It was in defeat that Jay Cutler proved his mettle as a college player, the kind of NFL quarterback he could one day be. It was in Nashville, where even the losses gained him the kind of respect he still can't quite get as a pro.
As the former Vanderbilt hero returns to Tennessee this weekend to play before fans who would still love to see him in Titan blue, it is not difficult to imagine that even an 11-1 record in his last 12 starts as Bears quarterback leaves Cutler wanting so much more.
It is perhaps unfair to call this, at age 29, a career crossroads for Cutler. He does have the Pro Bowl bid, if only one in 2008. And he has one trip to the playoffs, although that ended badly two years ago with one victory, one loss and a knee injury from which, on a psychic level at least, he may still be recovering.
Some who know him and Cutler himself will say that he doesn't give a whit what outsiders think of him and that he doesn't necessarily feel he has anything to prove. So why is that so hard to believe?
Maybe in part it's because his last three passes as a college quarterback, his last three plays at Vanderbilt, went for 15, 31 and finally 6 yards for a touchdown -- all to Earl Bennett -- as the Commodores defeated Tennessee 28-24 at Neyland Stadium in November 2005.
It was the first time Vanderbilt had won in Knoxville since 1975. (The Commodores won at home in1982.) After close losses at South Carolina and at No. 15 Florida in two of the previous three weeks, and a season in which Cutler, a three-year captain, became the first Vanderbilt player to win SEC Offensive Player of the Year, his place among the school's greats was secured.
But at 5-6, the Commodores were not going to a bowl game for the 22nd year in a row, and former Vandy coach Bobby Johnson remembers the conversation he had with Cutler about it last year.
"Jay is so confident and he had it in his mind that he was going to bring that program up, and we were going to consistently beat SEC teams," said Johnson, who retired in 2010. "I think he sincerely believed that, and it's what he worked for and what he wanted for himself, his teammates and for Vanderbilt.
"It was very disappointing to him that we didn't make it to a bowl and when we talked, it was eating at him still that he wasn't the guy who got Vanderbilt to its first bowl since '82." (The Commodores finally broke the streak in 2008, when they went to the Music City Bowl and beat Boston College.)
"It was bad for him. He didn't like it."
It's the perfect place for him. A natural when he retires. Cutler has a home in Nashville and still returns in the offseason. It affords him and his family the small-town feel and one other characteristic he might not find in Chicago.
"You can see Carrie Underwood at Target here and it's not a big deal," said Cutler's close friend and Nashville resident Mark Block.
But even with Underwood traipsing around Target, Cutler is still a hero in Nashville.
"A legend," Johnson called him.
It's an old story but one retold again this week, that Cutler may have gone to the Titans with the third overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft if not for one key dissenter in the war room.
"I think they were pretty set on Vince [Young]," Cutler said in a conference call with Titans media this week. "I think [Titans owner] Bud Adams was pretty much going to go with him." (Adams, a Houston resident, was a fan of Young's at Texas.)
"I went over there and threw a few times for them, but I think it was for show really."
Johnson is still surprised.
"In my mind, I thought he was the best quarterback available," Johnson said of Cutler. "And here was a guy in his college hometown, and not only were they going to get a great player but the fan base was probably going to buy every Jay Cutler jersey that could ever be made and sent to Nashville. I just couldn't understand why. I thought it was a no-brainer myself.
"You never know who made that decision and why they made that decision. I thought for sure it was a done deal and that we'd benefit in all kinds of ways. It would have been great from them and would have helped us too."
If Cutler felt slighted, he wouldn't say. And it wouldn't have been the first time the kid from Santa Claus, Ind., was injured by the lack of serious interest from Division I schools, then downright insulted when -- according to Cutler's father, Jack, in numerous reports at the time -- then-Illinois coach Ron Turner rescinded a scholarship offer for him to play for the Illini.
Then there was the matter of Cutler's final choice.
"Not only wasn't Jay highly recruited," said Cutler friend and Vanderbilt's assistant sports information director Larry Leathers, "but he recruited Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt did not recruit him."
And like those who have played for the Stanfords and Northwesterns and Dukes over the years, Vanderbilt players have a mindset all their own.
"I just think when you come to Vanderbilt, you have a chip on your shoulder," Leathers said. "And from that day until now, he's trying to prove to people that he's an elite quarterback. I don't think he has any questions he's a winning quarterback. Tim Tebow wasn't going to win at Vanderbilt."
Former Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer, a teammate of Cutler's at Vanderbilt for one season when he was a senior and Cutler a redshirt freshman, agreed that it requires a little something extra to play for the Commodores.
"Vanderbilt was really tough in those days because you don't work any less hard, especially for players who go on to long NFL careers," Hillenmeyer said. "You're frustrated by the fact that you're so close as a team, but of the 22 starters maybe 15 can play for most of the other SEC schools. And it's the weak links in the fold -- whether it's the second quarter, second half or a key play in the last drive -- that expose you. And as a team, that's a tough dynamic.
"Vanderbilt was always the king of the close losses. We'd be 20-point underdogs to Georgia and lose by three, or we'd go down to Florida and they'd be ranked second in the country and we'd lose by a last-second field goal. But we'd always lose. It was really frustrating because your body still hurts just as badly and you practice just as hard . You definitely learn how badly it hurts to lose despite working hard."
Mike Hazel, Vanderbilt's director of football operations, recalled a young Cutler in the weight room or on the field all summer.
"He would get in and bench-press with the offensive linemen, and he was as strong as any of them," Hazel said. "He would never let anyone outwork him .
"Knowing Jay, any time he loses it bothers him. He was one of the most competitive football players I've ever seen at Vanderbilt, and while he may outwardly express himself differently, I can promise you he has an unmatched desire to be successful and to win, and that it bothers him when he's not."
Cutler has worked out in recent years with Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers, Aaron's brother. And he has given generously to the strength and conditioning program at Vanderbilt. But it is his contribution to the program's legacy for which those like Johnson are most grateful.
"He didn't care who we were playing against, how good their corners were or his line was, he knew he could play against anybody, and I think everybody around him knew it too ," Johnson said.
"We didn't have a winning record, but it was not his fault, it wasn't anybody's fault. It was just what we were going through as a team at the time. He was confident he was going to help his teams win, and that's why everybody rallied around him. For Jay, it was always, 'Let's go win today,' and sometimes we did and sometimes we were real close. But he got us a little bit closer."
The Bears-Titans game this weekend is the hottest ticket in town, said Block, who helps Cutler's charitable foundation run its annual event in Nashville during the NFL offseason. There is a large local contingent of Bears fans and still a faction that pines over the fact that the Titans lost out on getting Cutler.
"Six years later, it is still a topic on radio down here, especially because of how Leinart and Young turned out," Block said.
Block jokes that maybe "after [a couple of] Super Bowl rings in Chicago," Cutler will still have a chance to come play for the Titans (his Bears contract runs through 2013).
"I know the real Jay," he said, "and he's a great guy and a funny, nice, good person who does a lot of good in the community a person whose goal is to win the Super Bowl. I don't know what everybody thinks of Jay, but I don't imagine they know the passion he has to win. When you know him, you know. That's his total focus after his family. That's his goal."