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VOL. 43 | NO. 43 | Friday, October 25, 2019

Former Tennessee football players share stories on podcast

By Rhiannon Potkey

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The play-by-play of legendary University of Tennessee radio broadcaster John Ward is combined with stories told by Tennessee players in the “A Host of Volunteers” podcast, three episodes of which are available online.

-- Photo By Matthew Maxey | Icon Sportswire

They all gathered in the basement of Copper Cellar in Knoxville to share a good meal and reminisce about old times.

The former Tennessee football players were invited there by Barry Rice, the senior director of broadcasting for Tennessee Athletics.

Rice wanted to record material for a potential podcast and held a dinner every Tuesday night for a few weeks last fall that included Vols from different eras and teams.

He would set the microphones on the table, begin taping and become enraptured by the conversations.

“If I was lucky, I never had to ask a single question,” Rice says. “They would just start telling their own stories while waiting for dinner, and just kept going. It rarely got quiet.”

Rice collected enough content to create a podcast that debuted this season.

Produced by Vol Network and VFL Films, “A Host of Volunteers” highlights the best of the Tennessee football archives through the words of former players, coaches and legendary broadcaster John Ward.

Rice and co-host Ben Bates splice recent interviews with archived sound from old broadcasts to give listeners a window into history.

Three episodes of the podcast have already dropped this season, with plans to release eight more.

They are available at Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio and other podcast sites.

Rice says will gauge the audience response after the initial 10-episode run before determining if he will produce more seasons.

The first two podcasts focus on the 1977 season when head coach Johnny Majors arrived at Tennessee and began rebuilding the program

“It’s been a pleasure hearing everyone tell the stories and how much love they have for their time playing here,” Rice explains.

“But what I didn’t expect was how much I would learn, because I have been here 30 years. I thought I may have heard every story by now, but I have realized there is so much that I don’t know and I am just now finding out.”

The idea for the podcast took form during the last years of Ward’s life when visitors like Peyton Manning, Phillip Fulmer and Majors would stop by. They would begin telling stories that were never made public.

Rice created a text chain with his colleagues, sending them short clips and funny moments from the conversations.

“At some point, we all said it’s a shame to just have this to share among four guys,” Rice adds. “We thought it would be great if more people could hear it because they would love this stuff.”

UT Letterman’s Club president Chris Wampler helped Rice get in contact with some of the former players for interviews. Wampler, who played for the Vols from 1979-82, admits he had his doubts if the podcast would work.

“There is no bigger Vol fan than Barry Rice and no more passionate person than him about Tennessee football, but I was sort of skeptical because I didn’t know who really would want to hear that,” Wampler says.

“Well, I was wrong. A lot of people want to hear it. Barry is amazing. He really makes you feel like you are there when you are listening to it.”

During Rice’s meeting with the players from the 1971 team, they all told him he had to go find “Blue Max.” Jim Maxwell was the holder on the team until being pressed into duty at quarterback four games into the season.

From fourth-string to starter, Maxwell won seven consecutive games and finished his UT quarterbacking career undefeated.

“I found him in Kingsport, and he was happy to talk,” Rice says. “He gave me some great stories. He is just this unassuming guy. If you saw him you would never know he was the starting quarterback at Tennessee.”

Rice approached each of the team dinners with an open mind, which led to him chronicling the “slugfest” that took place in Florida in 1977 during the second episode.

“I didn’t go in there saying let’s go find out about this fight. They just went there, and the next thing you know it’s the basis for an entire episode,” Rice acknowledges. “There are just some amazing never before heard stories associated with all of this.”

Most of the players and coaches Rice has contacted have been eager to share their memories.

“It’s almost like they have been waiting to tell their stories. Like, ‘where have you been?’” Rice says.

“I am sure they have told them a million times to their families and wives, but they are fresh and new to me and I am there for it.”

Rice’s recent interview with former UT All-American wide receiver Carl Pickens was one that resonated deeply.

“I remembered him being so talented and ready to go to the pros. It almost felt like this place was a steppingstone for his amazingly great career to come,” Rice says.

“But once I sat down to talk with him, one of the first things he says is the three years he spent at Tennessee were the best years of his life.

“That just blew my mind. This is Carl Pickens, an All-Pro wide receiver who went onto greatness and he still looks back at those years as the best of his life.”

Rice carried around his recorder for more than a year, and has drives filled with audio.

The episodes still in the pipeline for this season include Tennessee’s 1985 team, the 1971 and 1972 teams and the worst-to-first conference turnaround of 1988-89.

Although Rice hopes the podcast gives listeners an inside look at Tennessee’s history, one of his main motives is something every loyal Vols fan can appreciate.

“The whole thing is a scam just to figure out how we can get more John Ward play-by-play,” Rice says. “It’s been 40 years since people have heard some of these games, and this gives an opportunity to listen to him again.

“We hope there are a lot of geeks like us who love hearing John Ward. He was the master.”

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