The first time Edd Cantrell saw Johnny Majors, he couldn’t believe he was a college football recruit. His small stature caught Cantrell by surprise.
“We were going on a recruiting trip to Auburn and we stopped by Johnny’s house to pick him up,” said Cantrell, who served as Warren County High School principal for five years and was an assistant principal for many years before that. “Johnny came out on the porch and he had a T-shirt on and I thought to myself ‘If that boy can play college football, I know I can play college football.’”
Neither Cantrell nor Majors would play a down for Auburn. They both opted for college careers on Rocky Top for the University of Tennessee. They played all four years together for the Vols, going undefeated in the SEC their senior year in 1956 before losing to Baylor in the Sugar Bowl.
Cantrell was upset to learn Mr. Majors died Wednesday at the age of 85.
“He was a good, ole country boy, but he could get the job done,” said Cantrell. “He was one of the stars of the team. He could run the football and he could throw it too. Back in those days, we did a little of everything. He was also our punter. We kept in touch over the years and still talked a couple times a year. We would play golf together at his charity golf tournament in Crossville. It’s really sad to learn he’s died.”
Cantrell and Majors both arrived at UT in 1953. Cantrell played offensive end while Majors played running back and was a focal point in the Vols single-wing attack.
Cantrell would letter all four years at Tennessee. Majors was named SEC Player of the Year twice and finished second in the 1956 Heisman Trophy balloting.
“There’s an old football saying, '4 yards and a cloud of dust,’” said Cantrell. “Well that pretty much described our offense, but it was hard to stop. Nowadays, football players do so much weight lifting, but we never did any of that. All we did was run. We ran to the stadium. We ran under the stadium. We ran around the stadium. The coaches always said the team in the best shape would win the fourth quarter.”
After football, Cantrell went into the education field and may be best known locally as serving as Warren County High School principal for five years in the early to mid-1990s. Majors went on to become a big-time college football coach who finished with a 185-137-10 lifetime record.
Majors led Pittsburgh to a 12-0 season and national championship in 1976.
Majors used that national title as a springboard to return to his alma mater and he coached at Tennessee from 1977-92. He compiled a 116-62-8 record as coach of the Vols and led the team to SEC championships in 1985, 1989 and 1990. Tennessee earned a bowl bid in 11 of his last 12 seasons.
Majors missed the first three games of the 1992 season while recovering from heart bypass surgery. The Vols, coached by offensive coordinator Phillip Fulmer, got off to a 3-0 start. Majors returned for the fourth game, but he was forced out and replaced by Fulmer after Tennessee went 5-3 the rest of the way to finish the regular season with an 8-3 record.
Majors was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987. Tennessee retired his No. 45 jersey in 2012.
“Dynamic on the field. Fierce on the sidelines. Distinguished Tennessean,” Tennessee’s football program tweeted Wednesday. “We mourn the loss of legendary player and coach Johnny Majors — a man who left an indelible mark on Tennessee Football.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.