The letters come like clockwork every Friday night. Before he nods off to sleep, Joe Doyle checks his email to read words of inspiration from his 85-year-old grandfather.
Jack Belcher has been writing Doyle letters since high school. But once Doyle became the starting punter for the University of Tennessee football team this season, Belcher made sure to send one every week.
The former pastor tells his grandson how proud he is, how grateful he is to watch him play and always includes some scripture to comfort him.
“He was headed on this new adventure in his life, and I wanted to give him some words of encouragement and let him know we were praying for him and to just do his best,” Belcher says. “He’s trained and worked hard to prepare for this moment. I want him to go out there and be himself and do the best he can.”
Doyle has been a consistent bright spot for the Vols this season. The redshirt freshman has punted 35 times, averaging 41.7 yards per punt. He booted a career-long 71-yard punt against Georgia and has had 15 punts downed inside the 20-yard line.
Doyle will try to help Tennessee (3-4, 1-3 SEC) win the field position battle on Saturday night at South Carolina (3-3, 2-3). The Vols are hoping to bounce back from a 58-21 loss to No. 1 Alabama and keep their bowl hopes alive.
Doyle is the hometown kid who grew up dreaming about playing for Tennessee. An All-American kicker at Farragut High, he was eager to join the legacy of great UT punters that have worn orange and white.
Doyle had scholarship offers from several smaller schools, but his heart was set on playing for the Vols.
“I was going to take anything. I told my friends, ‘If I get a preferred walk-on from Tennessee and I get a scholarship from an SEC school, I am still going to Tennessee,’” Doyle recalls. “I was willing to do whatever to represent Tennessee and play.”
The youngest of six children, Doyle grew up idolizing his older brothers, Aaron and Andrew, who played soccer in college.
Aaron was also an All-American punter at Farragut in 2004, and Joe would constantly watch replays of his games on VHS tapes.
Joe began kicking in middle school and attended kicking camps across the country in high school to gain exposure and experience.
As a senior at Farragut, Joe became the only punter selected for both the Army and Under Armour All-American games
“Joe was pretty focused on becoming a college punter at a very early age,” Aaron Doyle says. “Joe got started really early, whereas most punters and kickers are not focusing on what they do until high school. But he knew what he wanted, and worked hard to earn every bit of what he’s achieved.”
Although he was heavily recruited for a punter, Doyle’s family knew going anywhere but Tennessee wasn’t an option if the Vols expressed any interest.
“He wanted to play for Tennessee probably since the eighth grade. He’s been a Vols fan for life. He grew up in a family of Vols fans. He was going to UT no matter what,” Doyle’s mother, Lisa, explains.
“I loved his determination. He told us he can do it, and he believed he could compete. We fully supported him.”
Since Doyle signed as a preferred walk-on, the Vols have recruited other punters. The coaching staff made it clear Doyle would be in constant competition to secure the starting job.
“They called Joe into the office and told him what he would have to do to win that spot, and Joe basically smiled and said ‘That is what I want to hear,’” his mother recounts. “He always wants to push himself to get better and perform well. I know he never takes anything for granted.”
Confident but not boastful, Doyle knows when to talk and when to listen. He’s always been reliable and willing to sacrifice individual glory for the greater good.
“He is quiet until you get to know him, then he opens up more and is extremely loyal,” his mother adds. “He is so compassionate, and just loves people. He’s just a really good kid.”
Doyle’s demeanor has helped him excel during pressure moments on the field throughout his career.
“Joe doesn’t show a whole lot of emotion. As a kicker, you want to have the ice water in your veins to be able to be calm, cool and collected,” Aaron Doyle says. “I think that is a big advantage for him. I think he can stay more focused that way.”
Doyle still shares a close relationship with his older brothers. After years of idolizing them, they are now his biggest fans and follow his every move.
“I try not to bother him as much as I really want to,” Aaron Doyle adds with a laugh. “I really do want to contact him almost every day to ask for an update and ask how practice went. But I don’t want to annoy him.
“But we do talk after every game and he always makes the time to talk with me after the game.”
Doyle waited patiently behind Trevor Daniel last season, absorbing as much knowledge as he could from UT’s career leader in punting average.
The two worked out together this summer after Daniel signed as a free agent with the Houston Texans. Daniel has since joined the rich tradition of UT punters turned NFL starters, a list that includes Knoxville natives Dustin and Britton Colquitt and Michael Palardy.
Doyle’s older brothers played against the Colquitts in high school soccer.
“It’s always been my dream to be like them and play like them,” Joe Doyle says. “I am happy to make Knoxville proud.”
The local UT fan base has showered Doyle with support this season. Along with a large contingent of family in the stands, Doyle has tons of friends from Farragut that have watched him play his entire life.
“They are really proud of him. I’ve just heard of so many people in this community who tell me they were at the games and are pulling for him,” his mother says. “I know that means a lot to Joseph. He wants to represent UT and his community well.”
Doyle’s grandfather, who played football while he was stationed in England in the 1950s, hasn’t missed a single punt by his grandson this season.
Every Sunday for 50 years, Belcher wrote an article in the church bulletin. Being able to write letters to his grandson every Friday this fall is something he doesn’t take for granted.
Doyle calls his grandfather each week to thank him for writing and tell him how much better he feels after reading his letters.
It’s a tradition Belcher plans to continue for as long as Doyle keeps playing football and as long as the good Lord is willing.
“I am almost 86 years old. I don’t know how much longer I will last,” Belcher says. “But as long as I am living, I will write him words of encouragement and send it to him.”