KNOXVILLE — Like many people in the Smoky Mountain region, Tennessee offensive lineman Brett Kendrick used to make frequent weekend visits to Gatlinburg.
His family used to have a condo near the popular tourist spot, and the Kendricks often made the one-hour drive from Knoxville to the mountain town.
"I went up there a lot, almost every weekend it seemed like," he said Friday afternoon, before he and four teammates attended their graduation ceremony. "We would always go up there and stay at the condo, go play basketball at the rec center downtown. I was up there a lot, with Dollywood and Splash Country and everything, too."
Gatlinburg recently was ravaged by devastating wildfires that damaged about 2,500 buildings and caused 14 deaths in the area in a tragedy that struck a chord with many East Tennesseans, who have rallied together to provide the affected residents and businesses with supplies and support.
The Volunteers have decided to honor Gatlinburg as well.
Tennessee on Friday announced on its program's official Twitter account that the Vols will wear their alternate Smokey Grey jerseys against Nebraska in the Music City Bowl in Nashville on Dec. 30.
Part of the uniform includes a gray helmet designed with the silhouette of the Smoky Mountains.
Cornerback Cameron Sutton, another one of Friday's graduates, said the players discussed wearing the jerseys to honor the victims of the wildfires, but ultimately the decision was made higher up in the program.
"It's amazing," Sutton said. "It's another opportunity to be back out there on the field, but just the lives we impact outside of football, we realize that the game is bigger than us and our purpose and who we do it for and what we do it for. Everyone has their own purpose, but that's a big purpose for us, honoring our state and the people who have supported us for so long.
"Gatlinburg is one of our biggest areas in Tennessee, and all the families that are impacted up in that area, we give our condolences to those families. We try to do everything we can from being on the outside. Those people come week in and week out to come see us play on a Saturday, whatever time the game is, and then they go home.
"I think a lot of people on the outside take those types of things for granted, but that's something that we can't take for granted, because it's bigger than the game."
During the past two years, Tennessee took a break from bowl practices to take a team trip to Gatlinburg, which officially reopened Friday for the first time since the wildfires swept down from the surrounding mountains.
Kendrick joined quarterback Josh Dobbs and members of Tennessee's cheer and dance squads in volunteering and interacting with displaced residents and firefighters last week, and other football players and athletes from other sports have made similar goodwill trips.
The decimation was much more resounding in person.
"Sometimes pictures don't do things justice," Kendrick said. "We were driving through some of the back roads where some of the fires had really affected it. Just seeing people's houses still smoking and seeing all the stuff on the ground and seeing the trees and everything in the woods being dark and being black, you could see where the fire had gone through.
"It was overwhelming a little bit at times. It's terrible to say that it happened so close to us, but I think they've got a lot of support and I think they're going to make it through it."
Tennessee coach Butch Jones earlier this week mentioned the team was looking for a way to honor or support their fellow Tennesseans, and some fans and former players suggested the Vols should wear the special jerseys or find a way to raise funds for the Gatlinburg area.
"I think it's going to be a lot of fun wearing the Greys just to honor the Smoky Mountains," Kendrick said. "We take a trip up there during bowl prep. We always go to Gatlinburg and just go out and have fun and meet some of the people up there. They're great people. When we went up there, we obviously saw how affected everybody was, so we're praying for them.
"This is just something little than we can do to help."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.