Forty years ago this summer, I headed off from my Hixson home to Knoxville to attend the University of Tennessee All-Sports Camp.
I had gone to the six-week Baylor Camp as a day camper for a number of years, but I was accepted as a Baylor seventh-grader for the fall of 1972 and was probably ready for a new camp experience.
An older neighborhood boy had previously attended the UT camp, and my mother, Velma Shearer, had apparently talked with his mother about it. So my mother, along with my father, Dr. Wayne Shearer, thought the UT camp might help me get ready for the competitive athletic environment awaiting me at Baylor.
Although going to Baylor Camp had emotionally stretched and matured me, going away to the UT camp for two weeks the first summer and three the next really pushed me out of my comfort zone. As a result, I would be lying if I said I did not get homesick.
We stayed in Gibbs Hall, the athletic dorm near where the Vol Walk begins today before UT football games, and ate all our meals in the basement, where the UT athletes did. Gibbs has since been remodeled greatly.
To this day, I have not forgotten how a counselor or camp employee would walk through the halls sounding an air horn seemingly early in the morning to make us get up for breakfast. A bucket of water on my face would not have been any worse.
Upon waking up, we knew we had a full day ahead of us. The camp was set up so that you could major in one sport and minor in about three others during the course of a week. For example, you might spend two hours taking part in your major sport during the late morning of a typical day and about an hour participating in approximately three other minor sports.
I think my parents wanted me to sign up for football as a major, but I always liked track – and probably thought it might be a little easier on hot summer days – so I signed up for it. But I remember taking football as a minor and getting to tour the Vols’ football locker room below Neyland Stadium, when it was located in the midfield area instead of the end zone.
The UT All-Sports Camp was in the days before the Nike-sponsored and other recruiting-oriented summer camps began, so this camp was strictly for fun. And I don’t think any of the campers were much older than about 14 years old, although I am sure UT, like most colleges, wanted to introduce the school and athletic program to future high school stars.
At the time, Tennessee was a powerhouse in track as well as swimming. They were also competitive in basketball under Ray Mears and had done well in football under Bill Battle. Of course, the camp and entire UT athletic program at the time were geared toward male athletes. Pat Summitt was simply a basketball player and student at UT-Martin named Pat Head.
I never remember seeing many of the head coaches of the sports helping with the camp, although head coach Jim Wright could have helped with baseball. Instead, an assistant would generally coordinate the session. I know that was the case in track and in basketball, when we would practice on the rubber-like court at Stokely Athletics Center.
The person who ran the overall camp was Jeff Gabel, who had been a UT triple jumper in track a short time earlier.
I do remember that basketball coach Ray Mears gave all the campers an inspiring talk one evening, as did former head coach and assistant athletic director Jim McDonald.
And one of the counselors of the camp was basketball player Larry Robinson, an early black athlete at UT. I remember he had a friendly and classy manner, and I recall that I was flattered that he remembered me when I checked in the second summer.
I recall watching him on TV the next school year as the Vols beat Kentucky on the same court where I had taken part in camp activities. I also later saw him trying to play football for the Dallas Cowboys.
Since Gibbs was connected to Stokely, we spent plenty of time there, and I remember seeing all the pictures of the great Vol athletes that lined the walls.
One great UT athlete who was connected to the camp as a counselor one year was former running back Curt Watson, whom I remember as having a self-confident and hard-nosed personality. I recall that he had his bags packed one day, and was given some kind of send-off before heading off to try to make a National Football League team.
I also remember standing by an upper floor window in Gibbs another time, and one of the counselors pointed out that quarterback Condredge Holloway was playing tennis on a court near where the football offices and indoor practice facility are today behind Stokely. We all eyed him as if he were some kind of major celebrity.
Doing all the grueling sports definitely kept me busy, and gave me quite an appetite and helped me sleep well. If I went to a camp like that today, I would probably lose five pounds a week and sleep like a puppy.
At the end of each week, the camp directors would gather all the campers around and present them with a long wooden paddle and subsequent brand marks on the wood if the youngsters had been well behaved or showed leadership. Since I was quiet and stayed out of trouble, I always received one. And I have held on to that paddle for 40 years.
Unfortunately, getting a paddle or brand would result in some initiation behind the scenes, and I remember getting a good-natured paddle or two from my counselor while the other campers in my group enjoyed a good laugh.
Camp officials also gave some kind of special award to the best camper at the end of camp, and I remember that Baylor classmate Ken Royal – who would tragically die in a helicopter training crash in 1988 while with the Marines – was honored with it my second summer. I think he had attended the camp a year before I did and had all kinds of brands. His uncle, Louis Royal, was also the UT tennis coach at the time.
The all-boys camp was also kind of grueling, but I remember surviving it and being glad when the time came to come home. On one occasion, perhaps the first year, my parents brought neighborhood friend Kurt Schmissrauter with them when they came to pick me up.
A few weeks or maybe even days after I returned home from the UT sports camp both summers, I attended the Bill Battle football clinics, which were held at Baylor School in the area around the old Rike Field. Coach Battle and all his assistant coaches made several stops around the state conducting these clinics, I believe.
It was probably a goodwill tour as much as any kind of recruiting event, because I believe most of the campers were in junior high or younger, as was the situation with the all-sports camp.
We would do some drills and also take a few breaks drinking some salty water. Salt water was thought to be the best way to avoid dehydration while exercising during that era.
The most satisfying refreshment time for me was when we would gather in what was then the Baylor wrestling room and drink ice-cold chocolate milk at the end of the final day. I can still visualize enjoying that delicious drink!
I also remember being near the gentlemanly and somewhat soft-spoken Coach Battle one time when assistant Lon Herzburn was standing next to him. Coach Herzburn would tell him the name of a player who was walking toward the coach to say hi. I am not sure if the players were getting ready to join the UT team or were possible high school recruits, but I found interest in observing all of this as a young junior high player dreaming of playing college football.
The two-day clinics would end with drills competition, and then we would all head home having enjoyed the experience of rubbing elbows with college coaches.
Unfortunately for Vol fans, the Bill Battle regime began a decline not long after that, and he would be forced to resign at the end of the 1976 season.
Coach Battle would go on to become a wealthy businessman, and my life would be enriched as well simply from my experiences of being involved as a young camper with the sports camps and clinics of the state’s major university.
And when I enrolled at the University of Georgia in 1978 and came to Neyland Stadium to play in a freshmen football game against UT, I felt as though I had come back home.