It was 1986, and Jim Arnold was temporarily out of work. Arnold, who’d been a punter for the Kansas City Chiefs the previous three seasons, had been released that summer but was hoping to play again; it wasn’t an unrealistic goal, since he’d led the league in punting average just two years prior.
The problem, though, was that Arnold had no clue where the next call would come from. The NFL had franchises in 27 cities, so any settlement would likely require a move. Arnold was explaining this problem to a former college teammate, who then asked the question that would change Arnold’s life:
“Why not Nashville?”
Arm-twisting wasn’t required. The Georgia native had played his collegiate ball at Vanderbilt, where he was an All-American. Arnold came back to town, found an apartment the first day, and the rest is history.
“I don’t regret it. I love Nashville,” Arnold says.
Jovan Haye, another former Vanderbilt player, would be in a similar situation 23 years later. Haye had finished his fourth year in the NFL and had been a full-time starter the previous two years in Tampa Bay. The big, durable defensive tackle was a free agent in high demand, but he decided to make Nashville home. Fortunately, the Titans came calling, where Haye played for two years before hanging up the cleats for good.
By that time, Haye had met a Nashville gal and married her. To this day, the couple lives in Brentwood with their two little girls (and a third child on the way).
Like many people who figure out what they want in life as they marry and mature, Haye thought Nashville was a great place to raise his kids. He also liked the city’s climate and size: big enough to find things to do, but not too crowded.
However, one thing about Nashville really stood out.
“(It’s) the people. The people are just extremely nice. Everyone’s friendly … Nashville as a city and Tennessee as a state are perfect,” he said.
Then, there’s Al Smith, who neither went to Vanderbilt nor played for the Titans. However, Smith had played for Houston (he made the Pro Bowl twice as an Oiler) and was working in the Titans’ front office when the franchise re-located to Tennessee in 1997. That job would end after a decade, but seven years later, Smith’s still here.
“A radio opportunity came up, I was elected president of (the Tennessee chapter of) the NFL Alumni Association, and so I started working with that and liked the city. My family liked the city,” Smith said.
Like Haye, Nashville’s size was attractive to Smith. But the big reason it’s worked for his family is that, also like Haye, he felt it was a good place to raise kids.
Primarily because they all have children, the three admit to being homebodies. For Haye, his ideal night out is dinner at the Hibachi Grill. Arnold’s girlfriend is part owner of the Corner Pub in the Woods, so he spends a lot of time there. “I’m not the guy you’re going to see in the Nashville Scene that much!” Arnold says with a laugh. Smith is out and about a little more, but most of that is for what he terms “giving back,” either through coaching, running football camps or attending NFL Alumni Association events.
It’s clear that Arnold’s not leaving. Nor is Haye, who resides in Brentwood and is discussing “building his dream home.” Smith’s roots don’t go back as far as the others, but he’s in the same boat.
“Unless something grand pulls me away, I like it here because it’s a good place to raise the family and good opportunities, so I didn’t want to necessarily chase around the country just chasing jobs,” Smith says.
A number of other former Vanderbilt players who starred in the NFL, like former Philadelphia Eagles stars Bernard Wilson and Dennis Harrison, live in Nashville. A bunch of former Titans, including (but not limited to) Eugene Amano, Ken Amato, Dave Ball, Eddie George, Craig Hentrich, Erron Kinney, Brad Hopkins, Donnie Nickey, Benji Olson, Zach PIller and Ben Troupe, still reside here post-retirement.
It’s not surprising that a Titan would realize the value of living in Nashville, but it is a point of pride that such notable players, including Blaine Bishop, Kevin Dyson, Derrick Mason, Neil O’Donnell, Chris Sanders and Frank Wycheck all have continued their presence here and are giving back to our community. Some have provided their professional expertise to television and radio broadcasts. Others have supported our local schoolchildren by mentoring at skills camps, and yet others have even taken on the mantle of coaching high school football teams themselves.
Some of our local retired athletes are even born and raised here. Fayetteville, Tenn.’s own Kelly Holcomb, who once threw for over 400 yards in a playoff game with the Cleveland Browns, is back home again. Prior to his 13-season career in the NFL, Holcomb lettered at Lincoln County High School and led MTSU to an Ohio Valley Conference championship.
Others, like 12-year NFL vet (and now ESPN commentator) Trevor Matich make Nashville home despite no previous connection. Former Cincinnati great Ross Browner and the late punter Reggie Roby also spent time here as residents.
Based on conversations with his NFL connections, Arnold suspects that number will grow.
“David Culley, who played and coached at Vanderbilt and is now with the Chiefs and was with the Eagles for a while… told me that any of the players he’s run into and either played here or coached here, there’s something about Nashville that they all want to be back. Jim Washburn, who was here with the Titans and then he went up to the Eagles for a little while and now he’s with Detroit, has told me, ‘In two or three years when I retire, I’m moving back to Nashville,’” Arnold said.
This does not surprise Arnold, who notes that there were other cities where he had attachments. He played in Kansas City, Detroit and Miami, but he kept coming back to Music City.
“Looking at the cities I was in and played in, I’m not saying I couldn’t have lived year-round in Detroit… I still get back up there, I have some friends and some things going on, but I just — I love Nashville,” he says.