Today marks my silver anniversary with Tennessee Volunteer Football. Twenty-five years ago I naively walked into Neyland Stadium for the very first time expecting I'd see pomp & circumstance, moving pre-game traditions and solid football. I didn't know that while I sat in Section A watching the Vols beat Oklahoma State (take that Gundy, you little weasel) that the Big Orange spirit was sinking into my soul and that I'd spend the rest of my life trying to quench an insatiable thirst to will the Vols to victory.
As a kid we'd travel from Charlotte, Tennessee to Gatlinburg every summer for my Daddy's Tennessee Water Authority meetings. It was a long five-hour trip for a young'un, so when we'd hit Knoxville at only an hour out from our destination (for me the destination was the indoor pool at the Glenstone), Daddy would hop off I-40 at exit 386B with the sole intention of driving through campus.
My parents had a way of building up excitement for this little jaunt down Cumberland Avenue -- likely to get me through the next hour of driving -- but it actually created an unintentional consequence: I connected to that drive and the unique-to-me University of Tennessee pedestrian bridge that connects the south part of campus to the north. I remember the curves of the bridge, the historic architecture and I remember exactly how the butterflies felt in my belly as we cruised The Strip looking like the tourists that we very much were.
Once I walked into Neyland Stadium on Saturday, September 30, 1995, all of those butterflies somehow brought more friends and suddenly my soul was on fire. All of the other small schools that had offered me scholarships to sing in their music programs fell by the wayside. There was no other option for my higher education. The University of Tennessee would be my home for the next five years. (Yes, I said "5" and we're going to skip over that part for now.)
Over these twenty-five years we've seen a lot as Vol fans -- pure ecstasy and utter heartbreak with layers of frustration and dysfunction that I still can't put into words. But this year feels different, doesn't it? Right? Maybe it's relief. Just a few weeks ago it looked like Covid would spoil the season altogether. Maybe it's the all-SEC schedule because we all know it truly does "mean more" down here. Maybe it's that we're so broken and divided as a nation that it feels as if college football is the only thing that could even begin to heal us and bring us together? I don't know...
The season is, no doubt, different. The Neyland Stadium I walked into twenty-five years ago that held 92,000+ will only greet a small percentage of those patrons this weekend for the home opener. And all of those folks will be wearing mandatory face covers. (Side note: if you order today & choose USPS 2-day shipping, you can have a new mask before kickoff!)
I hope and pray I get another twenty-five years cheering on my Vols (but please add more "Ws"). How special will that golden anniversary feel? Can you imagine the stories I will tell? We can't control what's ahead of us, but we can find joy where we're standing right now. As for me? I'll be reliving these precious memories and trying like heck to keep moving forward and making new ones.