KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — They didn’t have to come back.
Cam Sutton and Alvin Kamara could’ve easily packed it in, began preparations for the NFL and no one would’ve blinked an eye.
Only they didn’t.
Tennessee’s two stalwart captains and dynamic playmakers made valiant returns against Kentucky on Saturday, working their way back from a pair of significant injuries that would have shelved most players for the rest of the season.
“We’ve got unfinished business,” Kamara said after returning from a knee injury to rush for a season-high 128 yards and 2 scores on just 10 carries.
“We’ve got business to handle. The season isn’t over. I made it my goal to come back if I could. Here I am.”
Sutton, a senior cornerback who missed Tennessee’s last six games, made an instant impact Saturday, too, breaking up a pair of passes — one nearly for a pick-six — to set a school record exactly eight weeks after breaking his ankle against Ohio.
It was all rather remarkable, something that wasn’t lost on coach Butch Jones.
After the Vols’ 49-36 shootout win against the Wildcats, Jones effusively praised the selflessness of both players.
“What can I say about the return of Alvin Kamara and Cameron Sutton? I think that’s a great story,” he said. “They’re selfless individuals who put the team first and really wanted to play. They were determined and they willed themselves to getting back healthy. I thought that really sparked our football team.”
Tennessee is no longer ranked. The Vols have zero shot of reaching the College Football Playoff. Even an SEC Championship — a win not a trip — is a longshot.
But Sutton and Kamara came back anyways. They came back to be with their teammates. They came back for one final ride.
While Rocky Top witnessed the miraculous returns Saturday at Neyland Stadium, it was all the work behind the scenes that made it even possible.
Training room visits. Team meetings. More rehab. It’s a lonely process, but a sacrifice both stars were willing to make to wear the “T” again.
“These individuals could have easily sat out and said, ‘I’m done’ and started getting ready for the NFL,” Jones said. “But instead, they wanted to be a part of this football team and help us win, and to me, that speaks volumes about their character and what this football program means to them.
“They wanted it. Again, it speaks volume for their competitive character, for their passion, their love for their teammates and their love for this program. It would have been easy. It’s been a little bit of a longer process for Cam, and really we had kind of circled the Missouri game as his return date, so he’s actually a week ahead of where we scheduled.
“We live in a SportsCenter society. When we all go home tonight, we’re going to turn SportsCenter on and all we see are the highlights. What we don’t see is him in the training room at 7 a.m. or him in the training room eight, nine, 10 times a day to get himself in order to play. To me, I love those two individuals, and like Alvin said, he goes, ‘Coach, it was like a long time coming.’ I give them both a lot of credit.”