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Appreciating Justin Worley

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Have you ever heard of a Gratitude Jar? It’s a mason jar with a slot knifed into its lid just wide enough to accommodate an index card folded in half. You put that bad boy on your kitchen counter, and any time someone in your family thinks of something they’re thankful for, they write it down and pop it in the jar. Then, on Thanksgiving, you open it up and read what everyone’s thankful for.

Each November it’s my intention to implement a Gratitude Jar for my family. I think it’d be such a positive, cool experience to read those cards to my favorite people in the world on my favorite holiday of the year. But each November, for whatever reason, I never seem to get it going. Which means as of right now, there is no Gratitude Jar in the Osborne kitchen. But if there were, I’d grab me an index card and write down the following:

Justin Worley

Because I’m thankful for him. And with the official announcement that he’ll be undergoing season-ending surgery, now’s the perfect time to let folks know about it.

I know. We’ve moved on to Joshua Dobbs. We’re ranting and raving about the kid and justifiably so. Under his leadership, the Vols look like a brand new team. One that stands a very real chance of going bowling for the first time since 2010. But Team 118 wouldn’t be in that position were it not for Justin Worley.

I’m not a reporter. But the RTI boys are. And I take great pride in how accurate their assessments have proven to be. When Justin Worley was named the starter, they all understood why. It was evident to them that at that point, Worley gave the Vols the best chance to win. And Vol Nation saw that live and in living color against Utah State.

It’s easy to take that game for granted now, but let’s not forget that Utah State was the sexy upset pick around the nation in week one. And sexy upset picks are sexy for a reason, you know. They often hit. Yeah, that season opener was a real test, but thanks to Worley, the Vols passed easily. His strong play continued through to Arkansas State, and the ensuing 2-0 record got this team ahead of the chains when it came to reaching their most critical goal — earning a bowl berth.

But it wasn’t just his performance on the field that gave UT the best chance to win early in the 2014 campaign. It was his performance off of it as well. Coming into the season, everyone knew the o-line was an area of concern. But Worley tried to diffuse the situation way back in the preseason with quotes like this one:

“Y’all are saying brand new offensive line, but a lot of these guys have been here for two or three years. It’s not necessarily a brand new line, it’s just new guys that are going to be playing. They’ve been in the system so they know what’s expected of them.”

And while that may be easy to say before you’ve taken a hit, Worley’s tone didn’t change one iota after he got assaulted in Norman.

“I’ll definitely be sore tomorrow, I’m sure. Yeah, I got hit a lot. I was able to get back up though and keep fighting. Our offensive line did a good job. They knew they had a tough test in front of them with the size of those guys… I’m proud of them. They did a good job.”

And let’s not forget about the Georgia game, which, statistically, was among the best game of his Tennessee career. But it wasn’t the results that impressed me most. It was the toughness with which he played. It was how he composed himself during those critical, late-game scoring drives. It may not have been enough to get the Vols the W, but it was plenty to get Vol Nation revved up for the good things which seemed to be coming.

But that’s when the fairy tale script began to turn a bit. Because Florida wasn’t Worley’s best outing. He struggled down in Oxford as well.

And suddenly the unlikely hero morphed into a whipping post. But I’ve always been reticent to heap a bunch of criticism on the kid. He stepped under center during two of the most challenging years in the history of Tennessee football. The ones the Volunteers spent trying to escape rock bottom.

And it’s the decline in the program that’s made these past few falls more difficult to take than the ones back in the day. But that doesn’t matter all that much to me. Because fall is still my favorite season. And college football is still my favorite sport. And Thanksgiving is still my favorite holiday.

So it only makes sense for me to take a second this fall to push pause on the college football season to give my thanks for the job that No. 14 did.

Because Tennessee wouldn’t be where it is right now had Justin Worley (a) not come out of the gates so hard, (b) maintained his composure during impossible situations of OU and UGA and (c) showed everyone what toughness, sportsmanship and teamwork looked like. On the field, sure, but even more notably off of it. When he repeatedly commended the line that let him down time and time again. The very one that would end his college career prematurely.

We can talk about Xes and Oes all day long. And we can talk about mobility, accuracy down the field and maybe even limited ceilings if you want. But what you can’t talk about all day long is what it’s like to lead a team an entire state is pulling for. To give your all to make that team better than its limitations should allow. To never complain about those limitations even as they negatively impact your play. What you can’t talk about all day long is what it’s like to be a man.

That’s something you gotta show. Like Justin has all year. And that’s what I’ll remember most when I reflect on his playing days. That he showed everyone what it’s like to be a man.

You know, I think I’ll finally bust out that Gratitude Jar when I get home tonight, then drop Justin’s name in there. As a token of my appreciation.

The kids will love that one. He’s one of their very favorites.

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