In the heat of early August, most college football teams are preparing for the upcoming season in fall camp.
The Tennessee football team began theirs on Aug. 2, but they worked on one of the most important components of any season long before that.
Some traveled to other continents, others took shots at each other in paintball and all went to the movies. There were some football lessons learned along the way, but most importantly there was bonding.
Bonding is one of the most crucial elements to any successful football team. When you’re in the heat of a game in the rugged SEC, competing against some of the best teams in the country, it’s that element of teamwork that can go a long way in deciding victory or defeat.
On Wednesday, as the fall semester began just ten days before the Vols season opener versus Georgia State, Tennessee players talked about their summer and how they hope those moments spent together translate on the field in the coming weeks.
Defensive lineman Matthew Butler was one of three football players and several other UT athletes to travel to Africa over the summer. He was joined by teammates Josh Palmer and Cheyenne Labruzza.
The trip was part of the Vol Leaders Academy and is designed to help athletes develop leadership abilities on and off the field. More than 15 student athletes across all sports, including Butler, Palmer and Labruzza, traveled to Rwanda.
According to Butler, taking part in the trip gave him experiences that he has used throughout fall camp and will use during the Vols’ 2019 season.
“It was an awesome experience,” Butler said. “Going to a different continent, a different country and learning how other people live. It’s not really so much different than America. And then, when you think about it, when you’re there you think about ‘how can I be a better football player?
"Looking at all of those things, it’s making me a better person, a better leader and a better football player.”
With all of those life-changing experiences around them, Butler and his teammates used whatever down time they had to work on their game. There may not have been any pad, helmets or coaches around, but the three had their cleats on hand and when the opportunity presented itself, they worked.
“The main purpose of going over there was leadership through sports,” Butler said. “There’s a lot of different programs and organizations to bring sports into that country, so we tried to make an impact there. Anytime me, Josh (Palmer) and Cheyenne (Labruzza) saw an open field, we had our cleats and we went to work.”
Back in Knoxville, the team and coaching staff found other activities to strengthen off-the-field relationships. They did it through shooting paintballs at each other.
Normally, the practice field adjacent to the Anderson Athletic Training Center is used for grueling practices meant to perfect the game and build character. But back on May 20 it was littered with obstacles in place of tackling sleds.
Senior defensive back Nigel Warrior wasn’t on campus for the infamous paintball war, but he heard plenty about it afterwards when he invited fellow players over to hang out. It was the simple things, such as hanging out and team movie nights that served as another way for Warrior to get to know his fellow teammates better.
“I didn’t get to play paintball,” Warrior said. “I sometimes had my guys come over and kick it with me and it built a bigger bond. We got to talk about stuff that was just between us and we got to feel each other out.
“We went to the movies the other day, we watched a good movie. I didn’t play paintball, but I did get to see Pruitt get shot.”
The relationships built both at home and abroad have already helped the Vols during fall camp and their preparation for the season. For Warrior, those offseason activities have lead to better communication on the field.
“It does take a little time,” Warrior said about understanding football concepts. “Some people grasp things faster than others and some don’t. That’s why there’s eleven of us on the field. You play with the man you go to war with, that’s my brother.”