Friday, November 16, 2012

Rocky Top in person!

Warning: This post is so long. Maybe that's fitting, since it's one cap to a two-year project, right?

The Cliffs Notes version of my SEC football project, for those who skip over my football posts but for some reason want to read this one, is that I decided last summer to choose a Southeastern Conference football team to follow, to get a better sense of the deep tradition of college football in the South. (Here's the full story laid out, if you'd like the unabridged version.) I chose the Tennessee Volunteers. I followed beat writers and athletes on Twitter, started reading up on the team and watched and listened to a surprisingly high number of Vols football games. I was in some strange zone of fandom - I wanted to be a fan, but I was kind of just pretending, right, because I didn't really get it.

But then I started to get it. As I wrote in my season recap last December, I had crossed the line between pretending to be a fan and just being a fan.

The next step? Going to a game! Josh and I scoured the 2012 schedule to make our decision. We considered buying tickets for the UT-Florida game, held annually the third weekend in September. That weekend turned out to be crazy in Knoxville, with both teams in the hyped rivalry ranked nationally and the game being the host of ESPN's GameDay and the resulting national coverage. But Tennessee's loss in that game was a rough one, and I was hoping this late-in-the-season conference game against Missouri would yield a happier result for Vols fans. (I was also very excited that the trip would allow us to spend time in the Great Smoky Mountains, a key reason for stretching a game weekend into a longer stay, which we might not have been able to do in other more remote SEC towns.)

We flew into Atlanta, drove up to Tennessee, and on Friday, we drove into Knoxville to get the lay of the land and stock up on game day essentials. (The orange component of my wardrobe would multiply exponentially over the course of the trip.) We walked around campus and checked out the stadium. We also investigated the Vol Navy, an area along the river near the stadium where fans dock their boats beginning Friday afternoon on game weekends for a big, long tailgating party on the water.

Here's Josh walking in a crosswalk near Neyland Stadium on Friday. Tennessee's endzones are in that checkerboard pattern. I loved it! "And he's into the checkerboards!"

Saturday's game was a noon start, so we left the cabin just as the sun was rising, to be part of the festivities.

We were really decked out in the home team's colors, thanks to our shopping extravaganza the day before.

"No, no, I'm not trying to take a self-portrait of my ponytail ribbons at all."
Tennessee's season has not gone according to anyone's plan (with the exception of some notable individual offensive performances), and the fan base is really peeved about it. It affects attendance - the stadium's capacity is 102,000 and Saturday's game drew "only" 90,000 people - and it affects the mood on the streets. It was way quieter than the footage we saw from that Florida game, where students were lined up for the GameDay broadcast at, like, 6 a.m. But even a "quiet" SEC game is about a zillion times more wild than any college football I've seen - and the game day traditions were still in full swing.

Those traditions include the Vol Walk, a weekly routine during which the home team's players hop off their team bus two or three blocks from the stadium and walk the rest of the way in suits. I wanted prime seats for this, so we headed over early enough to get a front row spot.

We posed for a photo while we waited. It would turn out to be a sunny day, topping out at 70 degrees. Perfecto.

Meanwhile, two guys and their sons grabbed seats next to us, and one of the men noticed my Mankato Marathon chip still on my shoe (oops) and struck up a conversation about running. We started talking about Tennessee football, and he said as soon as his son had turned six earlier this year, they'd started going to football games on Saturdays together. He asked how long we'd been fans, we told him about my project (and how the Neyland experience factored into my decision), and he was loving the whole thing. He said to his son, "It's their very first Tennessee game! Isn't that cool?" and his son looked at me and said, "It's my fifth." Love it.

And then the bus pulled up, and the players got out, and the crowd started cheering.

I didn't take any other photos because I was too busy loving the experience. The players and coaches were giving high fives and greeting fans, especially young kids. It was pretty wonderful - and as we decided, fewer things would pump up an athlete more before a game.

Elsewhere in the pre-game festivities, it's very important to note that I met Smokey, the Tennessee mascot!!!!!

After the Vol Walk, there were a lot more fans milling around. We mingled.

And then we went into the stadium, about an hour before the game started. We watched warm-ups. You like those checkerboards, don't you?

The real reason for our early arrival was to get settled into our seats well before the next tradition, the Power T. The Vols' band, the Pride of the Southland Marching Band, marches across the field in the shape of the Tennessee T, then positions itself near one endzone, and the players run out through the T. How beloved is this tradition? As our new friend from the Vol Walk told us, the Power T would never fail to give him chills - and Josh had picked our tickets specifically with it in mind.

The stadium began to fill up, and by game time, it was a sea of orange. I have never, ever seen so much orange.

By halftime, the Vols were up 21-7, so we got to experience the energy of the stadium when the Vols were controlling the game. (In one word: amazing.) I had also gotten to hear the band play "Rocky Top," my favorite stadium tradition, what seemed like several hundred times. Unfortunately, we also watched that lead erode in the second half.

And then we watched not one, not two, not three, but four overtimes to determine the winner. And it wasn't Tennessee. We were part of a dejected crowd that couldn't quite believe what had happened as we all filed out of Neyland. The score-or-go-home overtimes made for an unbelievably exciting conclusion, with monster roars from the fans - but in the end, Tennessee fell to 0-6 in conference games, a record that is not acceptable to the fan base.

As the days passed, I'd understand the depth of that passion even better thanks to the local sports radio station, which hours and hours of Tennessee football analysis and discussion. On Tuesday - that's three full days after the game - callers were still going over specific plays and calls. They were endlessly debating the best decision for Tennessee's next coach - and the current coach (a big part of my Tennessee choice last year) hasn't even lost his job yet. And by all accounts, this is a down year, when fans aren't quite as into the season because of the win-loss record. (By the way, Josh downloaded that station's app for his phone, so we've been able to listen to more Tennessee football talk even after we got back to Minnesota. Very comforting.)

So there you have it: the game day experience for these two Rocky Top fans. We loved our time at Neyland Stadium. We'll just have to make another trip so we can see the Vols grab a win, in person, for ourselves.

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