Chris Powers has been flying FedEx planes for six years now (and before that, with Continental Express). But over the last two decades, he’s yet to duplicate the lift he helped create for a long-suffering fan base at the Liberty Bowl on November 9, 1996. A sophomore tight end for an underwhelming University of Memphis football team that night, Powers caught a touchdown pass from Qadry Anderson with 34 seconds to play to give the Tigers a 21-17 upset of Peyton Manning and the 6th-ranked Tennessee Vols. It was the first time in 16 meetings Memphis had beaten UT and the Tigers haven’t taken down Rocky Top since (0-7). If it’s not the biggest win in Memphis football history, it’s likely the most memorable upset. The crowd that night — 65,885 — remains the largest in 51 years of football at the Liberty Bowl.
“It seems longer than that,” says a smiling Powers when the 20th anniversary of the upset is mentioned. “It was a lifetime ago. I’ve stayed pretty involved with the program, from tailgating to radio. I’ve known people on the administrative staff for years.”
Powers has made Memphis home since his playing days, living downtown for several years before getting married and moving to Collierville four years ago with his wife, Ashley (also a U of M alum). He enjoyed four years (2009-12) as Dave Woloshin’s partner on Tiger radio broadcasts, but stays busy these days — when not flying — helping raise his two sons, Harrison (2) and Hayes (nine months). He acknowledges Ashley might roll her eyes at another mention of his most famous catch, but he looks forward to soon sharing details of the moment — and all the joy that moment helped create — with his boys.
Powers never tires of recognition for the play. “It’s better than being remembered for dropping
a pass and losing to Tennessee,” he says with a laugh. Powers recently contacted a fencing company about some work he needed done at his home and was asked if he was the University of Memphis Chris Powers. “I think I’m that guy,” he said. Alas, no discount on the fence.
“People who know me like to introduce me as ‘the guy who beat Tennessee,’” says Powers. “It’s part of my history. And it doesn’t get old because people get such a kick out of it, a positive event that happened to the program. The details, after 20 years, start to fade a little bit, but you remember the big plays. I played four years and that happened my sophomore year. I could have quit right then and it wouldn’t have mattered.” Powers chuckles when a reporter has to be reminded that he moved to the interior line and started at center his senior season (1998).
There was little reason to believe the Tigers could beat that Tennessee team. They entered the game with a record of 3-6 (UT was 6-1). They’d lost four straight and had scored as many as 20 points exactly once (a 37-20 loss at Houston). But as preached in locker rooms from coast to coast, you have to play the game. “It’s so different being inside, as part of a team every day,” says Powers. “If we truly believed we had no chance, then what’s the point of practicing? You put the preparation in, and you’ve got to believe you have a chance. You need to play well, limit mistakes, and all the clichés. We had a great defense that year; we just struggled up front [on offense]. We beat Missouri up in Columbia that year.”
The most famous play of the game is not Powers’s catch, but Kevin Cobb’s 95-yard kickoff return to tie the game at 14 midway through the third quarter. Cobb appeared to be tackled deep in Tiger territory — so much so that many of the players stopped running, or disengaged their blocks — only to spring to his feet and escape to pay dirt. Powers occupied the middle of the Tigers’ blocking wedge on the return. “There’s a pretty cool TV angle, from the end zone Kevin was running toward,” says Powers. “You can see the wedge set, Kevin disappears, and I’m there in the middle. I blasted a UT guy off the camera to the left and Kevin cuts right behind me. I like to say I threw the block that sprung him . . . but that acrobatic flip, I had nothing to do with that!” The play earned Cobb an ESPY for Play of the Year from ESPN.
Down 17-14 late in the fourth quarter, the Tigers made it to the Vols’ 3-yard line thanks largely to a 41-yard pass from Anderson to Chancy Carr, followed by a 13-yard run up the middle by freshman fullback Jeremy Scruggs. Next came . . . The Play.
“[Freshman receiver] Damien Dodson brought in the play from the sideline,” explains Powers. “Qadry looked at Damien in the huddle and said, ‘I’ll be looking for you, so be ready.’ I was lined up on the right, and Damien was split outside of me. I was the secondary [target]. When I released, I saw the safety starting to trail me, so I knew it was man to man. Damien was getting jammed at the line of scrimmage. When I turned around, the ball was already in the air. It was just react, throw your hands up. It stuck.” Powers says he caught the back half of the football, an epic play literally inches from being merely an overthrow.
“I remembered it wasn’t over,” says Powers, when asked about the pandemonium that ensued. Manning would get another chance with the ball. Powers describes a tackle by Tavares Newsom (a freshman reserve linebacker) on the Tennessee kick return that may well have saved the game. “He transferred a year or two later,” says Powers. “That return would have gone a long way. It was a big play that nobody knows about.” Time expired when Manning was sacked a comfortable distance from the Tiger end zone.
Powers celebrated that night at Newby’s on the Highland strip, and later Neon Moon. He and a few teammates had gotten in trouble earlier that season for sneaking into the Liberty Bowl. (Imagine: Football players breaking into a football stadium.) They’d been under a strict curfew for several weeks, a curfew Memphis coach Rip Scherer removed after the goalposts came down.
The Tigers had two weeks to celebrate the takedown of mighty Tennessee, but came out flat in their season finale, losing to East Carolina. A 4-7 season followed in 1997, then a 2-9 struggle in 1998, the year a man still famous for playing tight end snapped the ball on Saturdays. Powers saw the move to center as a challenge, and still takes pride in having learned such a bruising position on the fly. He played the position at no more than 270 pounds. “My technique was pretty good,” he says, “and I was quick.”
Does Chris Powers miss football today? His answer echoes that of most men who once shared a uniform with teammates. “I miss the guys,” he says. “I miss the relationships with the guys. You’re in a situation where, like it or not, you’re with your best friends almost all the time, every day. I miss the process of everybody having a goal, and you get the feedback immediately, whether you won or lost.”
Powers remains close with Ron Sells, an offensive lineman in ’96, and Drew Pairamore, a punter (and now also a pilot).
Memphis will beat Tennessee on the gridiron again. (Yes, it will happen.) Powers likes the fact his 1996 Tiger team will always, though, be the first to beat the Volunteers. “I was part of that team, and played a significant role,” he says. “No matter what happens with Memphis football, that’ll always be the first time [we beat Tennessee]. With Peyton Manning, arguably the best quarterback to ever play the game. They were number six in the country. On national TV. Put it all together, and it’s one of those days I can look back on and enjoy the role I played. I made a play that helped all my buddies — my teammates — beat Tennessee.”
Cobb’s kickoff return recently aired during a Tiger broadcast, a game Powers watched at home with his family. Little Harrison pointed at the TV screen as he’s learning to recognize the look and sounds of football. Powers grabbed his remote, rewound the play, and paused as that wedge came into focus. He grabbed his firstborn, pointed at the screen himself this time, and shouted, “Look at Daddy!”