KNOXVILLE - It's unlikely Joseph Ayres will ever have even the vaguest recollection of his first trip to Neyland Stadium to watch a University of Tennessee football game.
"He was less than a year old at the time," said his father, Joe Ayres.
But for the rest of his life he expects to remember gingerly running through the "T" as a UT player for the final time when the Volunteers host Vanderbilt tonight.
"I'm trying not to think about it," said the fifth-year senior who is recovering from September ACL surgery. "It kind of chokes me up."
If UT had a royal family, it might be the Ayres clan. Joseph's great-great-grandfather, Brown Ayres, was the school's 12th president, overseeing the university from 1904 to 1919. UT's landmark building, Ayres Hall, is named in his honor.
There's also an aunt, Kathy St. Clair, who was the Lady Vols' first big-time volleyball player in the mid-1970s.
Throw in the fact that one of Joseph's closest friends is Pat Summitt's son Tyler, and it's easy to see why former McCallie football coach Rick Whitt -- who coached Ayres for the two years he boarded at the Chattanooga school as a junior and senior -- said, "There's obviously history there, but Joseph never flaunted it. It was clearly a dream of his to put on that orange, though."
It was such a dream that Ayres turned down scholarship offers from UT-Chattanooga, Furman and Wofford to walk on at UT prior to Lane Kiffin's only season as head coach in 2009.
"They had an open tryout," Ayres recalled. "A bunch of football players and frat dudes."
Ayres, who weighed less than 230 pounds at the time, was placed in the offensive line before being moved to defense the following year by coach Derek Dooley. Proving the worth of that decision, Ayres played meaningful minutes against both Georgia and Alabama that year, finishing with two assisted tackles against the Tide, including one for a loss, and four total tackles against Memphis.
"He gained 50 pounds -- at least he tried to -- to play on the defensive line," said his mother, Carole. "Then he lost 50 pounds to play tight end."
Indeed, two years later, injuries ravaging the Vols at tight end, Ayres agreed to move to that spot to help the team despite never having played the position. Having once reached 290 on the scales, he's now listed at 6-foot-3, 254 in this season's media guide.
And had fate's foul and fickle finger not intervened seven days from Ayres' 23rd birthday on Sept. 10, he might be starting at tight end against the Commodores. He had risen to No. 1 on the depth chart that week in preparation for Oregon, but he tore his ACL that Tuesday in practice while his parents were in mid-flight to the West Coast.
"We were heartbroken, naturally," Joe Ayres said. "We're just parents supporting our kid."
The kid seems to be doing just fine, all things considered. He rehabs up to three hours a day. He'll limp through the Vol Walk, then slip into UT's smokey gray threads for the jog through the "T." After that, he'll graduate in December, go to work for his father in January on a real estate development and marry Madeline Kay Lamb in May, though Ayres isn't likely to divulge any of that without much prodding.
"Joseph's a man of few words," his mother said.
To illustrate her point, she recalled his recent engagement to Lamb. In announcing the big news, he texted three short words to family and friends: "She said yes."
To which a brother asked, according to their mother, "She said yes to what?"
Yet his deeds always have been impressive, beginning at McCallie, where he drove back and forth from Knoxville every day, four days a week, to participate in the Blue Tornado's voluntary summer workouts.
"Incredible, really," Whitt said. "Joseph always wanted to be a great teammate."
All of these seniors are impressive for the simple fact that they were willing to endure no fewer than two coaching changes to play for the Big Orange. Lose to Vanderbilt and they'll be assured of missing a bowl game for a third straight year and finishing with a losing record for a fourth straight autumn.
"I wish we'd gotten Butch Jones five years ago," Ayres said. "I might never have gotten to play, but we'd be really good now."
Instead, he watched Dooley put him on scholarship and Jones keep him there. He'll finish his career having played in 23 games with one career start -- at Georgia as a redshirt freshman.
"It's definitely gone by faster than I thought it would," he said. "It seems like I was trying out just yesterday. It's all been way more than I expected."
Even if Ayres is quick to joke, "As many times as I've been beaten in the head, it's hard to remember anything," the highlights have been exactly what you might expect -- significant action against Georgia and Alabama, news that he would start at Oregon just before his injury, catching passes from Peyton Manning this past summer, which Ayres termed "surreal."
Yet for his parents, it's becoming all too real.
"I think I'm going to be a wreck, and Joe's handling it worse than me," Carole said.
"It's going to be very emotional," added Joe, who once sold Cokes and game programs at Neyland Stadium as a child.
But it was something else Joe Ayres mentioned that surely will be seconded by many a parent of this resilient senior class.
"Regarding his time at UT, I'm most proud of his work ethic and his compassion for other people," he said of his son. "But I've been proud of him every day of his life. And now he's a Vol for life."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com