Growing up in the small town of Sweetwater in the East Tennessee Valley, I was branded a Tennessee Big Orange fan from the time I knew they weren’t talking about fruit.
In the late 60’s and early 70’s I remember listening to John Ward and Bill Anderson do play by play on an old radio that my uncle Clell had rigged the antenna up with foil for better reception. Through the static, we would sit close and strain to hear, living and almost dying every Saturday afternoon during football season based on how the Tennessee team did.
Not a single member of my family went to Tennessee. In fact, out of six children my mom had only myself and my oldest brother graduated high school. My uncle Clell left school to go to work in the fifth grade according to him. According to granpaw, Clell left school but he never did alot of work his whole life and never left home. Anyway, it was helping Uncle Clell keep that radio working that actually got me hooked listening. We all were proud Big Orange fans in every other way.
A very good friend of my grandpaw (I know it isn’t spelled correctly but this is how it was pronounced where I grew up) was a season ticket holder who owned Harry’s Wrecker Service. Harry lived within a mile of the new interstate 75 and his big, beautifully painted wrecker seemed to make his family a good living.
Also, painted in big letters beside the name on the truck, was Harry’s slogan, “23 and ¾ hour service.” Harry always got a big kick when someone would ask why not just say “24 hour service?” to which Harry would reply, “everybody should get fifteen minutes a day to take a crap!” Except, Harry didn’t say crap.
Anyway, in the fall of 1979, Harry’s wife June had to have some surgery. So, for the first time in many years he wasn’t going to attend the next couple of games. I happened to be over visiting with grandpaw one day when Harry asked me if I had ever seen a UT game in person. When I said no, he said, which tickets do you want; I got Rutgers at Homecoming and Notre Dame in the next week?
I immediately said Notre Dame. I was young but I wasn’t stupid! I had never heard of Rutgers and Notre Dame was well, Notre Dame! Harry said OK but he wanted to warn me that the Irish were ranked No. 1 at the start of the year and they likely were going to whip the Vols that year. After a few moments of thought about what type game I would always remember as my first, I asked Harry if I could trade for the Rutgers game.
So on Saturday morning, November 3rd, 1979, I was riding along with my best friend Eugene in his 340 Dodge Dart, headed to Neyland Stadium for my first UT game. Before we started, I picked up the Knoxville Journal and read aloud a funny column written by a local writer which posed the question “What is a Rutger?” He went on asking “is it some sort of potato?” Along with several other light hearted questions, he made it obvious the BIG game was going to be versus Notre Dame the next week.
Tennessee was 4-2, having just been beaten two weeks earlier by Alabama 17-27, on the “third Saturday in October”. Johnny Major’s Tennessee teams would lose twice more to Bear Bryant, before upsetting No. 1 ranked Alabama 35-28 in 1982, the last time The Bear would coach against the Vols.
When we got to our seats inside mammoth Neyland Stadium, it was amazing! The colors, the fans, cheerleaders, the booming P.A. system and the Pride of the Southland Band, all came together on a perfect fall day in the south. The stadium seating seemed so steep; it felt as if you would fall forever if you slipped.
During the game it looked again and again as if UT would break long scoring plays only for a last-second tackle by a Rutgers player. At halftime, Tennessee led 7-3. We all knew they were a second half team and these Scarlet Knights were going to wear down in the second half.
Blue-grass legend, Bill Monroe performed a few songs during the extended halftime. I remember hearing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and everyone getting excited when his band played “Rocky Top” as the UT band had only recently started playing the song after scores. Also making an appearance was Big John Tate, a heavy weight and number one contender for the title from the Knoxville area.
Soon, the second half started and it went much like the first. Me and about 90,000 (capacity crowd then) of my closest friends all learned together that whatever a Rutger was, it could sure play defense as they beat the heavily favored Vols 10-7 that day. The next week versus Notre Dame, UT got their act together and solidly beat the Fighting Irish, 40-18. So much for my plans to make certain my first live game was a win!
In the years since, I have made the trek back to Neyland and other stadiums a number of times. It has been my very good fortune to have only seen my team lose a handful of times out of scores of trips.
In the long-run, I wouldn’t trade my memories of that Rutgers loss for seeing the Notre Dame game the next week for any amount of money. I learned right off that winning or losing is just something that happens and way down the list of priorities when you are going to the big game on a beautiful fall football Saturday!