I remember looking out the window after a 6-hour drive and seeing the sea of orange that covered the sidewalks of Cumberland Avenue.
The experience was like no other as my father and I inched closer to a stadium known for it’s breath taking atmosphere, and memorable moments.
I was a 16-year old kid that was about to witness a Tennessee football game for the first time in my life. It wasn’t just any game– it was the Vols biggest rival, the Florida Gators. When we entered the stadium I’ll never forget how big Neyland was, and how much of an awe factor this massive structure provided in person.
The anticipation inside me began to grow as my eyes focused on a stadium that would pack 102,455 fans to watch Tennessee football. As the band marched down the field to form the power “T” the crowd began to roar as one of the greatest traditions in all of sports presented itself.
My dad pointed towards the tunnel and said, “here they come”. The lights of Neyland reflected off of every player in orange, and I vividly remember how much brighter the jerseys looked in person.
The excitement from the crowd was deafening as the players ran past the “Pride of the Southland Band”. Every hair on my body stood up. My heart pounded as the players ran through the “T” and I quickly realized I was about to witness a team play that I’ve followed since early childhood.
There was a buzz that electrified the crowd as Corey Larkins stood at the goal line awaiting the arrival of the opening kickoff. The sound of orange pom poms echoed from one end of Neyland to the other before hearing over 100,000 people yell, “BOOM” as the kickers foot contacted the ball.
I remember turning to my dad and telling him, “I’d ride six-hours every week to watch this”. It was something that I’ve never been a part of– it was like a shot of indescribable adrenaline. Every time Florida possessed the ball, Neyland would turn into a temporary hell for every player in a Florida uniform. Tennessee and Florida exchanged blows throughout the game and neither team showed signs of letting up.
Late in the game, Tennessee kicker, James Wilhoit missed an extra point to tie the game at 28. The crowd mumbled among itself as defeat quickly crept into the minds of every Tennessee fan that surrounded me. I felt a sense of anger paralyze me while watching the Gators celebrate Wilhoit’s mistake. When Florida got the ball back, I released all the anger inside of me by officially becoming a part of the insanity within Neyland. The Gators buckled under the pressure and gave the ball back to a team that was feeding off its home field advantage. The Vols drove the ball down the field and provided 50-yards of potential redemption to a kicker who lost all hope just moments ago.
The Vols lined up as Wilhoit gave a slight nod, letting the place holder know that he was ready for the kick. Every Tennessee fan was holding their breath as Wilhoit ran towards the ball that was placed perfectly on the grass. The ball was blasted into the air and Wilhoit’s reaction told the entire crowd that he drilled the game winning field goal.
Neyland Stadium erupted as the ball went through the uprights. People were screaming, high-fiving, and hugging strangers that they’ve never met. It was absolute insanity that will never be forgotten.
It was the greatest moment of my childhood, and something that will remain with me for the rest of my life. When people ask me, “what’s the most memorable moment that you’ve experienced as a Vols fan?” I immediately tell them, “James Wilhoit’s kick to beat Florida in 2004.”
If you are a die-hard Tennessee fan like myself, then you have a memory similar to mine. A memory that you will never forget, and a memory that brought an immediate love for The University of Tennessee.
Every generation has a memory that created a passion for Tennessee football. Some will never forget Condredge Holloway running past defenders with ease. Some will never forget Willy Gault sprinting down the side line, or Heath Shular diving for the end zone in a torrential down pour. Some will never forget Peyton Manning picking apart Alabama, and some will never forget Tee Martin throwing a bomb to Peerless Price in the National Championship game.
These moments were special to every fan that had the pleasure of witnessing them. During this time Tennessee fans saw coaches like Bill Battle, Johnny Majors, and Phillip Fulmer, collect a combined 327 wins. Since the departure of Fulmer in 2008, the Tennessee fan base has seen three coaches win a total of 56 games. The moments that a once proud fan base experienced quickly disappeared, and a new generation of fans became accustomed to watching a team struggle against teams like Vanderbilt, South Carolina, and UMASS.
Over the last 10-years, Tennessee fans would begin the season with high-hopes of competing in the SEC Championship game, or making it to a respectable bowl game against a top notch program. The fans were patient for so long, and when things couldn’t get any worse… they got worse. It was a never ending nightmare that continued year-after-year.
The production that fans were used to seeing had disintegrated into a distant memory, and there were times when fans would post free-tickets online. Our coaches during this time period couldn’t coach their way out of a paper bag. Every time you looked up they were making another idiotic play call that made you claw your eyes out, but our fans still packed a stadium to watch the team they adore.
There is no fan base in the country like Tennessee.
No fan base in the country will pack a stadium to watch a 4-8 football team struggle with an interim coach.
No fan base in the country spends more money on merchandise, tickets, and gas to drive numerous hours knowing their team is about to get slaughtered.
No fan base in the country would pack a stadium week-after-week to watch Derek Dooley and Butch Jones continually make horrible decisions, and no fan base in the country would accept 10-years of failure and then hire Greg Schiano as their next coach. If you say otherwise, then you’re lying.
Lastly, this goes to every media member outside of the University of Tennessee: we want our program back. We want memories like the one I shared with my dad, and we want a football coach who can lead the Tennessee program back to promise.
We know you will continue to bitch and moan, but when a fan base has sat through years of mediocrity and pure torture– please keep your irrelevant comments to yourself. Don’t tell us that we are crazy for not wanting a coach that no other University wants. If you’re not a die-hard Tennessee fan, then my advice is simple– Shut the hell up. This fan base deserves more.