Al Wilson HoF induction speech is a vintage 1998 Vols
It was a special night for Tennessee football as the leader of the 1998 national championship team was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. Al Wilson was the only superstar on this team and finally got his due.
The only two people who have truly received individual recognition from this team are Wilson and Phillip Fulmer, the head coach that year. Wilson was the only All-American on the 1998 Flights, Fulmer was named Coach of the Year, and both are now in the Hall of Fame.
However, when the legendary Tennessee football linebacker spoke on Tuesday ahead of his induction, he summed up perfectly what made this team so great. Wilson stressed that his recognition is a team award, and he gave everyone credit.
– Football Foundation (@NFFNetwork) December 7, 2021
Okay, that seems cliché to do. However, if you know the history of the 1998 squad, it was that very mentality that led them to win the national title. Of course, Wilson was the leader, but he was one of many players who stepped up to fill the major voids left by the 1997 SEC Championship squad.
After 1997, the Vols lost a ton of talent, most notably quarterback Peyton Manning. They also lost Manning’s favorite receiver Marcus Nash, who at the time set the one-season record for receiving yards on Rocky Top. The Trey Teague departure center was also lost.
On defense, the notable loss was Leonard Little, who was another All-American like Manning and considered that side of the ball to be the greatest UT player since Reggie White. Jonathan Brown, who missed a sack and a half sacks to tie White’s one-season sack record, was also lost, as was veteran defensive back Terry Fair.
Put simply, the team lost a ton of star power, and they entered 1998 with a non-star mentality. There was a lot of talent, and there were also a lot of notable stars. However, they all came in with something to prove because of all the talk about everyone they lost.
With the season seen as a year of rebuilding, Tennessee football entered No. 10, and it only returned to proven superstar Jamal Lewis, who was an All-American freshman in 1997. At the start, it seemed like new stars were emerging, and Wilson was one of them. He forced three fumbles against the Florida Gators.
Peerless Price was becoming a go-to receiver and became the greatest offensive playmaker in school history. Jeff Hall became the most eye-catching kicker in school history. However, they had to take a starless approach when Wilson got punched early and then Lewis suffered a season-ending injury against the Auburn Tigers.
That’s when Tee Martin finally stepped out of Manning’s shadow and proved he can carry the team without Lewis. It was not without help, however, as Travis Henry and Travis Stephens emerged back.
Price, Martin, Hall, Henry and Wilson broke no statistical records. What they did, however, was either have some extremely memorable games to lead their team to a win or consistently make games that changed the game.
A national championship was the result of this starless approach. Wilson may get the credit, but Tennessee football really did it as a team. Sure, it was a team full of NFL talent, but no one wanted to stand out from the crowd, and that was the difference.