My first experience with college football came in 2006. I guess it’s the year my father officially decided his son would like football, so we took the 13-hour trip from Dallas to Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee, to see the No. 8 Vols host No. 13 LSU in the sweltering heat.
The Vols lost that game, 28-24. I didn’t have much of a rooting interest, mostly because I couldn’t hear myself think. As always, it was very loud in Neyland, and I had developed a splitting headache. Regardless, I was hooked on the game of football. Looking back on it, that game was sort of a turning point for both teams. More on that later.
Fast-forward five months or so, my favorite professional team, the Chicago Bears, marched all the way to the Super Bowl only to fall short to a familiar face around campus — Peyton Manning.
I’d fallen in love with the Bears, mostly because of the ‘ridiculous’ Devin Hester. I was just six at the time, so I couldn’t help but think of how electric one of his kick returns would have been under the lights at Neyland. Obviously, that was just a fantasy.
But, that’s enough about me. Here in Knoxville, football is revered as some sort of religion, and it isn’t hard to see why. The heyday of Tennessee football may be long gone, but the fans still cheer as if the Orange and White are natty-bound. That sort of loyalty, whether in sport or otherwise, is something to be admired.
Tennessee and LSU have taken different paths since that game 15 years ago. The Vols are on their sixth head coach, and LSU is fresh off a national title run that featured perhaps the most dominant team the game has ever seen. It can be frustrating to view something as simple and ultimately pointless as sports through that lens, especially when considering Tennessee’s recent history.
Here’s my spin zone. The introduction of a championship game for college football has seen 12 different schools win the whole thing across 23 years. Tennessee, as hopefully you all know, is one of those schools.
Don’t get me wrong, the frustrations of Tennessee fans as of late are justified. My last intention is for Vol nation to think my message to them is to “be grateful for what you have” in perhaps the lowest point in Tennessee football history.
I can say this though — we should all be grateful we can come together and experience this wonderful game. COVID-19 taught us that things can get scary and lonely very quickly, and watching a ball go back and forth on our television screens kind of pales in comparison to that harsh reality.
And still, Josh Heupel and the Tennessee Volunteers will head into Neyland Stadium on Sept. 2 with a clean slate and nothing but history to write ahead of them. Vols fans could be witnessing the beginning of something special, or maybe they’re not. Either way, let’s just enjoy the ride.
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