STEPPING UP — My Take: Rising star, declining legend both a product of luck

In the fall of 1994, the Tennessee Volunteers entered the college football season with three viable quarterbacks on their roster — a seasoned senior who had spent five years patiently waiting for his time in the limelight, a pocket-passing, left-handed local product who was also an elite college baseball player and an unproven freshman from New Orleans who inherited the quarterbacking genes from his father.

The Vols were coming off their best season in four years under head coach Phillip Fulmer, a future Hall of Famer entering his second full season in Knoxville. But with former quarterback Heath Shuler having graduated, drafted by the Washington Redskins with the third overall pick, it was time for the senior, Jerry Colquitt, to take the reigns.

Colquitt had a daunting task in the season opener — a matchup with No. 14-ranked UCLA at the Rose Bowl in front of 55,000 fans. And despite five years of waiting, the senior’s season lasted just seven plays. A torn ligament in his left knee ended his time in UT Orange and opened the door for the backup to make a name for himself.

Todd Helton entered the game and played well, but the Vols dropped the opener, 25-23.

Helton went on to lead his team to a primetime win over rival Georgia before falling to the No. 1-ranked Florida Gators at home. Then, against Mississippi State on Sept. 24, Fulmer’s offense took another hit. Like Colquitt, Helton fell victim to a knee injury that would sideline him for the remainder of the season. Fulmer inserted his last option, a 6-foot-5, lengthy freshman, into the game.

Facing a great deal of adversity in pressure-filled football town, the youngster went on to lead the Vols to a 10-9 over No. 17-ranked Washington State in the next game and post a 7-1 record to finish the season.

Down the line in his college career, that third string freshman quarterback went on to become an All-American and a Maxwell, Davey O’Brien and Johnny Unitas award winner. And 5,927 passes, 69,691 yards, 530 touchdowns and 256 NFL games later, Peyton Manning has earned the title of one of the best to ever play the game of football. A legend was born as a product of injury.

In fact, you can argue two legends were born, as Helton, who never took another snap for the Vols, decided it was in his best interest to concentrate on baseball, a choice that would ultimately land him in MLB as a five-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glover and a four-time Silver Slugger Award winner for the Colorado Rockies. His 2519 career hits, 369 home runs, 1406 RBI and .316 career batting average place Helton in the category of borderline Hall of Famer.

But it was Colquitt’s and Helton’s knee injuries that opened the door for Manning. On Monday, Ohio State capped of its season with a National Championship, led by a third string quarterback whose opportunity arose because of two injuries.

Redshirt sophomore Cardale Jones threw for 242 yards, threw for a touchdown and ran for another. A few late turnovers aside, Jones, who stands at 6-foot-5, 250-pounds, an oddly similar frame to Manning, looked like the nation’s top quarterback. After taking over for the injured T.J. Barrett (who took over for Braxton Miller earlier in the season), Jones navigated his team to a 59-0 win over No. 11-ranked Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship, a 42-35 win over Alabama in the College Football Playoff Semi-Final and a 42-20 win over the Ducks, who entered as six-point favorites, in the National Championship.

While no one, player or fan, should ever root for a torn knee ligament or a dislocated shoulder, Manning and Jones have both benefited from two timely and rather unlikely strokes of luck. Jones, with the most impressive three-game resume in the history of college football, has likely secured his spot as the Buckeyes starting quarterback for the next two seasons.

There was talk of Jones even declaring for the NFL Draft, although ESPN reported on Tuesday that the redshirt sophomore said he’s “not ready for that level yet.”

As Manning continues to battle through the twilight of his career, a new face whose rise to success was triggered by similar circumstances looks to become a household name. Then again, to rise to the same quarterbacking pedigree as Manning, it’s going to take more than luck. The key to unlocking greatness is poise, prowess and class.