The following excerpt is from the book I co-authored with Tom Mattingly Empowered: The Fan ReVOLution That Changed College Football regarding the treatment then-head coach Butch Jones doled out to a player, Mykelle McDaniel, after he refused to play on a torn meniscus his freshman year at the University of Tennessee. To date, Mykelle McDaniel has yet to play a down of college football--first owing to Jones's blackball, then UT's refusal to release his transfer papers, and now the NCAA's ruling that he must sit out ANOTHER year and only have three years of eligibility wherever he decides to play. If you want to see what Mykelle says for himself, you can watch the series of interviews I did with him in 2018 on YouTube. Butch Jones is currently serving as an "intern" at the University of Alabama, an arrangement which allows him to collect monthly checks of $160,000 because the $35k Bama pays him doesn't end his buyout agreement with UT.
That led us to Mykelle McDaniel, who I interviewed a couple of weeks later along with his mother, Chante-Amoure Simmons. Mykelle was another highly touted recruit, a four-star strongside defensive end who had thirty-one offers coming out of high school—including offers from twelve of the fourteen schools in the SEC: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Auburn, South Carolina, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Kentucky, LSU, Missouri, Ole Miss, and Tennessee. Mykelle and Marlin did not know each other, and Marlin’s full story is only being revealed now, in this book. So there was no way that these two young men somehow coordinated their stories. Marlin is in Knoxville; Mykelle is in Hutchinson, Kansas.
I spoke with Ms. Simmons before she and her son committed to an interview with me. The first thing she said struck me hard and made me feel slightly sick. “My son’s father hasn’t been a role model in his life. My second husband never had that bond with Mykelle either. The reason I felt comfortable sending my son to Tennessee was because Coach Jones presented himself as that father figure I always felt my son needed. I thought he was going to go to Tennessee and have that mentorship I’d always wanted for him. But I was a single mother going through his recruitment period with him, and I had no idea what to look for.”
I don’t think I’ll ever get over hearing the tragedy in her voice. Her voice was lovely anyway, soft and low-pitched, and she spoke with such sincerity and eloquence that as soon as she finished that comment, I started to get angry because I thought I knew what was coming. I just hated it for her and for her son, who I’d not yet spoken to. The bond between them was so touching. I mean—think about it. Before she would allow me to interview her son, she had wanted to talk with me first.
I don’t blame her for that. I admire her for it. She’d learned her lesson about trusting strangers with Mykelle.
As I said, I thought I knew what was coming. In actuality, I had no clue how bad that story was going to be. The next day, I interviewed Mykelle with his mother sitting in on the call.
During the pre-training camp physicals, the UT team doctors detected popping in one of Mykelle’s knees. They soon diagnosed a torn meniscus—an injury I can empathize with because I’ve had the same injury myself—and recommended that he have surgery to correct the issue. Because he’d finished a math class late—and not because he failed it. He had a score of 26 on his ACT—Mykelle already had an academic redshirt for the 2016 season, his freshman year. So his path seemed clear. He would have the problem surgically corrected, which was a fairly minor procedure, and would redshirt that season.
But the coaches didn’t agree. They were appealing the academic redshirt and thought there was a chance he could play that season. So Jones and his staff were pushing Mykelle to go ahead and play the season—with his injured knee. Of course, Mykelle, at eighteen, was anxious to start playing too. But a torn meniscus isn’t an injury to be ignored. The torn meniscus in my knee had led to a total knee replacement. I couldn’t imagine any responsible coach or trainer trying to get a young man to play with a torn meniscus and particularly not in the SEC.
“We had like a team advisor. You know, you go to him and just talk to him, you know what I’m saying? Just talk to him. The guy’s not supposed to tell anybody what you talk about at all. I did find out later on, the more I talked to him, the more I told him, the more he was going back to coach and telling him everything,” Mykelle explained. “So I got to talking to him and I was just going back and forth, getting his opinion and expressing my opinion as far as how I feel about playing on my knee right now and thinking about whether I wanna fix it or whether I want to go ahead and have the surgery. And the first day I actually tell him about it, later on that day in a team meeting, Coach Jones was…he didn’t say my name, didn’t mention any name at all, but he started saying that: ‘If you’re thinking about having surgery instead of playing, don’t be a bitch. Man up and help your team out.’ Didn’t say any names but I’m not stupid. I clearly know who he was just talking about.”
“So, after you decided to go ahead and have the surgery and that was with Knoxville Orthopedic Clinic, correct?” I asked.
“Okay, were the trainers, the assistant coaches, or Coach Jones pushing you to not have the surgery and to go ahead and play even though they knew the doctors had recommended it?”
“Everyone except the doctor himself,” he replied. “When I approached everyone else about it, they said, ‘Don’t have it. There’s a chance you could burn your redshirt. We need you…’
And so on and so on. When I went to the doctor about it there was one thing consistently on my mind. It’s my career. I need to be smart about it. So I go see the doctor and I explain to him that the coaches have not been allowing me to have my surgery for a couple of weeks now and he says, ‘They can’t do that. I had no idea they were doing that. It’s illegal for them to do that. No one can pick and choose when you have your surgery but you.’ When he told me that, and once they (the coaches) were aware that he told me that, that is when they permitted me to have my surgery.”
Now there were all sorts of alarm bells going off in my head. Marlin Lane had also stated that the physicians at KOC were outstanding and provided great medical care, but that he had to go to them outside of the normal injury protocols with the trainers. Now, we have an eighteen-year-old freshman being told by a KOC physician that the coaching staff was making medical decisions on his behalf although that was illegal. That goes well beyond Jones and his staff micromanaging the program. If not outright abuse, that’s downright negligence.
Butch Jones was trading the health and future prospects of his players for wins on Saturdays in the fall and no one at UT had stepped forward as an advocate for those young men.
Mykelle’s mother put her foot down. Her son’s surgery was scheduled and successful, thanks to the Knoxville Orthopedic Clinic physicians. Three weeks later, Mykelle was back on the practice field, training with the team. Because he wasn’t active on the roster, he was working with the scout team. Six weeks into a fourteen week season, it would have been ridiculous to
burn his redshirt. Clearly, the smart thing to do was to let him sit out the remainder of his redshirt year, and then join the active roster the following season.
On his first day back at practice, Mykelle was wearing a green no-contact jersey that the trainers had told him to wear.
“I was back on the field. I came back. In my mind, I’m one hundred percent. I still have a green jersey on but I’m still working. I’m still practicing on the scout team. I walk onto the practice field and I’m like, ‘How you doing, Coach?’
“And Coach Jones says, ‘I’m doing good but I’d be better if you wasn’t in that green jersey.’
“I said, ‘It’s not me, it’s the trainers that got me in it.’
“And he said, ‘Yeah, you being a little bitch.’ His exact words.”
I have to admit that at that moment, I kind of lost my temper. What made it tough was that I was on a three-way call with Mykelle and his mother. The last thing I wanted to do was to follow my initial instincts, which would have involved cussing. So I took a moment and then asked, “Okay, so he called you a little bitch because you were wearing the no contact jersey when you first got back out on the field after your surgery, correct?”
“So what did you do?”
“I chuckled and said, ‘Yes sir. I hope it gets better.’ and I continued on with my stretches. And he walked past.”
Always just a little embarrassing to realize a teenager is more mature than I am at fifty-two. But that’s the kind of young man Mykelle is. Like his mother, he’s articulate and extremely courteous. In this day and age, it’s positively refreshing to hear an eighteen year-old just being
polite. Those “yes ma’ams” told me more about his character than any amount of background research could have. These were good people, who could never have anticipated what was going to happen next.
“It’s South Carolina week,” Mykelle went on. “The next incident was South Carolina weekend and we come out for practice Monday and I’m pass rushing this particular day, against this person…a new starter on the o-line. He tore his meniscus before I tore mine. He had surgery before me but his body didn’t heal as fast as mine. He took his good time coming back, so he was literally just now coming back off his meniscus injury and they put him in the starting lineup and line us up to go to work. And I’m going against him and he’s shooting his hand…he’s heading for my face mask. He’s shooting his hands and he’s aiming for my throat, slapping me in my face and whatnot. I turn and Butch Jones is literally just standing right there.
“We had officials at every practice and they would throw flags and, you know, break up every fight before they happen. Literally. Every practice there would be twenty officials out every single practice. There’d be twenty officials. And he’s slapping my face mask and he’s doing it for so long and it gets to the point where I turn to Butch Jones and I say, ‘Are you just going to sit there and watch him do this?’
“He doesn’t respond to me, he just head nods. I don’t know what that means but I said, ‘Are you just going to sit here and watch him keep playing me dirty like that?’ He just nods his head. So I go back, and I come off the ball, and at this point, I do a post move. That’s a move that you don’t do at practice. You’re not supposed to do it against a teammate. At that point he grabs me and he throws me on the ground. Once he throws me on the ground, everyone else hops on top of me. I mean the offensive line was on the bench. They wasn’t even in the game or in the play. The line’s just jumping and stomping and beating me and nothing is happening. Officials
just standing there, not running onto the field. Coaches standing there, not doing anything. I was cool with all the running backs, the only people jumping me were the offensive line. Running backs just standing there watching. Wide receivers just standing there watching. Everybody just stood there watching.
“I talked to a couple of people afterwards, one of the running backs that I was cool with, his name was Jeremy Lewis, he tried to hop in, but his coach cussed him out and said, ‘Don’t you hop in. That’s your o-line. You leave them alone.’ I talked to Jauan Jennings. He told me he was running a fly route. He was way down the field, he didn’t even know what happened until he got all the way back. Everyone was asking, ‘Where were you when it happened?’ Everybody had different reasons but they all were saying it was just the offensive line when they did what they did.
“I went back and looked at it. I saw it on camera that same night, you can pull it (practice film) up on camera. I watched the offensive line just run in and jump in, I watched Jauan running the fly route, I watched the coaches just standing there, I watched the coach cuss the running back who tried to hop in to help me, I watched Butch Jones stand there, I watched the officials just stand there. The next day when I go back, everybody is in the locker room looking at it on their iPads. Everyone on the team gets it. Once Coach Jones comes in and sees everyone’s on their iPads in the locker room watching it, they take the film off of the site. They take that play off of the team thing (practice video site), they took that whole play off. It’s no longer there. I don’t know what they did to it but it was no longer there.”
When writers are conducting an interview and things like this come out, it feels almost like a double gut punch. The first response is a human reaction, visceral and raw, to what you’ve just heard. The second is like getting slapped across the face or punched in the jaw with
adrenaline. That feeling is like leveling up right before a boss fight in a video game. You don’t know exactly what’s coming, but you think to yourself that now might be a good time to head to the closest save point. You recognize the feeling that you’re getting close to something really big.
“So how many…when you say jumped, are you saying they physically pummeled you? They hit you?”
“Stomped, punch, beat. I was beat. By the entire offensive line. If you need me to go into names, as far as the offensive line, I could name the entire offensive line on the 2016 player roster.”
“Now were they instructed to do so by the coaching staff?”
“If you ask me? I know nothing as far as they did it. I do not know nothing for a fact. If you ask me, I’m no fool. I’ve seen other fights happen all through the season. I’ve seen other scuffles happen, the referees break it up, I mean within a second, like instantly. The officials are over there and then it’s over with. This particular fight, they all just sat there and watched.”
Mykelle’s mother was still on the line so I asked, “Ms. Simmons? You saw that entire fight on film, right?”
She’d told me that during our conversation earlier.
“Yes. I saw the fight but when I tried to go back the next day after my mom was saying you need to find some way to download it, the next day when I tried to go back it was gone.”
“How long would you estimate that scuffle went on before it ended?”
“I would say about at least ten minutes?”
Although nothing should have shocked me at that point, I found myself gobsmacked yet again. “That long? Ten minutes?”
Now, I cannot imagine she was running a stopwatch while she’s watching that film of her son being assaulted by a group of football players. I also am aware that during a traumatic situation, witness descriptions are usually inaccurate—over- or underestimated because of the stress those witnesses are coping with. That’s enough to make two minutes feel like five, or five like ten for most people.
Regardless, her testimony makes it clear that the incident went on much longer than an unplanned scuffle between football players in the heat of the moment would have. Keeping in mind that coaches and officials were standing by and watching—allowing—this to happen indicates to me that this assault continued for some minutes before it finally ended, and that is disturbing.
“All right. So what kind of physical shape were you in after that Mykelle?”
“My adrenaline was running so I don’t feel anything at the time. I get up and I grab my helmet. Coach Jones tried to go to the next play and none of the scout team players ran in to replace me. So he’s like, ‘Who’s supposed to be here right now?’ And then I’m putting my helmet back on and running back onto the field, and he grabbed me and was like, ‘No, you go to the sidelines.’ That’s when he started cussing out the scout team players. ‘Why the f*** are are you out of the game? Get out there, you’re not doing nothing, or I’m gonna take your scholarship!’
“So he went out there and that’s when I calmed down and realized that every time I moved my shoulder, my collarbone was popping out. Literally. I showed the doctors, they took me into the training room with the doctor to take a look at it and he said I needed to go to the emergency room immediately. And they put me in an ambulance and I went to the emergency room. He said the way my collarbone was moving, it was too close to my throat. They didn’t want my bone to cut anything, you understand what I’m saying? So, they took me to the emergency room immediately. They took me there, they X-ray’d it, put me inside the CAT scan, they said—they basically came up with the conclusion I got a contusion in my collarbone and they can’t fix it, because if they go in and fix it, nine times out of ten they would do nothing but make it worse. Just gotta pray it falls back into place.”
“Okay, at this point Ms. Simmons, you have documentation from the hospital that he went to. Was that UT medical center or somewhere else?”
“I’m not sure about what hospital it was because they never gave me documentation so everybody was telling me that Butch Jones had it, and I scheduled meetings with him. First of all, he wouldn’t take a phone call with me. I scheduled two meetings with him after that, both of which he cancelled. I was able to… Coach Strip (Steve Stripling) connected me to the doctor, and I don’t remember the doctor’s name. I have emails, I’m gonna go back through my emails and see what I can find.”
“So after that event, and I saw the text message exchange you had with Butch Jones on your Twitter feed. Did you ever discuss the incident more with him?”
Just as a note—that text exchange was just about what you’d expect from an angry eighteen-year old football player who just found out his coach was glad he got injured as the result of a fight. The language was probably cleaner than what I would have used if that had been my son on the field.
But not by much.
“Oh yeah, he called me after that and when he called me his exact words were, ‘I understand you’re frustrated, I understand you’re upset, but there’s a certain way you can’t talk to the University of Tennessee head coach.’”
“Oh wow, that’s just arrogant. My God.”
“Yeah, he said, ‘I apologize for what happened. I didn’t mean for that to happen. You won’t need to focus on getting any revenge from anybody, I’m gonna get the revenge for you. I’m gonna talk to them, I’m gonna get on to their coach. I’m gonna make sure they’re in trouble for this, they will pay for this.'
“So, I got off the phone and thought, ‘I’ll sleep better tonight.’ And nothing happened to the offensive line. Nothing at all. Yeah.”
“Some of my teammates—Taeler Dowdy, and Jauan Jennings, and John Kelly—they told me at the end of practice that Coach told the whole team that he was glad that what happened, happened. You got to understand that at the time, the whole starting defense…I’m the only scout team player on scholarship so everybody who’s on the field knows that I’m honestly there because I want to be on the field with them. So they respect me, I’m chill with them; they understand that’s who I’m with. So the whole defense has no idea that this happened to me so when, Butch Jones said, ‘I’m happy that happened because when we play South Carolina this weekend it’s going to be a street fight and that’s just showed me that y’all are ready for a street fight.’
“That’s why I texted him and I said, ‘Did you say you were happy it happened?’ That’s when the text messages started because right when I found out I texted him and I asked, ‘Did you say you were happy it happened?’
“He was trying to say that I was twisting his words. ‘I was happy that you got out there.’
“I don’t understand how you can even switch that. You were happy that I got out there? Or you happy that it happened? I don’t know how…I don’t really understand what he’s talking about on that.”
“Yeah, that’s not something any normal person would say.”
“Yeah, not at all. So, while I’m in the emergency room—I’m in the hospital when the defense found out. That’s when Derek Barnett, Corey Vereen, Kahlil McKenzie, Jonathon Kongbo—all of them, the whole defensive line—that’s when they went to the offensive line in the locker room and basically there was a fight in the locker room about what happened. A little scuffle, not really a fight because the offensive line wouldn’t fight back. They were like, ‘We don’t wanna fight, we don’t wanna fight, we didn’t mean for it to happen.’”
As soon as I heard that, my mind instantly flashed back to the 2017 season when ShyTuttle had his orbital bone broken and Butch Jones had claimed in a press conference that he’d fallen on a helmet. Obviously, fights on and off the practice field were a pretty standard event though—something these players were accustomed to under this coaching staff. Here again—I’ve been around football for a long time. I know how frequently tempers flare up on the field, both during practice and during games. But something like this?
How often was this type of thing going on? And how out of line was that with other teams?
Preferred walk-on Taeler Dowdy was one of the players that Mykelle had mentioned in regard to the incident. I spoke with him a week later.
“Okay, so you witnessed the fight that ended up breaking Mykelle’s collarbone, right?”
“Yes, I was actually in the locker room with him after it.”
“Okay, why don’t you tell me about what went down as far as you could tell with that whole thing?”
“I won’t say I saw the whole thing but I definitely heard from everybody, because everybody was talking about it. I think it was a play, and it’s funny because the coaches, like, I was a practice player at the time and, Mykelle, he was a scout player too. And they (the coaches) would like for real yell at us if we would beat the first stringers, like if we, I guess, went too hard and we actually beat them they would get mad. And Mykelle, he would just always beat the o-linemen and I guess they just all get mad and they jumped him. When he came into the locker room, it was just him when he came into the locker room, and I had to help him take his shoulder pads off and stuff. And then like five minutes of him being in pain, the trainers finally came. I don’t know, I just felt like they definitely dealt with that wrong. And then after that practice, Coach Jones says, ‘Good job to the offensive linemen for like sticking together and having each other’s backs’ or something.”
“What were other players saying in the locker room about what happened? After it happened?”
“Well, a lot of the defensive players were mad and, I mean, the linemen, them and Mykelle kinda like—they just didn’t like Mykelle because he would do good. He would do good against them at practice so they were gloating about that. I don’t feel like they felt bad that they did what they did.”
“Did anybody on the coaching staff, strength coach, GAs, other players, did anybody step forward and say what they did was wrong?”
“Not that I heard of honestly because that wasn’t the only fight. I mean, there were fights after that and I believe that because of that situation went so wrong there was more after that…because of that. There wasn’t a punishment for that or something.”
So, let’s take a minute to assimilate what’s been said. Another player has just corroborated Mykelle’s story. Keep in mind, too, that Mykelle’s account dovetails with what Marlin Lane had said earlier—not only about injuries and how the coaches demanded their players continue to play, but also about how Butch Jones used players against their teammates, setting some guys up as almost a gang in order to enforce his rules and expectations upon the others.
“While you’re playing, if you don’t perform to the way he wants you to perform, or basically carry a jug of water or do this and do all that, he was basically saying, ‘You’re not performing up to your abilities so I’m going to give you a year probation on your scholarship. If you don’t perform or do what you came here to do that’s…you’re done.’” Marlin (Lane)had said two weeks earlier. “And what kind of had me up in the air with the last interview I did, which I did not with you guys, but with some… I can’t even remember, who… I think it was SB Nation, I’m not sure but they quoted something that I said in the wrong—”
“Yeah, I remember that.”
“It almost kind of messed my career up with jobs or…and everything else. But by me, you know, just knowing certain people that they gave me a chance at my job now. By them ( SB Nation article) saying he had me threaten kids’ lives, which I never did. I never said that. What I said was he would use me, because of my background, where I come from, my environment. On player staff meeting one day which is—we sit at a table like this of probably fourteen players that pretty much can have a voice to other players—and we were sitting in his office conference room and he literally told me, ‘I’m going to tell you why I got you on player staff because you got street in you and so you could go up to certain players and say this to certain players and they won’t react to you because of...’
Basically he was saying where I was from, you know, and I kinda laughed it off but at the same time I’m like…where is that going? Even Justin Worley, like they all... ‘Why would he say that?’”
“When I hear you talk or watch the way you are, I don’t instantly think street, am I wrong here? I mean you’re a very well-spoken young man, how could anybody get street off that?” I said.
“That’s what…‘The reason why I’m in here is because you want me to go to certain players and tell them that if they don’t act right, you’re gonna kick them off the team.’”
So now, all the pieces are starting to fall together. I’m getting a clear picture of what had happened to those earlier teams, those earlier players. I understand better what the environment must been like, and why those squads that looked so good on paper didn’t live up to their potential. I can see why so many injuries decimated the Volunteers, and why so many players transferred. I have three players on the record now: Marlin Lane, who was gone before Mykelle McDaniel and Taeler Dowdy arrived. I have a parent on the record.
As I write this now, I have a strong hunch that these stories are just the tip of the iceberg. Too many other players have been named by these three. And I know that for me, this story is just beginning. There are months of research ahead of me as I track down other players, staff members and former coaches, trainers and physicians and university officials.
And obviously, the person I want to talk to the most is Butch Jones. I would be shocked if he wasn’t restricted by a tight non-disclosure agreement after his termination from the University of Tennessee. I’d assume almost every high-profile coach in the country is. That being said, he should be given the opportunity to discuss these claims on the record and I’d be more than happy to provide him that platform.
But I think it’s essential to understand the following as the foundation of what we’ve been discussing: a football coach is in a position of near-absolute authority over the players on his team. A coach must administer that authority in such a way as to not needlessly endanger a player’s safety, or to negatively impact their prospects. Jones was responsible for his players’ welfare on multiple levels, whether they were superstars or on the scout team. Regardless of how you look at these stories—and this is just a fraction of what I was told by these interview subjects—at the end of the day, any coach that jeopardizes the players on his team must be held accountable for his actions.
That’s why the Maryland decision to retain head coach DJ Durkin after the investigation into the death of player Jordan McNair due to heat stroke caused such a backlash among students, media, and fans. The investigators had censured the coaching practices that led to these same kinds of repercussions on the Maryland football team, citing a culture where players were afraid to speak out, a athletic department that was deeply dysfunctional, a strength and conditioning program the university failed to supervise, and an overall lack of oversight warding the players’ health, safety, and well-being.
Being suspended for a few games isn’t true accountability. That’s a slap on the wrist. The University of Maryland had no option but to terminate Durkin the day after they had reinstated him as head football coach.
And let’s be honest—the similarities between Maryland under Durkin and Tennessee under Jones are striking. Considering the type of injury Mykelle McDaniel received, the two programs were closer than anyone, including me, would ever have guessed.
After I wrote this chapter, I sat back and thought for a few minutes about what I’d learned. When I first heard Marlin and Mykelle and Taeler tell their stories, I was kicking myself for not knowing what was happening to them even though I live hundreds of miles away. Like I should have possessed some sort of insight superpower. Then, I felt disturbed that Vol Nation revolted against UT because we were mad that the university was ignoring what we, the fans, demanded and expected from them when it came to hiring a football coach.
Coaches. The highest-paid, most-visible state employees with their multi-million dollar contracts subsidized by taxpayer dollars. And as I thought the above sentence, something clicked in my head.
The fan ReVOLution wasn’t just about winning football games after all. Without the uprising, none of these stories—or the ones we’ll pursue after this book is finished—might ever have come to light.
That’s how important it is for fans to hold their universities accountable for their decisions. Not just to win games, although that’s a big part of it. We must require them to discharge their responsibilities toward all students. If colleges don’t adequately safeguard their students, then it’s everyone’s absolute duty to hold them accountable for it, whether in Baltimore or Waco, East Lansing or Knoxville.
We really are the caretakers now.