Deon Grant knew the importance of the Tennessee-Florida game in 1998.
Both teams were ranked in the top 10, Florida No. 2 and Tennessee No. 6.
It was a game not only with SEC importance but national implications.
“We said this game was going to make our season if we were going to have the opportunity to go all the way or it was going to end right there,’’ said Grant, an All-American safety for the Vols.
“So our mentality was to pull everything out of the tank – whether you had cramps or were injured – whatever it may be. You will not miss this game and you will finish this game.’’
In the second half, Grant made one of the iconic plays in Tennessee history. As a Florida receiver streaked behind the secondary, Grant came out of nowhere to leap from behind and snare a one-handed interception.
It helped spark the Vols to a 20-17 overtime win over the Gators as a home record crowd of 107,653 rocked Neyland Stadium. UT went on to win its first national championship as recognized by AP or UPI since 1951.
“I wasn’t even supposed to be in that area,’’ said Grant, who recorded 14 interceptions during his UT career, tied for fifth all-time. “I was actually on the other side of the field, but I read the quarterback and set him up.’’
Grant said it was a “line drive’’ pass because the defensive back had been beat. “it gave me an opportunity to come over and snag the ball.’’
One-handed interceptions weren’t foreign to Grant, who made them in a routine basis in high school at Augusta, Ga.
“We did a lot of that in high school,’’ Grant said. “We used to see how many one-handed catches I could come down with. It was natural.’’
Grant will be the celebrity guest Friday at the annual Phillip Fulmer Golf Classic at Avalon. The tournament has raised over $1 million for the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Tennessee Valley.
“I’m going to enjoy it,’’ said Grant, who led the nation with nine picks in 1999, including three in one game. “I’m going to soak up every moment like I just got drafted.’’
Is Grant a good golfer?
“I should be a great golfer, seeing as how I worked at the Masters for three or four years in high school,’’ Grant said. “But I don’t get on the golf course as much as I’d like.’’
Grant described his experience of working at the Masters as “unbelievable.’’ Grant said he was there when Tiger Woods won his first Green Jacket, 1997.
“I actually served his table,’’ Grant said.
Grant said he was around wealthy people at the Masters and wanted to make a mark financially so his mother could go to a restaurant or golf event or basketball game and not worry about how much money she was spending.
Grant was able to do that, earning millions in the NFL. He was drafted in the second round by the Carolina Panthers (2000-03) then played for Jacksonville (2004-06), Seattle (2007-09) and the New York Giants (2010-11) where he won a Super Bowl.
Not many players can claim both a national championship and a Super Bowl title.
“The national championship was unbelievable because I know how had it is and you don’t have that many chances to get to the national championship,’’ Grant said.
Beating a power like Florida State with an explosive player like Peter Warrick made the title all the more satisfying, Grant said.
“But you know the Super Bowl, that’s something you work hard for and you finally get that reward that a lot of people just don’t experience,’’ Grant said.
How would Grant compare UT fans to Giants’ fans?
“I love my Giants,’’ he said, “but to be honest with you, there is no comparison. There’s no comparison when you’re talking about 100,000-plus in a stadium versus 67,000 … I don’t even know how much New York fits. It’s no comparison.
“When I finally got drafted by Carolina and played my first game, I was excited to be in an NFL uniform. But I was like, `Is this it?’ because I was so spoiled from college. But the experience of playing in a market like New York, it was unbelievable also.’’
Grant keeps his national championship and Super Bowl rings in a safe place, wearing them only when he makes certain public appearances.
With the NFL draft recently completed, Grant remembered what it was like for him back in 2000.
“It was nail biting because I was projected to go high first-round,’’ Grant said.
“When I was finally called in that second round, I was excited and just ready to get to camp and prove to them that they missed out by waiting until the second round.’’
Big Kahuna Wings: The wings that changed it all