The retired professor set his laptop aside and reached for the remote. For more than an hour, Chris Pionke had paid little attention to the NFL game on the television in front of him. The teams moved back and forth across the screen and the announcers provided analysis, but Pionke was scrolling mindlessly on his laptop. That changed when he heard the name.
Pionke, who taught engineering at the University of Tennessee for nearly three decades, perked up and increased the volume. He wondered if the announcers were just mentioning the former Volunteers quarterback, or if Dobbs was actually in the game. He squinted at the screen and spotted a tall, lanky, familiar-looking player wearing the No. 15 in Minnesota Vikings white and purple.
Pionke hollered to his wife who had been sitting over in the kitchen.
“Cindy!” Pionke said. “Josh is in!”
Their Knoxville, Tenn., home livened immediately with football noises. Dobbs barked the pre-snap cadence. Linemen crashed into one another. Announcers yelled, astonished at what they were watching. Pionke listened intently while Dobbs orchestrated a thriller of a victory in relief of rookie Jaren Hall despite having fewer than five days of preparation with his new team.
TOUCHDOWN VIKINGS! TOUCHDOWN VIKINGS! JOSH DOBBS TAKE OVER THE GAME! 📺: FOX pic.twitter.com/jChQH10AYF — FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) November 5, 2023
The professor cheered excitedly but was not shocked. Those who knew Dobbs well — his former coaches, advisers, mentors, family and friends — felt much the same way.
Their reaction to Dobbs’ public introduction is best summed up by former Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, who reiterated the same message five times in a 10-minute phone call:
“If you know Josh, this is not surprising. This is not surprising at all.”Josh Dobbs showed up in Knoxville wearing a baby-blue suit. Personalized business cards filled his pockets. A detailed schedule laid out his entire day.
Long before he became Tennessee’s starter, months before he even committed to the university, Dobbs took a tour. Alongside his parents, Stephanie and Robert, Dobbs was chaperoned across campus. They visited the football facilities as well as the engineering lecture halls.
Behind the scenes, the athletic department had orchestrated a meeting with Matthew Mench, then the head of the aerospace engineering department.
Toward the end of their conversation, Mench tossed out a question.“What math are you currently taking?”
Dobbs deadpanned, “Differential equations.”
Mench’s eyebrow rose as if to say: “How in the hell?”
Differential equations, mind you, typically follows Calculus 1, Calculus 2, Matrix algebra and Calculus 3. A high schooler taking such an advanced class was unheard of.
Why was Dobbs so advanced?
Stephanie, a former UPS executive, and Robert, a longtime banking executive, intentionally exposed Dobbs to an array of subjects as he was growing up in Alpharetta, Ga., outside of Atlanta. They parented with a general creed: The world is yours, and you can do anything you choose.
“To be able to do that,” Stephanie said, “you have to know what’s available.”
Josh Dobbs with engineering professor Matthew Mench. (Courtesy of the University of Tennessee College of Engineering)
Dobbs showed up for his first training camp as a freshman at Tennessee, Antone Davis, a UT football staffer, spotted Dobbs sitting on the floor inside the facility.A playbook was sprawled out on the carpet beside him. Dobbs scanned the pages. Davis thought he’d play a joke on the newbie, so he hollered down the hallway.
“Hey rookie,” he yelled, “you about to learn those plays yet?”
Davis thought Dobbs would squirm. Instead, he looked up and nodded convincingly.
“Yes sir,” Dobbs said. “I know all of the concepts, and I know what they’re trying to do.”
Davis nodded awkwardly and stepped back into his office.
“I was, like, ‘Uhh, OK then.’”Preparation was never a problem for Dobbs. He awoke at 6:30, attended class from 8-2, practiced and watched film from 2:30-7, then finished his homework in the academic building from 7:30-10. If need be, he’d find extra time for classwork or film study earlier in the morning or later in the evening.