Monday, August 31, 2009

Don't I post this every year about now?

Here's my alltime favorite piece of writing about college football in Tennessee. Probably I posted it last year and will again next year, until the IP police tell not to do it any more:

It's Football Time in Tennessee
by Jake Vest -- Orlando Sentinel -- Jake Vest is the creator of the comic strip That's Jake.

Re-printed in Knoxville News-Sentinel January 14, 1996

I grew up just down the river from Knoxville's Neyland Stadium in the poor direction -- out toward the rock quarries, dairy farms and tobacco patches.

On a crisp mid-October Saturday you could climb a hill, and if the wind was just right, you could hear the rich people booing Bear Bryant and the Tide.

I spent a lot of time climbing those hills and listening.

Football was the second favorite sport out in the greater Forks of the River metropolitan area, right behind squirrel hunting -- which you didn't need a ticket to do.

Sometimes the squirrel hunters would carry transistor radios so they could listen in on John Ward, the Voice of the Vols, calling the shots for that other sport. If Tennessee was driving for a score, there would be a general, temporary cease-fire.

Now that is devotion. Anything that gets a Tennesseean s mind off hunting is something special.

If it was a particularly big game, even the dogs would stop barking. They knew Ward's voice, and they could tell when he was getting serious, a fact that may seem like a stretch to some but you've got to remember we had some mighty good dogs.

Out in my part of the woods, an affection for the Big Orange was something you took up early in life and held onto.

One of my first memories is of sitting on the front porch in a swing with my grandfather, that s Pappaw in East Tennessean, listening on the radio to Tennessee play Ole Miss. That was back in the days when the forward pass was considered an alternative lifestyle, something you did if you weren't man enough to play real football, and both teams rushed about 300 times for a total
of about 150 yards.

Every time Ole Miss would gain a step, Pappaw would cuss and spit tobacco juice. By halftime, the side yard looked like an oil spill.

What's most remarkable about this is that I don t think Pappaw had any notion of what a football game was. It wasn t mentioned in the Bible, so he had no reason to have ever read about it; and he sure had never attended a game. He had no idea what those Mississippians were doing. But he knew they were doing it to us. And he was against it. He never set foot in the University of Tennessee campus in his life, but he was a Vol and a mighty good one if I say so myself.

If you can understand my Pappaw, you can probably understand the relationship between Tennessee football and Tennessee football fans. If you can't, there's not much reason to try to explain it.

It's an us vs. them proposition. If you're one of us, you know how we feel; if you're not, I'm not sure you want to know.

Some people make the mistake of separating the game from all the stuff that surrounds the game and therefore can't see what's the big deal. College football in general, Southern college football in the particular and Tennessee Volunteer Go Big Orange college football, to be precise, is much much more than that.

It's crisp autumn afternoons with chicken barbecuing, bands playing and trees trying to out-pretty each other. It s riding down the river as part of the Vol Navy and singing Rocky Top 400 or 500 times in an afternoon. It s a cold beer and a turkey sandwich at Sam & Andy s down on Cumberland Avenue before the game. It s tailgating around Kent Boy Rose's orange and white motor home -- one of the hundreds of that color that line Neyland Drive on game day, right outside Neyland Stadium where General Neyland used to coach. It's memories of Tennessee Walking Horses strutting the sidelines and of cannons in the end zone. It's Old Smokey howling for a touchdown. It's John Ward hollering GIVE HIM SIX when the good guys score and hollering STOPPED BY A HOST OF VOLUNTEERS when the bad guys get stuffed. It's Bobby Denton calling the play by play and telling a fired-up crowd "It's fooootball time in TENN-E-SSEEEEE!" It's old women and little babies decked out in orange. It's African-Americans and redneck farmers high-fiving, hugging and saying "How bout them Vols?" after a touchdown.

It's touchdowns.

It's road trips to Birmingham, radio talk shows, shakers, and flags flapping in the wind. It's dancing to the Tennessee Waltz after the game and sipping illicit Tennessee whiskey during it.

It's memories: The time we beat the unbeatable Auburn and the unstoppable Bo Jackson couldn't go anywhere but backward; the undertalented Daryl Dickey shutting the overactive mouths of a Miami team in the Sugar Bowl we were supposed to lose by 22 but won by 28; holding Larry Csonka and Floyd Little out of the end zone to preserve a bowl victory over Syracuse; reminding Ken Stabler that left-handers can lose football games too; Condredge Holloway hopping out of an ambulance to return to the UCLA game and rally the troops to a tying touchdown; Jack Reynolds cutting his car in half after a loss and earning the nickname Hacksaw.

It's Doug Atkins, the Majors boys, Bob Johnson, Charlie Rosenfelder, Karl Kremser, Richmond Flowers, Herman "Thunderfoot" Weaver, Dewey "Swamp Rat" Warren, Tony Robinson, Curt Watson, Steve Kiner, Willie Gault, Carl Pickens and Reggie White and all our other heroes running through that big T while the Pride of the Southland band plays and over 100,000 of us holler and carry on like free-will Baptists having a spell. It's also memories of my daddy sitting on the front porch during the last autumn Saturdays of his life listening to the game on the radio and cussing and spitting tobacco juice every time an opponent gained a step on us. He would understand what I'm talking about.

So would Pappaw.

I could go on, but you probably get the picture. If you don't, you won't ever so there's no reason to go further.

I guess it's the kind of feeling that just runs in the family.