ATLANTA - Former Tennessee linebacker Al Wilson scanned the Georgia Dome stands a few minutes before the start of Auburn's Southeastern Conference championship win over South Carolina.
"It was 12 years ago, and it feels like it was yesterday," Wilson said of that 1998 SEC title game between the Volunteers and Mississippi State. "All the memories are still there. That's a year I will never forget."
Perhaps because he was team captain during that Big Orange national championship season, or because the three fumbles he forced against Florida that year remain perhaps the single best defensive effort in school history, Wilson was honored before Saturday evening's SEC title game as UT's "Living Legend" for 2010.
Other notables on this year's 12-man team included former Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch, Arkansas coaching legend Frank Broyles, former Florida and Tennessee Titans defensive lineman Kevin Carter and 1970s Georgia linebacker Ben Zambiasi, whose 467 career tackles remain a school record.
"It's a humbling experience to be considered an SEC legend with the other people on this team," said Wilson, who missed three games because of injury in 1998, but not the 24-14 win over MSU that sent the Vols onto their Fiesta Bowl victory over Florida State.
"To play in this game both my junior and senior years and win both times was an amazing thing. That win over Mississippi State, I just remember us being very focused. State played hard; it was close the whole game. But like every other game that season, we found a way to win."
Wilson played eight NFL seasons with the Denver Broncos, who selected him in the first round of the 1999 draft. He recorded at least 100 tackles in each of his last five seasons with Denver. He was a five-time Pro Bowl selection and two-time All-Pro pick.
Now living in Atlanta where he helps raise his 15-year-old son, Wilson said he still keeps up with many former Vols teammates.
"I talk to them a lot," Wilson said. "We were a very close-knit bunch. I talk to Jamal Lewis, Carl Pickens, Terry Fair, lots of the guys."
Somewhat amazing for a guy who built a career out of jarring hits, Wilson said, "I don't miss the physical part of football. I can live without that. But I do miss being a part of a team, the camaraderie. I miss that a lot."
He apparently hasn't lost his ability to recognize a good football team when he sees it, however.
Asked a few minutes before the SEC title game began to pick a winner, Wilson said, "I think Auburn will take them."
Nearly four hours later, the Tigers did just that, winning 56-17.