Sept. 25, 2013
Commodore History Corner Archive
When former Vanderbilt wide receiver Walter Overton (1971-72, 1974) was considering his choices of colleges to play football, wearing a Commodore jersey was his desire. After all, he grew up with Vanderbilt football in earshot.
"I grew up on 23rd and Charlotte," Overton said recently from his Nashville office. "I could stand on my back porch or look out my kitchen window and see the lights of Vanderbilt Stadium and hear the roar of the crowd. That was fascinating to a 9-10 year old boy. My older brother would listen to football and basketball games announced by Larry Munson on the radio. On basketball games we would keep score of the players, so I copied that from him. That was quite an impression on me growing up close to Vanderbilt."
Overton was an all-state quarterback from Nashville's Pearl High School. Nebraska, Tennessee, Villanova, Western Kentucky, MTSU and others recruited him. Overton chose the Commodores who at the time were coached by Bill Pace (1967-72). Segregation in the SEC had ended, but still there were not a large number of African-Americans in the conference.
Vanderbilt had a transfer walk-on in Jim Hurley (1970) and Taylor Stokes (1971) from Clarksville. Stokes was Vanderbilt's first African-American scholarship football player. Overton said he was the first black quarterback signed in the SEC. He was concerned that his desire to play quarterback in the SEC might not exist due to the situation.
"Most quarterbacks in high school are good athletes," said Overton. "They will recruit you as a quarterback and then switch you. Having grown up around the university and being a little boy trying to sneak around looking through fences, I was very excited I had the opportunity to play football at Vanderbilt.
"Growing up I didn't think I would because of the racial barriers. When it did happen I was very excited. My mom had placed the emphasis on my family getting a college degree; that was very important. Vanderbilt had the rare combination of giving an excellent education as well as playing in the best football conference in the country.
"That's what appealed to me and probably appeals to most football players now that attend or have attended Vanderbilt in the past. But Perry Wallace (1968-70) who was the first black basketball player in the SEC, also mentored me. He and I attended Pearl, but not at the same time. When I was being recruited I leaned heavily on the advice that Perry Wallace gave me."
In this era of college football, freshmen were ineligible for varsity competition. Overton was the starting quarterback for the freshmen squad that played five games, including a victory over the Tennessee frosh. Overton was feeling good about his prospects as the Commodores quarterback of the future.
One obstacle in Overton's path was Watson Brown (1969-70, 1972). Brown was the talented quarterback from Cookeville and led Vanderbilt to an upset win over Alabama as a sophomore.
"Watson Brown hurt his knee that spring," Overton said. "They were still telling me I had an opportunity to play quarterback although Watson was coming back. When spring practice began it was somewhat surprising that the quarterback who backed me up on the freshman team was ahead of me on the spring practice depth chart. I couldn't understand that since I started all five games. I was wondering what that was all about. I was just worried about trying to play and perform on the field. After a few scrimmages I moved back in front of the guy ahead of me.
"Then Coach Pace called me into his office and said he wanted me to switch to wide receiver because Watson was the starter. I understood that. Watson was one heck of a player. No doubt about it. And having a chance to back him up and watch him play would make me happy also. Coach Pace's idea was to get me on the field at some other position where my talents could me utilized and not be wasted on the bench.
"I accepted it with reservations. I was visibly disappointed. I was promised I'd get the opportunity and I did as a freshman, but not at the varsity level. It took me awhile to make the adjustment. Perry [Wallace] certainly helped me to understand where the priorities were. The priority was about getting my education. If football is a vehicle to gain that quality education, then do it. In the long run I accepted it and tried to do the best I could for the team."
In Overton's first varsity season (1971) the Commodores were 4-6-1 (1-5 SEC). Victories came over Chattanooga, Mississippi State, Tulane and Tampa. The pervious year Vanderbilt was 4-7 (1-5 SEC). The speedy Overton would lead the team in average yards per catch with 16.3. He made 12 receptions for 196 yards and one touchdown.
"It was a very exciting time," said Overton. "We were running the veer, which was a popular offense at the time. Alabama and Coach [Paul] Bear Bryant was running it with Johnny Musso. With Alabama having that success, other teams tried to copy it. I was the split receiver or sometimes wingback. I was able to touch the ball a lot. The big highlight was that we beat Mississippi State 49-19 in Starkville and I ran back a punt for 56 yards and a touchdown. It was an enjoyable time other than we did not have a winning season."
Vanderbilt was (3-8, 1-5) in 1972 with wins over Chattanooga, Virginia and William & Mary. During that junior season, Overton carried the ball on reverses to score touchdowns in both the Alabama and Virginia games. His twisting 37-yard TD sprint against the Cavaliers proved to be the winning margin in the Commodores' 10-7 triumph. Overton also snatched 20 passes for 317 yards and two TDs to lead Vanderbilt in all three statistical categories.
"I ended up making the Associated Press All-SEC Second Team that year," Overton said. "Into my sophomore year, where they did get the ball to me as much as possible, I accepted the fact that I would never play quarterback in the NFL. I knew I would be a wide receiver or a specialty player because of my size and speed. I realized that was the best place for me."
After the 1972 season, Pace was replaced as head coach with Steve Sloan. Sloan was a 28-year-old former All-SEC quarterback for Bear Bryant at Alabama. Overton felt it was a positive change.
"I loved it," said Overton. "Steve Sloan and his staff were very energetic. They were innovative with a lot of new wrinkles and plays. It was refreshing. They brought in Bill Parcells as the defensive coordinator. Rex Dockery was the offensive coordinator. In the spring, Coach Sloan told me the offense would be set around me. He featured a lot of things around my skills. Unfortunately, the second week of summer practice I separated my shoulder and missed the entire year. It was very disappointing. He had plays drawn up for me to touch the ball as much as possible."
Overton used a redshirt for 1973 and missed the entire season. With a new head coach and attitude, Vanderbilt was (5-6, 1-5). What would have been Overton's senior year turned out to be a blessing as Vanderbilt was about to make Commodore football history with only its second bowl appearance in the school's existence. Overton was a part of that season, his last as a Commodore.
"It was a blessing," said Overton. "I wouldn't have called it a curse, but I was part of a very good team. I wasn't the focal. Everybody can be selfish and I could have been. But coming back and playing on the team that was 7-3-2 (2-3-1) and beating some people we had not beaten in a long time was great. Being able to play in Vanderbilt's second bowl was definitely the highlight of my career."
The 1974 season was interesting. Wins came over Chattanooga, VMI, Florida (ranked No. 8), Mississippi, Army, Tulane and Louisville. The regular season finale at Dudley Field against Tennessee resulted in a 21-21 tie. The Commodores had an opportunity to win the game late, but Vanderbilt's Barry Burton attempted to run the ball in a punting situation and was stopped short of a first down deep in Vols' territory. The Vols were able to score a last minute TD and two-point conversion to tie the game.
"Punt Barry Punt," said Overton. "It was a tough game. We felt like it was our opportunity to beat UT. We still can't figure out today what was in Barry's mind to run for a first down. All he had to do was punt the ball and I believe we would have been able to stop UT and win the game.
"We had a memorable game against Georgia. We lost 38-31. It was similar to the way Vanderbilt lost to Ole Miss during the first game of this year. It was back and forth each team could not stop the other team. It was just a matter of who had the ball last. Georgia beat us when they had the ball last and scored a touchdown."
Vanderbilt was invited to play in the Peach Bowl at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium. Quarterbacks that season were David Lee and Fred Fisher. That game played on December 28 also resulted in a tie with Texas Tech. The 6-6 contest could only record two field goals each for both teams. Vanderbilt freshman Dennis Harrison was the Defensive Player of the Game.
"It rained that entire game," said Overton. "We couldn't muster a lot of offense. I was open on a deep route; the ball was overthrown and intercepted. We struggled offensively and they did also. The most disappointing thing was Coach Sloan left a few days after that game. There were rumors about him possibly leaving."
Though Overton had played his last college game, he was disappointed that Sloan would leave Vanderbilt for Texas Tech. The Tech coach left the Red Raiders for the open head coaching position at South Carolina.
"Coach Sloan and I had developed a very strong relationship even though I was hurt the year that he arrived," said Overton. "He certainly had the ability to make you feel at ease and confident. I was disappointed that he left and disappointed for Vanderbilt that he left. We still communicate off and on and we've been gone almost 40 years."
Overton did have an opportunity to play in the NFL as an undrafted player.
"I signed as a free agent with the Green Bay Packers as a wide receiver," Overton said. "A former Vanderbilt football player [Buford] "Baby" Ray (1935-37) was a Packers scout. We had tryouts and I ran a 4.4, 40-yard dash. I went to their rookie camp, then to Green Bay in July and made it through a couple of cuts. I was cut before the final cut. It was a very rewarding experience. This was Bart Starr's first year as head coach. John Hadl, the former San Diego quarterback, had been traded to the Packers by then. John Brockington, the former Ohio State running back, was there.
"Zeke Bratkowski was the quarterback coach at that time. I really thought I had a chance to make that team. I had performed well in the scrimmages. They had a veteran crew of receivers; that was the reason Coach Starr told me I was cut. He told me he thought I could play in the league, but it's very difficult to unseat four receivers that had been there a while.
"When I left Green Bay, I came home and received a call from the Birmingham Vulcans in the World Football League. I went down there for a couple of weeks and the league folded (Overton laughing). They did pay for my trip there and a hotel room. Then they gave me a bus ticket back home."
Overton returned to Nashville and earned his law degree from the Nashville School of Law and established himself as a community servant. He practiced law and was a Metro General Sessions probation officer and Criminal Court law clerk/officer. Overton was subsequently a law clerk with the State Office of Professional Responsibility and a probation officer for the State of Tennessee.
Overton was also the Small & Minority Business Coordinator of Metro Government for four years. He joined the Nashville Sports Authority in 2001 as their Executive Director a position he held for five years. Today, Overton is in his seventh year with the Tennessee Titans as General Manager of LP Field.
"It's like a dream working with the Titans," said Overton. "I am a native Nashvillian. I grew up around sports. This is a college town with Vanderbilt, Tennessee State, David Lipscomb and Belmont and then I never had any thoughts that Nashville would have a professional football team. To have the opportunity to work for the Titans as the general manager of LP Field, the stadium where they play, certainly has been a true blessing."
Other community service donated by Overton includes board positions with the Rochelle Center, Our Kids, Urban League of Middle Tennessee, the Middle Tennessee Boy Scouts and the Middle Tennessee Chapter of the National Football Foundation. In 2011, Overton was enshrined into the Metro Schools Sports Hall of Fame. In March 2013, he was inducted into the Metro Schools Hall of Fame as distinguished alumus. Overton and his wife, Laura, have two children, Janean and Jordan.
To stay in physical condition, the 61-year old officiates high school football and basketball games. He joked that, "I can still run up and down the court."
Overton was asked about the importance of his experience as a Vanderbilt student-athlete.
"Very important," said Overton. "I would say that was the most important thing that has happened to me as an individual, not counting my marriage and children, but from a growth and maturity prospective. I think my upbringing really helped me to see beyond what was in front of me. As a family we talked about taking advantages of opportunities. Just try to be the best that you can be regardless. That vision of going to Vanderbilt and getting an education knowing that I am a homegrown kid would certainly have its advantages. To this day it has been an advantage for me being a Vanderbilt graduate."
Traughber's Tidbit: The quote, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing" has been incorrectly credited to former NFL coaching legend Vince Lombardi. Actually Red Sanders, former Vanderbilt football player (1924-26) and Commodores head coach (1940-42, 1946-48), spoke the words. While coaching at UCLA, Sanders said it at a 1950 workshop at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, "Men, I'll be honest. Winning isn't everything." Followed by a long pause, "Men, it's the only thing."
In a 1953 article on Sanders, Los Angeles Herald writer Bud Furillo used the phrase in a subheading. Furillo said that Sanders first used the words to him in 1949 after a UCLA loss to USC. Also in the 1953 John Wayne movie Trouble Along the Way, the phrase is quoted by actress Sherry Jackson's character Carol Williams, who portrayed Wayne's daughter. The Duke played the part of a disgraced college football coach.
Lombardi used the words as early as 1959 at a Green Bay Packers training camp. He said he was misquoted and intended to say "Winning isn't important. The will to win is the only thing."
If you have any comments or suggestions, contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com.