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VOL. 41 | NO. 22 | Friday, June 2, 2017

Former Vol Gault sprints into state Hall of Fame

By John Glennon

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Gault during his playing days at the University of Tennessee.

It was way back in 1980 that John Ward, the University of Tennessee’s legendary former play-by-play man, delivered one of his more memorable lines.

As he watched Willie Gault fly 98 yards to the end zone against Vanderbilt one fall afternoon, Ward calmly told his radio listeners the fleet-footed Gault “has run all the way to the state capitol.”

In truth, the 56-year-old Gault – who will be inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in Nashville on Saturday – still hasn’t stopped running.

More than three decades after he starred in football and track at Tennessee, and more than two decades since he completed a 11-year NFL career, Gault continues to sprint through life.

Just last summer, in fact, Gault set a pair of master’s 55-59-year-old world records in the 100- and 200-meter dash – the same kind of thing he’s been doing for years in previous age groups.

“I just love running,” Gault says by phone recently, still cooling down after a morning workout on the track.

“I’m out here (in Los Angeles) training with a bunch of amazing U.S. Olympians – gold medalists. We’re all running together, so it’s just a great situation. It keeps me young.”

Gault has been a blur to sports fans ever since his freshman year at Tennessee, when his very first catch resulted in a 69-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jimmy Streater.

He continued to show his startling speed as a sophomore, returning three kickoffs for touchdowns, going 100 yards against Pitt, 92 yards against Kentucky and 98 yards against Vanderbilt – the final one leading to Ward’s unforgettable radio line.

“No one I’ve known could outrun Willie,” former Vols football coach Johnny Majors recently told the seccountry.com website.

“Put Willie in a track uniform, or a football uniform, and you could see he had a great physique and made the most of it with that beautiful running style. He could have run with a gallon of water on his head, and it wouldn’t have had a ripple while he was running because he was that smooth.”

Gault would go on to become an All-American for the Vols as a senior, but it was a 52-yard touchdown catch during his junior year – one that helped Tennessee snap an 11-game losing streak to Alabama – that sticks with him.

“Alabama was always good, so it’s easy to remember those games,” Gault says. “I can remember beating them my senior year, too, because I had a 73-yard touchdown against them (in Alabama). They were always tough, and it was always great to beat them.”

Gault’s track career at Tennessee was even more storied than his football success, as he won a pair of national titles as a senior – in the 60-yard high hurdles and 60-yard dash – and earned 11 All-American honors.

One of Gault’s few track disappointments occurred in 1980, when the United States’ decision to boycott the Olympics in Russia denied Gault a chance to participate in the Summer Games.

But Gault has clearly influenced future Tennessee sprint stars like Justin Gatlin, who would attend the school two decades later before achieving Olympic fame.

“He was such an inspiration,” Gatlin says. “I can remember walking through (the former Stokely Athletic Center) and seeing all the black-and-white posters of the All-Americans. I used to walk by (Gault’s) picture before I went to class, and I used to think, `Man, I want to be right here with these kind of guys.’”

Gault would go on to a very productive NFL career, playing five years for Chicago and six years for the Los Angeles Raiders.

He is probably most remembered for his time with the Bears when he served as a speedy long-distance complement to Walter Payton. Not only did Gault help lead the Bears to a Super Bowl triumph following the 1985 season, but he was also one of the ring-leaders of the famed “Super Bowl Shuffle” video, which still lives on today.

“Yeah, I actually produced that and wrote some of it,” Gault says. “It was my idea along with the record company – we came up with the concept ourselves. Thirty years later, people are still talking about it and playing it.”

Just as Gault is still sprinting.

“Willie’s an athlete who’s really been multi-generational,” says Jill Greer, USA Track and Field spokeswoman. “He is the rare athlete who has gone from being a world-class elite athlete and has kept his track record going through the master’s ranks. That really is unique.”

Gault says he plans to be in Nashville for the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame ceremony before heading back to the track in preparation for more Masters Championships this summer.

“I’ve been very healthy and blessed throughout my career, and that’s allowed me to keep running,” he says. “It’s been very rewarding, so I’m just staying healthy and enjoying it, having fun.”

Reach John Glennon at glennonsports@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.

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