I love college football.
Let me be clear.
I love college football.
I really love the Tennessee Vols.
They make it hard sometimes (a lot of times), but every September, I put on my orange and enter a new season with my hopes inflated and my expectations unrealistic. My eyes well up every Saturday when my boys run through the Power T and I sing “Rocky Top” loud and proud in my apartment after every touchdown. If I didn’t live in Los Angeles, I would be in Knoxville far more often for game day.
Very few things in life compare to a Saturday in the fall in Knoxville.
It’s hard to go to a school like Tennessee and not love college football. My favorite memories from undergrad happened at Neyland Stadium – or in the parking lots and frat houses around it before and after the game. The air vibrates with both excitement and the sound of the Pride of the Southland marching to the stadium and the whole town comes to a pause for the Salute to the Hill. Strangers hug and high five when a play goes our way. We commiserate when they don’t. We still talk about 1998 like it was yesterday, and we will go to the mat if you try to tell us Peyton Manning is anything other than the GOAT.
Something magical happens when that Power T opens up and the team takes the field. It’s cult-like. Special. 102,000 of your best friends, all wearing orange, all cheering for the boys on the field who are playing their hearts out for a school they love maybe even more than you love it. They wear the orange and white and they carry the pressure of a rabid fandom on their shoulders.
My love of college football is more than being a Tennessee alumni though.
College football was Papa Clark and I’s “thing.” He had a “thing” with all of his grandkids be it hunting, fishing, or a nickname. Our thing was football (and my bad driving…).
I vividly remember asking him to explain football to me.
I was in second grade and had a crush on Jonathan Gentry who loved the Dallas Cowboys. He wore a Cowboys shirt of some sort every day, and I decided I would like football too so he would like me. I was at Papa and Granny’s house and I couldn’t tell you who was playing, just that it was an NFL game. I climbed up into his recliner with him and asked him to explain football to me. He spent the rest of the game helping me understand what downs were and how many points a touchdown was versus a field goal. I had been anti-sports up until then, thought sports were “for boys.”
By the time I left, I was hooked on football.
And the Dallas Cowboys.
I begged for a Cowboys sweatshirt and a Cowboys Starter jacket (remember those?) for Christmas. Grandma Myrtle got me the sweatshirt. Paper and Granny got me the Starter jacket (we all got one that year if I remember correctly).
I watched my first Super Bowl that year.
The Cowboys won.
They beat the Buffalo Bills.
Papa was unimpressed that I was a Cowboys fan. He was a hardcore Washington Redskins fan and if you know anything about football, you know the Cowboys and Redskins don’t mix. My loyalty to the Cowboys waned over the years though, and once I moved to Tennessee, I became all in on the Titans.
I’m still all in on the Titans.
Papa and I talked a little about the NFL, but college football was our true love. I grew up cheering for the Virginia Cavaliers because he cheered for the Cavaliers. When I declined my acceptance to UVA in favor of my beloved Tennessee, he became a Tennessee fan (and, later, when my cousins went to Arkansas, a Razorback fan, too). I gave him a Tennessee hat one Father’s Day and he wore it daily for a long time. We buried him with it, along with a couple of other hats he wore often in his rotation (including a Razorback hat). I bought him a new Tennessee hat a few years later, but he preferred the old one. Granny gave me the new one after he died and I keep it in a safe place.
Papa passed away on August 23, 2012, just days before football season. We talked about Tennessee’s chances at a good season in our last conversation. His prediction that it would be abysmal and Derek Dooley – a Virginia alum – wouldn’t last the season as head coach was right. We went 5-7 that year and Dooley (and his orange pants) was fired before the season ended.
I picked up the phone to call Papa while watching the kickoff game eight days after his passing. It was the Chick-Fil-A kickoff game in Atlanta against N.C. State. Cordarrelle Patterson was putting on a show and my hopes for a great season were high. I had all but finished dialing when I remembered he was gone. I had a good cry instead – and sang “Rocky Top” through my tears.
Funny, what we remember, isn’t it? The 2012 season wasn’t the least bit noteworthy from a winning standpoint, but so many details from that first game stand out just because I couldn’t call Papa to compare notes. He would have been watching, too, and we both thought we were a better coach and/or quarterback than whoever was on the field.
I still think I would make an excellent head coach.
Every year, when my Vols run through that Power T for the first time, it’s not just about football. It’s not just about how many games we will win and how mad I’ll get at the coach and how often I’ll say “That’s so Tennessee” when they make one of their infamous mistakes. It’s about the nostalgia. It’s about those memories made in Papa’s recliner and on the bleachers of Neyland with my best friends, sneaking the liquor we stuffed into our cowboy boots into our overpriced sodas and making fools of ourselves every time a camera came by in case we ended up on the jumbotron or, better, ESPN.
We managed ESPN once, by the way. It was a game against Auburn, it was pouring rain, and we had made excellent t-shirts.
I’ll be in a comedy pilot writing class across the country when Tennessee kicks off tonight. That whole timezone thing makes watching football interesting, especially the noon games. But I’ll be sneaking my phone to check the score, cursing under my breath when things don’t go our way and I’ll probably utter a “YES!” when they do, all while trying to pay attention.
And I’ll be thinking about Papa and those fall days spent in Neyland.
Because it’s football season.
The best season.
Here’s to you, Tennessee.
I’ll give my all.