KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Joshua Dobbs sat over a half-empty plate of seafood, unfinished business gnawing away at him.
Hours earlier, he’d played in April’s spring game, and he was supposed to be enjoying a postgame dinner with his parents. But he was preoccupied.
A pair of families had waited by the Tennessee football locker room hours earlier, hoping their kids could meet the Volunteers senior quarterback.
One was from nearby Sweetwater, and Dobbs had hoped to visit with them after months earlier other obligations caused him to miss a speaking engagement at their son’s high school football banquet he had planned to attend.
When he didn’t catch them after the scrimmage, he arranged for them to stop by the West Knoxville Bonefish Grill, where he was eating, on their way home. In the middle of a meal with his family, Dobbs walked out to spend time with strangers.
“Those types of things really melt our heart,” Dobbs’ mother Stephanie said. “In that moment as he’s sitting there eating, he gets up to visit with people he doesn’t know.
“We’ve always stressed to make good use of the platform you have—use it to help others. He’s always done so, and we’re proud of that.”
By now, the college football world knows about Dobbs’ exceptional grades in a difficult major: aerospace engineering. They’re aware of his on-field accomplishments, and every play he makes is dissected and scrutinized.
But it’s who he is with his helmet off that will cement his legacy here as the program’s most recognizable face since Peyton Manning.
As his team’s stoic leader, Dobbs never gets too high or too low. Football is important, but it’s not everything. The opportunities he has to impact others, he said, are. Those moments he misses are perhaps even rarer than the passes he doesn’t hit.
He recalled the first time he ran onto the field at Neyland Stadium and saw 102,000 screaming fans.
“Just seeing the impact Tennessee football has on this Knoxville community and how big Tennessee football is on a national stage, it definitely puts things in perspective,” Dobbs said. “You’re highly recruited, and you think, ‘Am I doing this, am I doing that to help myself?’
“Then you see how many people you can impact with that ‘T’ on your chest, that ‘T’ on your helmet. You see it’s definitely bigger than me. It’s about all the lives I can affect by playing the game. It’s not just about me. It defines who you are when you’re at the complex and when you’re out in public.”
Later that night after Dobbs met with the family, his parents expected their son to hang out with them at their hotel, but he informed them he had “an errand to run.” They didn’t ask questions. After all, Tennessee football is king here, and everybody wants a piece of Dobbs’ limited time.
They aren’t trumpeted like touchdowns on Rocky Top, but the stories about Dobbs donating his time can be pieced together through a trickle of posts and pictures on social media.
One day, he’s spending time with A.J. Cucksey, a Knoxville boy who has inoperable brain cancer; the next, he’s speaking to a group of kids at the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Tennessee Valley. It’s all part of a regular routine that Dobbs relishes.
That other family that stood outside the Neyland Stadium locker room following the spring game—the Streets of Johnson City—found out firsthand just how much of a difference a few minutes of the star quarterback’s time could make.
Cade Street is an 11-year-old with alopecia, “a type of hair loss that occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks hair follicles, which is where hair growth begins,” according to WebMD. It’s a condition that also affects Dobbs.
Cade loved Dobbs even before his own hair fell out at the age of nine, but when he found out the UT quarterback had the same disorder, he wanted to talk to his idol even more. So he waited patiently to meet Dobbs and get his autograph after the spring game.
When he was unable to do so, he was heartbroken.
Then, Cade noticed sophomore offensive lineman Jack Jones, flagged him down and started a conversation. Moments later, he’d written his name and contact information on a piece of paper for Jones to pass to Dobbs.
When offensive coordinator Mike DeBord emerged from the locker room, Cade did so again.
“He wrote his name down twice,” Cade’s mother Danielle said. “He was determined to meet Josh.”
A week later, Dobbs rectified the missed opportunity by sending Cade an autographed picture. Two days after that, Dobbs called and spoke to him for 10 minutes.
“Cade’s mouth was open the whole time,” Danielle Street said.
When Dobbs traveled with several Vols teammates in early June to Dobyns-Bennett High in Kingsport to participate in a youth summit for middle and high school students, he arranged to meet with the Streets.
“I was speechless when I talked to him on the phone,” Cade said. “I couldn’t hardly talk to him at all when I met him. Just him being who he is builds my confidence up, even though I don’t have hair.”
The Streets have seen a marked difference in their son since the encounters with Dobbs. Cade went from a doctor taking him out of school for anxiety purposes to returning to class this year. Other kids want to know about his discussions with Dobbs.
After the Vols’ Battle at Bristol win over Virginia Tech on Sept. 10, Cade texted Dobbs, and the UT quarterback responded shortly after 2 a.m. Last week, a relative blogged about Cade. His mom tweeted a link to the post and tagged Dobbs.
Dobbs responded, tweeting, “Proud of Cade for being so brave!”
“To say that first year Cade was diagnosed was a nightmare is an understatement,” Danielle Street said. “He couldn’t even go out without a hat on. Now, he doesn’t care.
“[Meeting Dobbs] has been the biggest help or blessing for him—definitely a confidence boost.”
Alopecia didn’t drastically affect Dobbs until high school, when he began losing his hair and eyebrows. He had minimal hair loss when he was six or seven, but the disease was dormant for years.
He determined he wasn’t going to let it negatively affect him, and Dobbs vowed to help anybody he could through self-esteem issues.
Of course, the Dobbs family isn’t impervious to message board remarks about his appearance.
“It’s so minor in terms of what he has to do to go about his business of things he wants to do that it doesn’t impact him,” Stephanie Dobbs said. “It doesn’t affect his intellectual responsibilities or physical responsibilities, and if it doesn’t affect those, it doesn’t bother him.
“Once we identified this is what it is and it’s something you can’t control, we all moved on from it. People obviously will take shots or make comments. But it’s such wasted words and energy, and that’s what he wants to relay to a young kid who might not be as strong with those pressures and sensitivities. Block out that noise. It doesn’t determine your capabilities or who you are.”
When Dobbs shows others that somebody with alopecia can be the face of a proud football program, it’s an encouragement. He knows a few minutes with kids who are facing things like that gives them hope and, most importantly, happiness.
“It’s cool to see someone with the same disease as you on the national stage, so I know that definitely went a long way with them,” Dobbs said. “Being able to reach out and really just talk to them—those simple conversations can carry them a long way.”
A Life of Stewardship
If you’re going to hang around with Dobbs, you’d better stand in line. He has precious little time to spare, and everybody wants a piece of it. But he’s more than willing to give.
It’s well-documented that Dobbs is a unique student-athlete. He routinely takes a slate of difficult classes and wants to build airplanes, all while balancing duties as UT’s starting quarterback for parts of each of the past four seasons. He also worked out for the Vols baseball team in the offseason.
With as much as he juggles, you’d think he’d have a difficult time. He doesn’t. Because it’s always been that way.
“We put him in a position to have lots of responsibilities early,” Stephanie Dobbs said. “We had him involved in so many things, and it wasn’t for the sake of saying, ‘Let’s just add something else,’ but to help him establish an identity of, ‘What are your interests? What do you want to pursue in life?’
“The goal was to have him develop as a person and to teach him to compartmentalize those responsibilities, so when I look back at him going through those early years and now being a college student in his senior year, I can see the benefits of how those early experiences helped to meld him into the person he is.”
From the time he was young, Dobbs wanted to be involved in everything. As an only child, he craved time with other kids, and sports became organized play dates.
He’s now played football for 16 years, and all of them except his first have been as a quarterback. Baseball and basketball took up time, too.
But it wasn’t just sports. He was a student ambassador for his high school, took honors and Advanced Placement courses and was part of student government and band since the fourth grade.
Then there’s the work he did helping others, which began when Dobbs served as a library volunteer and teacher’s assistant at Creek View Elementary in his native Georgia. It continued until he got to Alpharetta High, where he joined the Young Men’s Service League, a four-year commitment to community service he made with his mother.
With so much on his plate, he’s still able to structure his days, manage his time and excel.
“These life experiences over the years,” Dobbs’ father Robert said, “have prepared Josh for these moments.”
Leaving a Legacy
Tennessee’s on-field success in 2016 is directly tied to Dobbs. Expectations are massive, and everybody seems to have an opinion about how head coach Butch Jones’ team can make the leap from good to great.
A lot of that hinges on Dobbs’ arm. There’s little question about his ability to make opponents miss in the open field. But if the Vols can develop a more consistent passing game, they can diversify the offense.
That makes Dobbs a lightning rod for criticism and a polarizing figure for Tennessee fans—routine territory for a starting quarterback in the SEC.
“I don’t really care what another person’s opinion is of Joshua; that’s their opinion,” Robert Dobbs said. “I know the person and player that he is, and, in my mind, he is pretty darn good.
“One thing I taught Josh over the years is in order to be great, you’ve got to block out the noise.”
It’s a concept not lost on Josh.
“Praise and blame is all the same; that’s what they say,” Dobbs said. “You hear it sometimes, but me personally, I don’t pay any attention to it. I just go about my business. I hold myself to a high standard every day.”
Legacies are hard to define. Dobbs’ on-field play will be rated by others, and anything less than a championship may tarnish the long-term view of his reign as quarterback of a proud program like Tennessee.
All that is important to him, and Dobbs is passionate about improving and winning. But the mark he’s made at UT won’t only be measured in wins. He’s already attained his goal.
“My goal since I stepped on campus was to impact as many lives as I can in a positive way,” Dobbs said. “Any time I have the opportunity to do that, I try to take advantage of it.”
The day after the spring game, the Dobbses awoke in their hotel room and prepared to meet their son one more time before heading back to the Atlanta suburb where they live.
It wasn’t until then that they saw what “errand” their son left them for the previous evening. The mother of a child who didn’t get to meet Dobbs after the game tagged the quarterback in a tweet that included a video showing her little boy crying.
Dobbs responded, met the family and delivered a memory.
“It just makes you beam because, again, you want your child to be successful at what he loves, which is football,” Stephanie Dobbs said, “but you want them to be not about titles or positions but about the person that they are.
“Sometimes, we just marvel.”
As good as Dobbs is on the field, he’s even better off it.
Quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. Recruiting information gathered from 247Sports unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.
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Source: Bleacher Report -SEC Football