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Tennessee Football: Vol C Cooper Mays has aspirations beyond the O-line

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Tennessee center Cooper Mays can snap a football. He can block an SEC defensive tackle. That’s not enough.

Mays isn’t satisfied with being a good – or even great – football player. Entering his final season as a Vol, Mays wants the ultimate honor that the University of Tennessee can bestow. He wants to win the Torchbearer Award. If you’re just a Tennessee sports fan, you may not have heard of it.

Here is the definition of the award per UT’s website:

“The Torchbearer is the highest student honor conferred by the University of Tennessee. Torchbearers are seniors who have served their alma mater with overall excellence. The Torchbearer is awarded for academic achievement and outstanding commitment to others as demonstrated by the student’s various activities and significant contributions to the university and the community. Students chosen for this award embody the Volunteer spirit, displaying initiative and service in the best interests of both the university and their fellow students. Recognition as a Torchbearer reminds all students that those who bear the torch of enlightenment shadow themselves to give light to others.”

In other words, just playing football isn’t nearly enough. Academics matter. So does community service. Mays has excelled at both, especially the latter. Mays was part of a school-sponsored trip to help less fortunate residents in Rwanda last summer. That is certainly a step in the right direction to win the ultimate Volunteer award.

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The first Torchbearers were awarded in 1931. Since then, there have been more than 700 recipients. There have been only two football players earn the award since 1970. Former Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs won the award in 2016. Former Tennessee offensive lineman Trey Smith won the award in 2021. Mays wants to be next.

“I’m just doing everything in my power,” Mays said during the Vol Report. “I think it would be a really special honor. I’m really striving for it.”

Mays may have a bit more insight than the average student as to how to attain UT’s ultimate award. Mays and Smith are tight, so tight that Mays often refers to Smith as a brother. Mays had a chance to spend time with Smith recently. Time spent with Smith is never under-appreciated.

“He’s one of my best friends,” Mays said. “So it’s always good for me personally, but I think it’s good for the program, to have him around…a guy that’s a Torchbearer. There’s not many of those in football history. (He’s a) very special human and a really good guy that comes back and gives back too. I think it’s really good for everybody involved.”

After being drafted in 2021 by the Kansas City Chiefs, Smith already has a championship on his resume thanks to last year’s Super Bowl win over the Philadelphia Eagles. That’s an incredible achievement. So is being named a Torchbearer.

“I think it was something that he tried for,” Mays said. “…Thousands and thousands of football players come through (and only two have won it). That’s pretty crazy, pretty special honor man.”

One that Mays has his sights set on.

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