I wanted to grow up,” Robert Meachem says of his decision to leave his home in Oklahoma and suit up as a Vol.
“I found myself real quick. I could’ve went to the University of Tulsa, and still be homesick, see what I’m saying? You could go to your hometown and still be homesick. You’ve got to adjust to it. If you’re willing to adjust to it, willing to believe in God and believe that he’s helping you….” He pauses. Then he quickly changes his line of thought: “I wanted to be able to blame myself. So, at times, I was like, ‘Do I really want to be here?’”
Meachem first asked himself that question back in ’03, after being redshirted when a preseason knee injury forced him onto the operating table in early August.
“As I was going through that knee surgery,” he remembers, “I thought that I didn’t want to be here. But as you start to play, feel that excitement, feel everything… I knew that I made the right decision.”
In 2004, Meachem was back, feeling mentally and physically prepared, bringing enough muscle to lead the team in receiving yards (459) and yards per catch (18.4). With four touchdowns, one in the Cotton Bowl after a 17-yard completion, he proved his worth to both the coaches and himself.
“My mom said that, in the real world, nobody’s gonna give you nothing,” Meachem says. “You have to earn it. So, all my life, my mom’s been telling me, ‘You got to earn it.’ I came down here, because I knew I had to earn it. I knew Tennessee was known for Wide Receiver U.”
And, when he scored a touchdown on his first career reception against Notre Dame, Vol fans started dreaming big. And so did Meachem.
Then, in ’05, he found his way into a starting position twice. His season started out well enough. He showed promise on special teams, too, returning a kick for 15 yards against UAB.
Caught a pair of passes against Florida, in The Swamp, no problem. Brought in six passes during the comeback against LSU.
But it wasn’t totally positive. Sometimes, 29 catches just aren’t good enough, because the ones that just roll off the finger tips, the ones that just barely scrape the ground, can have a larger psychological impact. When the team finished its season 5-6, fans were remembering the incompletions, and they wondered what could have been. The Vols purged coaches Randy Sanders, Pat Washington and Jimmy Rae Stephens. And Meachem still wonders what could have been.
He ended the season with 383 receiving yards and two touchdowns, admirable numbers for a sophomore in the SEC. For Meachem, however, it wasn’t good enough.
"Get lined up!” wide receivers’ coach Trooper Taylor roars.
There’s a kind of primitive beauty inside Neyland Stadium, especially during a scrimmage, when you can hear the coaches’ criticisms echoing into the stands. Only a handful of diehard fans and reporters litter the stadium, playing the game of talent scouting.
“Watch the pick! Watch! The! Pick!” comes a scream, cracking into a high-pitched yawp, adding rhetorical emphasis and exigency. And so it goes:
Back it up. Go, go, go. Behind the numbers! Back up! We don’t need to tell you guys again! Not one yard up! Hut! Hut! Hut! Line up! Eight up! Move, move! Rip! Rip! Set… Cover it! Cover it! Over! 20! 43— 43! Back it up! Ball, ball, ball! Meachem! Meachem! Hey, way to be into it. Be aggressive.
Up in the skyboxes, the football bourgeoisie are like gargoyles, stoically watching through binoculars, perched above the unfolding mayhem that’s kept in check with harsh, lionesque authority. On the sideline, Coach Taylor surveys his players, sagely silent. Around him the sounds ring independently, eventually coming together——fade out to pure noise, then silence.
“Coach Taylor brings a lot of excitement,” Meachem says. “He demands the best. To me he’s like a father away from home. He probably gets on me different than he gets on a lot of guys. He looks at me like a son. So, if I was to run the wrong route or something, it would be a different kind of chewing-me-out. He chews everybody out. But, some guys, you can tell he chews them out in a different way. He expects the best out of you at all times.
“He wants you to be a perfect player, but he knows that nobody’s perfect. He just wants you to try to be perfect.”
For the past two seasons, Coach Taylor was prepping the tailbacks for hard-hitting, smashmouth football. Before that, in ’01, Taylor coached the New Orleans Saints’ stud wide-outs Adrian Burnette, Kerwin Cook and Terrell Harris. Prior to coming to UT, he’d had two great seasons as receivers’ coach at Tulane.
“At my school, Booker T. Washington [in Tulsa, Okla.], we didn’t have a receiver coach,” Meachem says. “We had great athletes, but no receiver coach. I wanted to learn to be the best receiver I can be. I knew that if I came down here, I’d have to grow up faster, to mature.”
Meachem wanted to get out of his home state, to come into his own completely on his own. With Coach Taylor, he feels as if he’s been able to grow into the player he’s always wanted to become. It’s a father-son relationship that goes beyond the football field, into Meachem’s mind. There, amid all the criticism and great expectations, player and coach look for peace.
“I love Michael Jordan,” Meachem goes on, “and everybody’ll tell you I wear all his shoes, and Coach Trooper said, ‘What does Michael Jordan do so good?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘He slows the game down.’ In Jordan’s mind, the game’s going slow, but to everybody else, he’s going fast. It’s not that he’s slowing down, he’s making the game slow down, making everything slow motion to himself, ’cause he did everything to prepare himself for the game. I’m trying to see that, trying to prepare myself to slow the game down.”
To prepare his mind, Meachem says he listens to some old-school classics. Groups like Earth Wind & Fire and P-Funk, as well as Marvin Gaye and Sam Cook, are the tunes that clear his head. Neyland Stadium may seem like a strange place for inward meditation, but for Meachem, it seems to work.
“A lot of times, when you got a big game like Florida or something, and you get so excited, and you get in the game, the first play you be so tired ’cause you be so amped up,” he explains. “I just try to calm myself down. I read the Bible. I read a little scripture at times. Pray. Listen to some of the guys crack jokes. Stretch. Go through the game in my head about 10, 20 times. Think about everything that can go wrong, everything that can happen. Like, when something goes wrong, how you gonna adjust to it? How you gonna bounce back? Think about things that make you love the game. I ask myself, ‘Why do you play this game?’ ‘What helps you play this game?’ and ‘Who helps you?’ Things like that.”
Coach Fulmer expects great things out of his receiving corps, especially after the last scrimmage, in which both Meachem and senior wide-out Jayson Swain reeled in some acrobatic catches. “We got some bumps and bruises, but everyone will be back,” Fulmer says. “There’s a hump that they got to get over. [The younger receivers] went in with a completely different demeanor, showing us that they belong in that mix. Lucas [Taylor], [Quintin] Hancock, [Josh] Briscoe. I’d say Hancock has pushed himself above Briscoe. It’s still a matter of him being a freshman, and getting him in spots that he needs to get into. They can ad lib and make some plays, but you can’t really do that against a good defense.”
“A lot of people say we have a lot of pressure,” Meachem adds. “A lot of people say we’re not going to be good. A lot of people say a lot of things. In life, people are going to say things about you. If you worry what other people are saying, then you’re living for everybody else. We have to live for us, and we have to believe in each other. We have to believe in God. We have to believe in everything the coaches say to us, and—believe that we can make the plays at the time that we need to make them.
“No disrespect to our fans, because we expect them to want us to be winners at all times, but we have to get together and bond as a team, to know each other as one again, like we were in ’04…. We gave all the pressure to God. He just wants us to have fun. Who knows what’ll happen.”
There are always fervent fans, those who call into the Halls Salvage Sports Source and predict a 47-21 UT victory over California, with over 300 passing yards and at least one runningback topping 100 yards. But, as the Vols try to put last season behind them, Meachem always hears Coach Taylor’s mantra— calm down, have fun —as the Vols try to come together as a team and shake off last year’s critiques.
Meachem sums things up very simply, saying: “We don’t have a choice.”