KNOXVILLE -- Riley Lovingood thinks his dad Jeff will be the first to shed a tear Saturday afternoon after Riley runs through the "T" for the final time as a member of the Tennessee football team.

Jeff, a former Volunteers chaplain, doesn't disagree.

"My kids make fun of me now as I'm getting a little older, I'm getting more sentimental," Jeff said. "I was pretty tough on them growing up, but I'm a lot more sentimental, so he's probably pretty accurate."

In a sense, it's like life has come full circle for the Lovingood family. Prior to Jeff spending four years on Phillip Fulmer's staff, his brother John served as a student manager under Johnny Majors. Jeff's oldest son, Trevor, served in a similar capacity under both Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley.

Fulmer -- who brought Jeff Lovingood on as chaplain in 1999, where he served until 2002 -- said Jeff was "unbelievable and fantastic with the kids."

"He was very real with the guys," Fulmer said. "He had his faith right out in front in his dealings with them but was a guy that was really honest and up front and a great motivator. He was always excited to be a part of Tennessee football but gave the kids the foundation spiritually that they needed -- a place to be comfortable to talk about lots of different things that come up in young people's lives.

"I don't know if we could have done as well as we did if he doesn't come here."

Now Riley's career is coming to a close after 37 career games as a long snapper for the Vols for coach Butch Jones and now Jeremy Pruitt.

"He's a guy that's already graduated, working on his second degree," Pruitt said this week. "He's a guy that I saw out here last winter during Christmas break when I came up here to work and he's out here snapping into the net every single day. It tells you a little bit about his motivation and how important it is. A guy that does a great job in special teams and to lots of folks is under-appreciated until you have a bad snap, so he's been a fantastic leader in this program and done everything that we've asked of him."

Riley was a Southeastern Conference special teams co-player of the week in 2016 after snapping the ball on a punt and sprinting downfield to down the ball at the Georgia 6-yard line, tracking the ball in the air and catching it on the fly.

That play led to a Derek Barnett sack of Jacob Eason in the end zone that resulted in a Corey Vereen fumble recovery, which put the Vols up 28-24 in an eventual 34-31 win over the Bulldogs.

But Riley's time in Knoxville has been about more than wins, losses and coaching searches. He routinely goes into the Knoxville community and mentors youth as well as furthering his mission of leading youth to Christ.

"The thing with being a follower, you don't deserve anything, but Jesus gives us everything," Riley said. "I don't deserve Tennessee; I don't deserve all the success I've gotten. When everything comes up, I never know how to explain how things happen except Jesus. I've just been going through this time of trying to have perspective with football, because when you get to Tennessee, you get to college football, you think that's what life is, but really, that's not life; that's something we get to do.

"That's something the Lord blesses us with, and there's so much more the Lord has to offer than just being a football player. It's about what does the Lord have in you to be more than a football player, and that's something I've tried to demonstrate here."

Lovingood already has a degree in sport management from Tennessee, and he will add a master's degree in communication with a focus on politics on Dec. 12. Saturday's game against Vanderbilt (3-8, 1-6) will not be his end, as the 6-5 Vols (4-3 SEC) have qualified for a bowl, which will be the third such game for fifth-year seniors such as Lovingood, receiver Jauan Jennings and linebackers Darrell Taylor and Landon Knoll.

To Jeff Lovingood, even better than the on-field success he's witnessed from his son has been seeing how he's grown off the field.

"I'm proud of Riley. I'm proud of all three of my kids," Jeff said, noting that both Trevor and daughter Kelsey, who played tennis at Lee University and now is a physician's assistant in neurosurgery in Arkansas, have been supportive of Riley throughout his career. "They've encouraged him, and Rachel (Jeff's wife) and I have tried to do the same thing. I think for me it's a culmination of a family working together to support somebody going through what you go through as a Division I SEC player.

"I'm proud of him; I'm proud of how he's handled himself on and off the field. I'm proud of how he's handled himself spiritually and how he's matured physically, mentally and spiritually. Those are the things I'm proud of him for."

And after Saturday, life will have come full circle.

Contact Gene Henley at Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.