The almost surreal bond that Tennessee’s 1998 team shared resulted in a national championship. It also provided a home for one of its most prominent leaders.
Former Tennessee safety Fred White was determined to continue to be a part of the radio landscape in Knoxville in the early 2010’s when the broadcast lineup was shuffled. Formerly a regular host on the New Sentinel Sports Page, that show faded into obscurity before eventually coming to an end. White, however, wasn’t ready to give up.
The former hard-hitting strong safety for the Vols had the knowledge and certainly the presence on the microphone to carry a show. However, there was one missing piece – advertisers.
“There was one thing they never taught me E-Mo,” White said to his former teammate, linebacker Eric Westmoreland, during the first episode of the Celebrate ’98 series presented by Off The Hook Sports. “I didn’t know how to go out and get advertisers. So I started with my own money, which is not a great idea fellas, but I wouldn’t change it for the world because I felt like it changed my life forever.”
Eventually it did. White is a successful Allstate insurance agent and a regular contributor to Off The Hook Sports. However, things weren’t always so grand. In fact, White was homeless as he tried to keep his radio show afloat.
“I got to pay rent or pay the airtime,” White said. “I just said, ‘You know what? I’m not going to tuck my tail.’ So instead of paying rent, I’m going to pay this airtime and bet on myself. So I paid for the time and, sure enough, I got evicted from my place and I was (living) in the studio.”
“I look at it like it was a trial. And I’m happy about it now because when I was going through it, it was tough, but man, I got a chance to be at the studio all day. I really focused on the craft at that moment, trying to figure out information and those type of things. And then I would go to sports bars and just sit there all day and watch ESPN, (but) I didn’t have anywhere to stay.”
White finished up a show one day and planned on sleeping in the studio on a couch. That might have worked. However, the station owner was planning to sell the station, which White wasn’t aware of at the time. All White knew is that there were people there in studio that evening so he had to go somewhere else. After all, he couldn’t be asleep on a couch as inventory was being taken for the pending sale.
So one night, White had an idea. He would ask a convenient store employee if he could catch some Z’s in the parking lot. As it turns out, that convenient store employee recognized White from the radio and from his playing days. The two talked football for a good bit. Then, White asked a manager if he could sleep in his car for just an hour or two. He promised to stay out of the way in the parking lot. The manager mercifully obliged so White fell asleep in his car before someone came knocking.
Former Tennessee tailback Corey Larkins recognized White and knocked on his window.
“I’ll never forget it, because he’s looking at me like, ‘Hey, man, what are you doing? Why are you asleep right here?” White recalled. “I was like, ‘Man. I have nowhere to go.’”
Larkins advice was quick and simple. Call Westmoreland, who had a home nearby while playing for the Cleveland Browns.
“It wasn’t even a thought,” White recalls when he had to ask Westmoreland if he could stay at his home. “It was, ‘Hey man, come to the house. What’s mine is yours. Stay here as long as you want to get back on your feet.”
Said Westmoreland, “Fred knows this – That’s family. Fred is family. When he was going through a tough time, what kind of person or teammate or family member would I be to not lend my hand to him or lend any help to him when I was in a position to?”
Anyone that’s ever spent time around the members of Tennessee’s 1998 national championship team shouldn’t be surprised by Westmoreland’s quick reaction to help his teammate. In fact, there were assuredly countless others that would have given White a helping hand. After all, Westmoreland described White as the “uncle” of the 1998 team, while the fiery linebacker Al Wilson was considered the unquestioned leader. However, pride held White back from asking for help before that fateful knock on his car window.
“Sometimes I can get emotional with stories like that,” said Westmoreland, who is now a football coach at Baylor School in Chattanooga. “You hear from other people that may have been homeless or going through some tough times, but it really hits home when it’s somebody you know that’s down on their luck having some tough times. There are some other friends that (Fred) probably could have called, but he felt embarrassed.”
A temporary home for White helped him get back on his feet. That home was there because of the countless snaps and practices that led to a national title. The championship wasn’t the most important thing Tennessee’s players attained in 1998. The most important thing the Vols achieved was an unbreakable bond, which resulted in a 13-0 season that will never be forgotten.
“I think it was the bond before,” Westmoreland said, “that resulted in the winning.”
And a second chance for Uncle Fred.