SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. — Austin Pope took advantage of a break last weekend and made the one-hour drive from Knoxville to his family’s home on Douglas Lake for some of his mother’s pot roast and chocolate chip cookies.
Sheryl Pope loves the determination she sees in her youngest son’s eyes, especially now that he has fulfilled part of his dream by becoming a part of the Tennessee football team.
“Austin has always loved the Vols,” Sheryl Pope said of the 2016 tight end signee. “I know some people think, or I’ve heard them say, that Austin is really confident. But really, it’s more of a determination. He knows this is what he wants, and he’s been willing to work and do what it takes to get it.
“You’ve got to have that attitude to play at this level.”
Austin Pope has overcome as much as anyone else to earn his place on Rocky Top.
Austin’s father, Tom Pope, passed away on Aug. 9, 2014 — two years after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.
At the time, Austin Pope had just transferred from Sevier County High School to pass-happy Christian Academy of Knoxville, where he felt he would improve his chances of being noticed by coach Butch Jones and the Vols.
The Pope family had been renting a house in West Knoxville to fulfill transfer requirements, with the Douglas Lake cabin years in the works.
The cabin was finished enough for the family to move into before Austin’s senior year at CAK. Day after day, he arose before the sun came up to make the one-hour drive to school.
It was no ordinary commute, as Austin’s oldest brother, Kyle, had discovered shortly after Tom’s death.
Kyle Pope, a former Volunteer State Community College catcher, slid off the narrow dirt road at its steepest juncture on Dec. 2, 2014. Kyle’s 2005 F-350 barrel rolled at least four times before the truck came to rest at the bottom of the 300-foot embankment. “By the hand of God,” Kyle Pope says, he emerged unharmed.
It’s why it takes Austin several minutes to drive those couple of miles in the Foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in his 2003 F-250. The truck has the horsepower to handle the climbs, and the 33-inch tires gave him the traction he needs to stay on course.
Austin Pope provides the drive and desire.
Sheryl Pope remembers having to protect Austin from himself after he injured his back in a car wreck his sophomore year of high school.
“I couldn’t take it anymore, he would come home after the games and the whole weekend, he would just sit and be in major pain,” Sheryl Pope said. “I told him he had plenty of games left to make an impression and make a name for himself.
“He played five games — but that’s Austin.”
Austin Pope remembers the crash well.
“I was in the back seat, behind the passenger seat, my buddy was driving,” he said. “Nobody was paying attention, dude texting … the guy I was behind hit the windshield and cracked it when we got t-boned.
“I went forward and broke the passenger seat in half. I dislocated my thumb, and the car was totaled.”
Vols defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, then coaching in the same role at Vanderbilt, had shown interest in Pope at Sevier County that season. The accident sidelined Pope before Shoop got to see him play linebacker in person.
Also a promising prospect on the baseball diamond at catcher, Austin Pope had played years of travel ball and was still considering that sport until that spring at Sevier County High School.
Between the coaching changes going on around him and his father’s desire for him to be as prepared as possible — Tom played football briefly at West Virginia and Bowling Green — Austin Pope completed the transition to CAK.
“Austin and his dad were really close, so that was a hard thing for him,” said former Tennessee national championship assistant and CAK assistant Mark Bradley. “But Austin’s mother Sheryl is a very strong woman, and she did a great job of helping Austin and his brothers and sister weather the storm.
“Austin is a guy who loves football, and if you’re looking for the first characteristic in guys, you want guys that love football — not just what football can do for them, but really love the game.”
Pope, rated a three-star prospect and the state of Tennessee’s 16th-best recruit, made the most of playing at CAK, but it also took an aggressive camp tour following his junior season to land the Vols offer he so coveted.
“You know, Austin’s just a homebody who loves rainy days on the lake and being with his family,” Sheryl Pope said. “His dad always knew he could play at this level, but he never saw it.
“I”m sure that’s part of what’s driving Austin every day.”