Spending a Saturday in Knoxville amid thousands of rabid Vol fans is an experience like…no other. Over 100,000 head to Neyland Stadium, where first many gather at Calhoun’s on the Tennessee River to see just how much beer they can consume, and to await a table for hours to have the chance to eat the famous ribs cooked here, known far and wide. They truly are the best I have ever eaten.
Next to Calhoun’s, rolls the Tennessee River. There the Vol Navy is out in force. In front of us, we see the Orange Pearl yacht docked. We wonder aloud if this belongs to Bruce Pearl, the “fired” basketball coach from several years ago.
The different orange and white costumes vary from striped orange dresses, sundresses with cowboy boots, elegant orange scarves and frilly white jackets, to the proverbial orange and white checkerboard overalls. Other options include the ubiquitous t-shirts with saying that proudly depict the University, the state, the hatred of opposing teams, and simple UT logos. The caps are everywhere, in all kinds of styles. Some are camouflage with a Tennessee logo proudly embroidered. We saw a pair of cowboy boots with the Tennessee logo embroidered on the toel. In front of the stadium, Johnny Majors is idolized with a huge bronze statue of the ex-coach and football player.
Before the game, there is the honorary walk of the football players. Fans gather in crowded formation to have the opportunity to see their gods up close. The band comes in, heading down a small hill from the campus to the stadium. They pause, and inflame the fans by playing Rocky Top. Fans gathered in the thousands sing along and discuss the likelihood of winning. The majorettes strut and twirl batons to the fascinated stares of little girls who want to grow up and be them. Stats are exchanged. The local radio station is there in force to keep everyone up to date on the expectations for the players and the coaches.
After the band, the rush to get in is on. Find the correct gate, pay exorbitant prices for pizza, hot dogs, peanuts, and chips with melted cheese. Then find your seat, and get ready for the big game.
Yesterday’s game against Oklahoma had a checkerboard theme. The fans could check the Tennessee Football website to see what color shirt they needed to wear based on their seats to assist this checkerboard theme. The student section is loud, with the band sitting next to them. Everyone wearing orange and white is ready to win, to urge their players on, to yell at the referees, and to second-guess every missed play. It is intoxicating.
I sat next to a very nice, elegant woman, with a beautiful voice. She made the Star Spangled Banner sound like its supposed to. There are service dogs in the stadium wearing orange football jerseys. Peyton Manning is spoken about with reverence. Many are wearing the football jersey with #16. This indeed, resembles a religion, if you don’t listen to the words used after the game when they lose. The kind woman said good bye at the end of the game, and commented that if she never saw me again on earth, she would see me in heaven. It very much feels like a southern denomination.
I do get caught up in the passion. I have three sons who love sports, and a husband with an avid love of anything Tennessee. His friend was there with us, and he, too, is rather a lunatic fan. They discuss games that happened in 1967. To be clear, it is now 2015. Sound like a religion to you?
At the end of the day, the Vols lost to the Oklahoma Sooners on the last play. This of course pleased those in Red, and deflated the massive Orange group. Oh, well, there’s always next week. The fans rise and leave in a parade fashion. Every moment of the game is up for discussion.
The game is rehashed by all the fans on their drive home, along with the radio talking heads, and the sportscasters on TV. For today, the service is done, and thousands head home from the game. Some head to hotels, where they will catch a flight home on Sunday. Many will return for the next home. Most will watch it on TV. Welcome to the religion of Tennessee Football. Change the colors and the location, and the same thing is happening in stadiums all over the United States on Thursday nights and Saturday afternoons. I would hate to have to explain this to aliens.
Wish that I was on ol’ Rocky Top
Down in the Tennessee hills
Ain’t no smoggy smoke on Rocky Top
Ain’t no telephone bills
Once I had a girl on Rocky Top
Half bear, the other half cat
Wild as a mink, sweet as soda pop
I still dream about that
Once two strangers climbed ol’ Rocky Top
Lookin’ for a moonshine still
Strangers ain’t come down from Rocky Top
Reckon they never will
Corn won’t grow at all on Rocky Top
Dirt’s too rocky by far
That’s why all the folks on Rocky Top
Get their corn from a jar
I’ve had years of cramped up city life
Trapped like a duck in a pen
Now all I know is it’s a pity life
Can’t be simple again.
Rocky Top you’ll always be
Home sweet home to me
Good ol’ Rocky Top
Rocky Top Tennessee, Rocky Top Tennessee
“Rocky Top” copyright 1967 by House of Bryant Publications
Written by Boudleaux and Felice Bryant
Y’all come! Ya hear?