It may surprise country music fans that superstar Kenny Chesney spent most of his time as a child playing sports instead of music. Like many kids growing up in East Tennessee, Chesney bleeds Tennessee orange. So it's not all that surprising that the young boy who loved Vols football and grew up to be a country music sensation still draws much of his inspiration from sports and from one athlete in particular -- Condredge Holloway.
"The Color Orange: The Condredge Holloway Story" (premiering Sunday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN) was a labor of love for Chesney, who co-directed and produced the film with Shaun Silva as part of ESPN's "Year of the Quarterback" initiative. In the documentary, Chesney tells the story of his boyhood idol, Holloway, and what he overcame to become the first African-American starting quarterback in the Southeastern Conference.
During his career at the University of Tennessee, Holloway led the Volunteers to three bowl games in his three seasons as a starter from 1972 to 1974 with an overall record of 25-9-2. While Holloway's stats were impressive, it was his unique style of play that drew fans like Chesney, earning the QB the nickname "The Artful Dodger."
"I always thought it would be cool to be Condredge Holloway," Chesney said. "He would scramble and extend the play, but he did it all from the line of scrimmage, it wasn't from the shotgun or the Wildcat, he made a lot of people miss, a lot, on every play."
Chesney said he spent countless Sunday afternoons pretending to be Holloway in backyard pickup games with his friends because, he said, "Condredge never got caught." Chesney even wore a No. 7 Holloway jersey in a grade school photo.
"I was 6 years old when Condredge was a senior at Tennessee, and I still remember watching him with my family," Chesney said. "We only had three channels in 1974, so what I saw of him was the next day when they would replay the game with the coach on 'Sunday in Knoxville' ... that's how I got to see Condredge Holloway."
Meeting an idol
The first time Chesney met Holloway was on the sidelines of a Tennessee football game in 1998. Chesney had been on the road promoting his music for five years, but no performance made him as nervous as he was to meet his hero for the first time.
"We all have people we look up to as a kid and you get to meet them later in life and just walk away with an empty feeling, like you wish you never met him or her ... I didn't get that feeling when I met Condredge," Chesney said.
While most of Chesney's fans would do anything to receive a call from the star, Holloway said he was just happy to meet a fan who he now considers a friend.
"You know I've just never been that way," Holloway said. "So when I met Kenny, [I thought]: Nice guy, glad to meet him. I was flattered I had a fan, and then it just grew from there."
Chesney had the opportunity to work with his boyhood idol during the making of his first documentary film, "Boys of Fall." When ESPN executives sensed the chemistry between the two of them and told Chesney about the "Year of the Quarterback" initiative, he leaped at the chance to dedicate a film to his favorite quarterback. "The Color Orange" was born.
Making "The Color Orange"
Chesney admits it can be risky digging into the past of an idol, but said he felt it was his duty to share Holloway's journey with the rest of the world.
"There's a certain amount of responsibility about telling the story the right way," Chesney said. "... I wanted other people that watched this film, if they didn't know anything about Condredge or Tennessee football, to be as inspired as I was."
In making the film about his idol, Chesney had the opportunity to do something that all sports fans dream about -- play catch with his favorite athlete on the field where he grew up watching him play. Chesney reverts to his former schoolboy self wearing the No. 7 jersey when recalling what it was like to film with Holloway on the field of Neyland Stadium.
"Never did I think I'd be down on the field with my childhood hero throwing me the ball, much less making a film about his life ... The whole thing was like a 'Field of Dreams' moment," Chesney said.
So is there any chance of a Chesney-Holloway duet in the future? Holloway simply shook his head and laughed, but Chesney has other plans.
"Condredge hasn't gotten up on stage yet," he said, then looked his idol square in the face with a smile, "You're gonna do it, one day, somewhere."
After his time at Tennessee, Holloway struggled to make it as a quarterback in the NFL, being drafted instead as a defensive back. He did, however, find success as a quarterback in the Canadian Football league, where he went on to play 13 seasons with the Ottawa Rough Riders, Toronto Argonauts and British Columbia Lions. He earned league MVP honors in 1982 and a holds a place in the CFL Hall of Fame.
Despite all of his accomplishments, Holloway doesn't see himself as a role model. When asked about his legacy at Tennessee, tears came to his eyes.
"I came to Tennessee, got an opportunity to play quarterback, and took full advantage of it," Holloway said. "I'm most proud of that and what I'd love people to say is, 'Your parents raised a good kid.' That's it."
Now the assistant AD at Tennessee, Holloway makes a point to tell all incoming athletes the story of his former teammate, Lester McClain, rather than his own.
As Holloway notes in the film: "Any kid who comes here needs to know who Lester McClain is. He was the first black player to play at the University of Tennessee and we all owe him a great deal of respect and honor because he went through a lot of adversity for us. Because after him, it became easier."
One of the most redeeming qualities about Holloway is his modesty. He's not one to boast or take credit for the path he paved for the African-American quarterbacks who followed in his footsteps. Chesney, however, saw "The Color Orange" as a way to honor and pay tribute to his boyhood idol, and said he received more in return for making the film than he ever could've dreamed possible.
"As a musician and songwriter, you look for inspiration anywhere. You try to make music and touch people. I never knew that I was going to be this inspired and have my soul fed as much as I have making this film with Condredge," Chesney said. "I'm really glad that I got to be the guy to tell the story because (Holloway) was an incredible athlete, and an even greater person."
Blair Soden is a producer for ESPN's "Year of the Quarterback"