Mark Wiedmer: UT's Jones clear winner in visit to Orange Grove

Mark Wiedmer: UT's Jones clear winner in visit to Orange Grove

May 8th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

UT coach Butch Jones signs Charles Langston's shirt Tuesday at Orange Grove Center.

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

William Jerry Payne handed his pale orange Tennessee ballcap to new UT football coach Butch Jones with a simple request: "Could you sign this, Coach?"

It's a line Jones has heard thousands of times since he took over the Big Orange program on Dec. 7. But rarely has he heard it with the earnestness of the 57-year-old Payne, who lives at the Orange Grove Center, where Jones was about to address its annual Champions luncheon Tuesday afternoon.

"I love Tennessee football and I love Coach Jones," Payne said as he pulled the signed cap down tight over his graying hair a few seconds later. "I've waited and waited for this."

Asked if he'd keep wearing the cap or put it in a special place, Payne said, "No, I'll wear it. Yes, yes, I will. I'll wear it every day."

Jones probably feels like he's been speaking to one group or another almost every single day since the former University of Cincinnati coach arrived in Knoxvile.

"We had a very passionate fan base in Cincinnati," he said, "but nothing like this. I've probably done triple the appearances here that I would have done with the Bearcats."

But even Jones admitted that speaking to the Orange Grove Center event was different, given the grand work done by the facility the past 60 years in working with the physically and mentally challenged.

"This is what it's all about," he said to a crowd of more than 400. "It's about developing people to reach their full potential."

A year ago, the man Jones replaced -- Derek Dooley -- spoke eloquently at this same event, his passion no doubt fueled by his 19-year-old nephew Matthew, a victim of cerebral palsy.

"Over the years I've noticed how compassionate [Matthew] is," Dooley said. "How caring and unselfish he is. You'd like to see those qualities every day in your own kids, and you don't always."

Amazingly, while the Orange Grove folks trumpeted several former UT coaches who had spoken at the Center, they never mentioned Dooley, despite his stirring talk. If there was a message in that, there shouldn't have been.

Yet there were messages well worth remembering from more than Jones, beginning with Sherry Campbell, whose 35-year-old son Chad has been an Orange Grove client for more than 29 years.

When he was just 10 months old the unthinkable happened to Chad. The family was in a gruesome car crash while returning to Memphis after spending Christmas with relatives in Chattanooga.

The good doctors at Vanderbilt saved his life, but they couldn't keep him from being confined to a wheelchair from that point forward, in constant need of love and care.

"Orange Grove has never focused on what Chad can't do, but what he can do, what makes him smile," his mother said. "Orange Grove has taken Chad from barely surviving to thriving."

You can't compare saving a life to saving a football program. Sports is a diversion. Orange Grove is a daily miracle.

But within its shallow, narrow world, sports often delivers its fans a minor miracle of sorts, an unexpectedly delightful conclusion to a contest that, by any and all odds, should have ended differently.

Such as the 2009 game between Butch Jones' Central Michigan team and Michigan State.

Struggling the whole time against the No. 12 Spartans, his Chippewas pulled within 27-26 with 32 seconds to play. Jones elected to go for the two-point conversion rather than try his luck with overtime. The two-pointer failed.

Weeks before, as CMU was in the middle of training camp, the coach's father passed away. On that final night at the hospital, Jones asked the nurses for the ID bracelet his father had been wearing. He put it in his pocket for good luck, placing it there every day.

After the two-pointer came up short, Jones ordered an onside kick -- "which we practiced every day and it never worked," he related with a smile.

This time it did, however. And a few seconds and two pass plays later, the Chippewas found themselves with a 42-yard field-goal attempt to steal an unlikely win.

"I went up to our kicker on the sideline, and you could tell he was pretty nervous," Jones said. "I pulled out my father's ID bracelet and put it in his hands. I said, 'You kick it and my dad will take care of the rest.'"

Replied kicker Andrew Aguila: "I can do that."

Bending it like Beckham, as the soccer guys say, he did exactly that, coaxing the ball through the uprights for a 29-27 win.

In the indomitable spirit of the Orange Grove Center, that's focusing on what you can do rather than what you can't. That's how you grow smiles by the miles.