In 1998, DE Billy Ratliff made what was arguably the best play in Tennessee football history. He will always be remembered for the “stumble and fumble” that gave the Volunteers a late offensive possession which led to a 28-24 win over the Arkansas Razorbacks. That amazing play notwithstanding, Ratliff faced a myriad of injuries over the course of his career. Injuries that kept him from playing in the NFL. Injuries that shaped the man he is today.
S Fred White remembers the first time he saw Ratliff freshman year. “Billy Ratliff walks on the elevator with his family. I remember when he said his name. I’m sitting there thinking, ‘That’s the linebacker.’ I ain’t never seen no linebacker that big in my life.”
White couldn’t figure out how the 6’4”, 280lb freshman was going to play linebacker. He studied Ratliff at practice. “I am looking to see how this big dude is going to run.” White remembered. “And, let me tell you something… he was like twinkle toes. Fast as all get out. Biggest linebacker I’ve ever seen. And I just remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh my God, when he hits somebody, it’s going to explode.’”
It wasn’t too long before Ratliff tore his ACL. Obviously, he was upset about the injury. But it was another way he reacted to the news that stunned his teammate White. “I remember walking by (the basketball court) and I see somebody in there… and it is Billy Ratliff,” recalled White. “Blowing off some steam because he tore his ACL. Boom! Boom! Windmills. Double hammer. Double tomahawk. I’m like, ‘Hey, didn’t you just tear your ACL?’” Which prompted Ratliff to retort, “Yeah, they tell me I can’t hurt it any worse.”
Being sidelined with injuries and missing out on games could have spiraled Ratliff into a deep depression. But, with the help of his teammates, he was able to turn adversity into motivation. “When I got hurt, it was just me feeling like a failure,” said Ratliff. “But, having guys like Fred… they kept me going. They didn’t let me not have fun. They knew that when I was bored that I tend to just drift off and not want to be around anyone. So, they kept me going.”
Fast-forward to Ratliff’s senior year where he suffered what would be a career-ending injury, a broken ankle with nerve damage. “That’s the one that really broke my spirit.” said Ratliff. “That’s when I said, ‘You know what? I gotta let it go and start thinking about the future.’ Being able to walk ever again. That was just the crushing moment for me. I’ve been paralyzed for 48 hours, and I’ve done so many things and those didn’t bother me as much as my senior year, because it was my last year.”
With his playing career over, Ratliff watched as many of his teammates and friends continued on to the NFL. Rather than lament on loss of that possibility, he chose to live vicariously through those who made it to the pros. “I played through you guys where y’all made it to the league.” Ratliff said. “It was a win for me.”
“And then watching each one of y’all being successful, it made my heart feel good,” Ratliff continued, “That’s what kept me going. I didn’t look back and say what it could have been. I just kept going with you guys. I wasn’t a fan of a team – I was a fan of my teammates.”