not me being him."

Not everyone focuses on the unfairness of race when recalling Holloway's playing days. Former Vols coach Phillip Fulmer—who returned Holloway to Knoxville as a UT athletic administrator in 1998—often dreams about what would have happened if freshmen had been eligible Holloway's first year on campus, when Fulmer was a senior offensive guard.

"I'll always believe that if he could have played we would have won the national championship," Fulmer said.

There is a final twist to all of this.

"The biggest irony with this documentary is that Kenny grew up wanting to be me and now my son wants to be him," said Holloway, pointing to a photo that showed a then 4-year-old Condredge III (he's now 10) wearing a cowboy hat and singing Chesney's hit song, "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem."

"And that's fine. Last time I checked, [black country singer] Charlie Pride never had a torn ACL, he's healthy and he's rich. Go ahead and sing."

But not many people ever wanted to dress up like Pride in a second-grade class photo.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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ibshame said...

I watched the documentary Sunday Night and it was very interesting. By the way UT never won a National Championship under Peyton Manning but the year after Peyton left they did win one under Tee Martin another Black Quarterback.

February 22, 2011 at 10:53 a.m.
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