KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- For Joshua Dobbs, it's not a taboo subject. It's just not relevant.
The Tennessee quarterback doesn't have hair because of alopecia areata, which first showed up around the time he was transitioning from elementary school to junior high. That's when his mom, Stephanie Dobbs, noticed a thinning spot on his scalp. A dermatologist diagnosed him with the disease, prescribed some medication that calmed the inflammation and brought his hair back in the patchy spot.
"It ebbs and flows, like a lot of other diseases," Stephanie Dobbs said. "You can regain and lose it again. The episode was so short, we assumed it may be completely dormant."
For a while, it was. As Dobbs matured from a dominant pee-wee football player into a legitimate Division I prospect, his hairline slightly receded. Near the end of high school, his eyebrows began to disappear. His hairline continued to recede after he arrived at Tennessee. Eventually, the patches returned, and today, he shaves it all off.
Dobbs is the face of a Volunteers program aiming to capture its first SEC East division title since 2007. Entering his senior season, Dobbs is facing as much pressure as any quarterback in college football. Vols fans are starved for the program to return to prominence, and there are plenty of reasons to believe that 2016 is the season it'll finally happen. Seventeen starters return from a 9-4 team that blew big leads to Florida and playoff-bound Oklahoma. Tennessee lost to Arkansas and Alabama by a combined nine points before ripping off six wins to close the season, capped by a 45-6 rout of 10-win Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. This summer, the Vols earned 225 of a possible 331 first-place votes in the SEC East preseason poll and are a fixture in the preseason top 10 nationally.
Dobbs is considered a Vols leader, and yet, his appearance is a topic of conversation for casual fans across the country, in living rooms, sports bars and the increasingly less urbane realm of social media and message boards.
"It's annoying, obviously," Dobbs said. "You see it and you get annoyed by it, upset by it, but you don't let it affect you. That's what they want to do. They're trying to make you feel less about yourself and give themselves some kind of ego boost and make themselves feel better. They're ignorant."
"That's why you have the block button," his father, Robert Dobbs, said.
NBA veteran Charlie Villanueva is the most prominent athlete to have alopecia. Dobbs heard about former Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier, now with the Steelers, who also has it.
"When you're in the media and you're seen on camera all the time and people see you all the time, you're prone to more people discussing it, positively and negatively," Dobbs said. "It's a given. It all comes with the platform. When you're placed on a platform or a pedestal, people are going to find any way to say something. Whether you have hair or not, people are going to say something."
Dobbs sees ignorance on his accounts and hears it from opponents on the field. He's not alone. Villanueva once accused Kevin Garnett of calling him a "cancer patient" on the court, though Garnett later denied it happened.
"Ignorance is just unintelligence," Dobbs said. "My teammates say all the time, there's just a wall. I can hear something and no matter what it is, it's not going to affect me. That just comes from having self-confidence. I believe in myself, my abilities and the type of person I am."
A Tennessee spokesman said that outside of an SEC-sponsored video and recent local television coverage of Dobbs' visit with an 11-year-old Tennessee fan with alopecia named Riley Ripley, Dobbs has spoken very little about the condition that any casual viewer might wonder about when tuning in to a Tennessee game.
Instead, the major in aerospace engineering has focused on excelling in his program, earning a reputation as one of the smartest players in college football. And he's the centerpiece of Butch Jones' attempt to revive one of the game's sleeping giants.
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To understand Joshua Dobbs, it helps to understand his parents.
They speak with a relentless positivity. Their positivity is battle-tested, proven to be deeper than meaningless platitudes or lip service to a set of ideals that have never truly faced distress.
Back in 1990, five years before Josh was born, his mom Stephanie began experiencing pain and fatigue when she ran, played tennis or participated in any of the other hallmarks of her active lifestyle. Six months of tests revealed the culprit: polymyositis. It's a rare disease with no cure that causes muscle inflammation. Hips, thighs and shoulders are usually affected the most, and the condition gradually worsens with age.
Stephanie continued working and eventually became the district manager in corporate human resources for UPS before retiring when her body made it impossible to continue. Josh's father Robert works for Wells Fargo, where he's a senior vice president and manages operations in Atlanta.
By the time Josh was five, Stephanie spent much of her time in a wheelchair.
"It was a slow process," Robert Dobbs said. "As that occurred, we made a decision, my wife and I, that we would not change our life goals. We would not change our lifestyle, expectations we have for one another, plans we have for our son. We have this to deal with. How do we successfully deal with it and go on about our lives? And deal with it in a positive frame of mind. That's what we did. We never made a big deal about it with Josh. Whatever Josh needed one of us to do, we did it."
It wasn't long before Josh's football career began. Most of the time, Robert was available to help Stephanie get around to Josh's games. When he wasn't, that wasn't an excuse. Fifteen years later, Stephanie still hasn't missed one of Josh's games or any major school events.
Josh grew up watching his mom live with a disease that vastly altered her physical capabilities. For him, tackling a disease that only affected him cosmetically felt minor in comparison.
Still, that doesn't mean ignoring reality. Josh gets periodic checkups with a dermatologist and is currently undergoing a treatment on his eyebrows that could re-spawn growth. For now, there are numerous light brown marks that have the appearance of tattooed eyebrows but could grow into real hair.
"I like to look at the positives," Dobbs said. "I get to save $12 a week on a haircut, so I'm not complaining. Every five weeks, I buy myself a new pair of shoes and go on about my business."
Back home, Dobbs made time for volunteer work in the community growing up, and during Christmas time back in Georgia, he drops off cookies for his local fire department. His recent efforts have earned him more notoriety as he's embraced a role as one of the public faces of alopecia.
His visit with Ripley and her trip to campus made headlines, but he also met up with another young boy with alopecia named Cade Street after the boy wasn't able to say hello at Tennessee's spring game this year.
"To see a kid who's younger than me and is affected a lot worse than I was at that age, I definitely had to take advantage of the chance to make an impact," Dobbs said.
Whatever happens this fall will determine how Dobbs is viewed alongside the litany of Tennessee greats.
It won't change much about how he views himself, in the classroom, on the field or in the mirror.
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