KNOXVILLE, Tenn (UT RELEASE) -- Two Tennessee footballers who made headlines at UT during the middle portion of the last century have died.
The St. Augustine (Fla.) Record is reporting the death of Walter Slater, 92, in his Florida hometown. Slater is best remembered for his famous 1946 punt return of 78 yards that beat North Carolina 20-14 in a showdown of top-10 teams.
And tailback Billy Tomlinson, 68, died April 7 in Memphis, where he lived most of his adult life. Tomlinson was a three-year letterman from Nashville who was recruited by UT head coach Bowden Wyatt, played the only season of Jim McDonald’s head coaching career and then played two years under Doug Dickey.
Tomlinson lettered three seasons from 1963-65. He not only served as a multi-purpose tailback but also returned both kickoffs and punts during his career. Tomlinson’s UT career was hampered during his junior season when he broke his arm in the September game against Auburn and missed the rest of the 1964 campaign.
His best season statistically was 1963, when Tomlinson averaged 4.8 yards per rushing attempt (18 for 87) and also caught six passes for 119 yards (19.8 avg.).
The graduate of Isaac Litton High School was recognized as Nashville’s high school football MVP in 1962.
For Slater, he and the 1946 Vols were making the most of Gen. Robert Neyland’s first year back from World War II. Tennessee was 4-1 and ranked 10th in the country when ninth-ranked North Carolina came to Knoxville for a top-10 clash.
Time and hopes were fading for the Vols when Slater fielded a punt at his own 22-yard line and found daylight. Near the goal line, future All-America and College Football Hall of Fame member Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice had the angle on Slater until a ball-fake to teammate Dick Jordan froze Justice just long enough for Slater to find the end zone.
Tennessee went on to finish 9-1 in the regular season and tie for the SEC title, leading to a No. 7 ranking in the final Associated Press poll.
Statistics from that 1946 season show Slater with a sparkling 12.1-yard punt return average, with 29 attempts for 352 yards and two scores. The team captain averaged 21.7 yards per kickoff return and led the Vols in interceptions with four for 77 return yards and a touchdown.
On offense, Slater was the team’s leading passer and third-leading rusher. He averaged a 46.9-percent pass completion rate (30 of 64) for 336 yards and six touchdowns. He rushed for 153 yards and also punted for a 39.9-yard average.
Slater also lettered for the Vols in 1941 and 1942 before entering the war and eventually serving as a navigator on a bomber. Slater once said he flew only five missions because on the last one his plane was shot down and made an emergency landing in Sweden.
Slater went on to play two seasons for the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, leading the league in punt returns in 1947 with a 15.5-yard average. He found his way back to St. Augustine and won 85 games coaching football at the local high school, including an 11-0 season in 1954.