Football and religion: Two subjects that are hard to pry apart in East Tennessee

Speaking of religion.

A long, sad and even tortured football season has come to an end here in the land of the University of Tennessee Volunteers, a season that began with the head coach already sitting on the hot seat of imminent disaster. Within a matter of weeks, #FireButchJones signs were popping up from sea to shining sea (Vols fans get around).

Eventually, Jones got fired -- despite the fact that his recruiting classes were consistently good to great.

This brings me to a story that ran this past week in The Knoxville News Sentinel, the newspaper that shows up in my driveway each morning. The headline: "UT Vols: Email links Butch Jones to tight end Daniel Helm's departure from Tennessee."

Now, if you only read the headline, you'd never sense the presence of an important religion ghost. But that's the thing about religion ghosts, especially here in this intensely religious corner of the Bible Belt -- they have a way just showing up.

At the heart of this sad story is Daniel Helm, a young man who -- as America's top-rated high-school tight end -- was one of Jones' star recruits in 2014. But Helm quickly left the Vols, landing at Duke University. Why did he leave? Here is the overture:

Daniel Helm had been gone from Tennessee for almost a year when his father sent an email to then-UT chancellor Jimmy Cheek.
The last paragraph of Steve Helm’s message read: “I made sure we got Daniel out of there before (Butch) Jones put him in a place where Daniel might have knocked him out. Then, my great straight A kid would have an assault charge. If a member of that football team does finally lose it with Jones and an assault charge is filed, we will provide authorities with everything we know as we will not let that man ruin a young kid’s life.”
Helm said Cheek never responded.

What does religion have to do with this story?

That's the big question. Let's walk through this step by step, since the religious themes only emerge at the end. My question: Why bury the Bible angle?

As it turns out, Helm was one of several recruits from that recruiting class who vanished. It will be interesting to see if the team's spinning exit door turns into a major theme in the post-Jones coverage. It's very clear that Helm didn't want to leave UT.

So what happened? Here is the key scene -- sort of.

Trouble came screaming Helm’s way in a team meeting the day after Florida beat Tennessee 10-9 in his freshman season.
On one play, the freshman tight end was blindsided by a Florida defender. Jones highlighted that in a team meeting during which he repeatedly berated Helm, using slang terms for female genitalia to describe Helm’s play. Steve said Jones told his son that if he had been blindsided like that, “he would have taken out the player’s knees.”
“What angered Daniel the most was that he later blocked that same defender, driving him downfield and out of bounds,” Steve said. “But Jones didn’t show that play.”

Then there is this interesting moment.

As Jones continued to assail Helm in the meeting, the player wrote a prayer in his notebook to help defuse his anger, admitting to this father that he wanted to hit Jones.

So Jones was a foul-mouthed secularist who loved to shame believers?

That would be a hard act to sustain here in East Tennessee. It's also hard to believe that Jones acted like that during the recruiting process, since lots of football players in this part of the word come from Christian homes and are even from Christian schools of various kinds.

The story makes it very clear that Jones was an exceptionally good recruiter -- apparently he was better at recruiting than coaching. So are we talking about a split personality here? This leads us to this dramatic image at the very end of the story:

Steve Helm remembers when Daniel met with Jones in his office on his recruiting visit. He said Jones pulled out a “well worn Bible” and quoted what he said was his favorite verse.
“Daniel wasn’t so naïeve to think that just because someone quoted the Bible, he was a great Christian,” Helm said. “But he thought he was going to play for a guy with integrity. And it was nowhere to be found.”

Well now. That sounds like important information.

So I will ask this question: Did this head coach's "now you see it, now you don't" Bible play a major role in the departure of other UT recruits?

That might be an angle worthy of further research. Just saying.

FIRST IMAGE: Screenshot from The Herd broadcast.

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