Back in 1966, Tennessee and Kentucky squared off at Neyland Stadium, with the game being regionally televised on ABC. History records that the other televised game that day, the one folks in Knoxville couldn’t see, was Notre Dame and Michigan State, the so-called “Tie One for the Gipper” game in East Lansing, Mich., Michigan State 10, Notre Dame 10.
There was, however, considerable history being made on the Shields-Watkins Field grass that afternoon. Johnny Mills, a wide receiver from Carter County, caught seven balls for 225 yards, all from quarterback Dewey Warren, to set a pass receiving record that stood for nearly 35 years, before it was broken in the 2001 LSU game, when Kelley Washington caught 11 for 256 yards.
Mills led the 1966 team with 48 catches for 725 yards, both record numbers to that time. Mills more than doubled what Buddy Cruze did in 1956, in terms of receptions and yardage. His performance did serious damage to the Vol record books. No Vol had caught more than 23 passes up to that time. More than that, that player who did catch 23 balls was also named Johnny Mills, based on his 1965 performance.
A number of Vols took their best shot at Mills over the years: Willie Gault with 217 against Vanderbilt in 1981, Carl Pickens with 201 against Kentucky in 1990, Stanley Morgan with a like number against TCU in 1976, and Peerless Price with 199 against Florida State in the 1999 Fiesta Bowl. The list goes on.
It’s an impressive group, but none of them could match what Mills did.
There were 33- and 41-yard receptions in the first quarter, 12- and 33-yarders in the second period, a 13-yarder in the third, and a 72- and 21-yarder in the fourth. The Vols needed every point that day to prevail by 28-19.
“I ran a 5.0 40-yard dash. Can you imagine how long that 72-yard catch would take?” he said.
Mills keeps it all in perspective. “Everybody had a time. I had my time,” he said. “They probably look at those old videos and say, ‘Boy, the guy sure is slow. He sure does run archaic routes.’ But as they mature, they’ll probably think he wasn’t bad for his time.”
His coach, Doug Dickey, was impressed with what Mills accomplished.
“Johnny was another of those route-runner, good-catcher-type guys who did not have great speed, but had the ability to maneuver himself into the openings. He knew how to fake and move, set up the defender, then end up somewhere catching the ball.”
Mills had a spectacular two-game run in 1965 and 1966, in which he caught 10 passes in the UCLA game and came back in the season opener against Auburn to catch 11. He was All-SEC in 1966, one of four Vols so named.
“I was just slow, but if I was around the ball I could catch it,” he said, “and if I was in a crowd, I could come up with it. I would tell Dewey to get it close and I would catch it.”
He held the record for 35 years. That says it all.
He wasn’t bad for his time, or anybody else’s.
Sunday, Jan. 18, 2015