Mills honored as UT football alum

By Lesley Hughes
star staff

  It has been a few years since Johnny Mills stepped foot on Shields-Watkins Field at Neyland Stadium at the University of Tennessee, but when he participated in the Letterman's reunion a few weeks ago, the memories came flooding back.
  The Lettermen's Reunion was held during the first game of the season versus UNLV. Mills described participating in the weekend long event as a "wonderful and thrilling experience."
  Over 400 past lettermen converged on their old stomping ground to tailgate party, be recognized during half-time, and to march through the campus in the Vol Walk.
  He called it a "wonderful and thrilling experience." The entire weekend quickly passed by with dinners, receptions, and mingling with long lost teammates. Entering Neyland Stadium and running onto Shields-Watkins Field is nothing new for Mills, but as a player he didn't hear the crowds' cheers or the band's third repetition of "Rocky Top." He occupied his mind with the job ahead of him -- playing football -- that's what he did best.
  During the weekend he did get to participate in a newly started tradition -- The Vol Walk. Walking through UT's campus among 10,000 fans during the Vol Walk was thrilling enough to evoke emotions that Mills had never felt before.
  "It was one of the most exciting things that I have ever done. When you walk from the dressing room to the stadium amidst thousands and thousands of people clapping and cheering, taking pictures and taking video, it will thrill you emotionally.
  "When I went there and played in the 1960s, we walked from the dorm to the dressing room and there would be a few people out there three hours before the game time. But it is not nearly exciting as when you have got 10,000 people out in the street saying 'let's go get them.'
  "I was walking with Dewey Warren and I told Dewey 'Man I am pumped up. Let's go out there and I think we can play one series. Let's go out and play three down and outs and then go home.'
  "We were ready to play. It would have been motivating back in those days. But that is just the way the game has changed. It has become a Vol tradition. I was glad that I could do it once in my life."
  As for returning to Shields-Watkins Field, walking out on the plush green grass and checkerboard end-zone after almost 40 years, he said, "There is nothing like the thrill of being on Shields-Watkin Field in Neyland Stadium with the largest crowd in the history of the University of Tennessee football program standing, cheering. The lights were on. The band was playing. That will stir your soul. It was absolutely a soul stirring experience. So many emotions, so many memories come rushing back when you're out there on that field in that situation. All those people clapping and cheering as you were introduced. I felt like they were saying, 'Thanks for what you did,'" he reminisced.
  1970s style retro jerseys were given to the lettermen, but Mills said his original jersey is more retro because he never had his name printed on the back. No. 85 is now framed along with one of his original game jerseys from the 1960s.
  The beloved anthem of UT football, "Rocky Top," doesn't mean the same for the players as it does for the fans, according to Mills.
  "It has more significance on the Vol walk. When you're walking to the game, you are aware of what's going on around you -- the music, the people, 'Rocky Top' and the shakers. Once they turn the lights on and you start the game, as a player you're not aware of hardly anything going on in the stands. You are totally focused on what's going on on the field, what your assignment is, and how you're going to do it," Mills explained.
  "Great athletes don't pay a lot of attention to what's going on around them. They are paying attention to what's going on on the field. I assure you that nobody that plays down there can tell you when they play 'Rocky Top' or how many times they played it during a game," he added.
  "For me personally the four years that I spent playing football at Tennessee were the four years that I felt most alive in my entire life. To be young, to be in a big city -- which I thought Knoxville was a big city -- at the state main school, to be a football player, to be respected, to be looked up to and to be a part of a winning program and a historic tradition that goes back to 1895, those four years were as good as it has ever been in my entire life. The things that we accomplished as a team are important to me today.
  Mills added, "Most of the lessons that I learned about life, I learned from athletics. I am glad I have got an education, but as far as personal relations, how to get along with people, hang in there and go a little bit further than you want to go, a lot of those daily lessons we use in life, I learned from athletics."