“On a Hallowed hill in Tennessee
Like Beacon shining bright
The stately walls of old UT
Rise glorious to the sight.”
It’s Football Time in Tennessee – the first Fall of my life without my mother, who was a two-time alumna of the university and a lifelong Volunteer football fan, having grown up in the shadow of Neyland Stadium, her childhood home where McClung Tower now stands. She was a VFL before it was a thing.
Gmamma knew the words to all the original fight songs and was not a fan of “Rocky Top,” considering it a latecomer to her treasured Volunteer traditions. She went to football games for decades, with season tickets and a parking pass handed down from her Uncle Bob McClure, 1929 Head Football Manager, until an assessment caused my parents to give up their seats. By that time, Gmamma preferred to watch the games on TV anyway. In fact, she often had to turn off the TV if she felt she was bringing her beloved Vols bad luck in any way.
For years, Gmamma dutifully donned her orange scarf and padded about the kitchen and breakfast room on Game Day (before the move to The Old Folks Home). She kept a watchful eye on the tiny rabbit-eared TV or listened to John Ward’s famous play-by-play on the radio. She heated up frozen Kroger pizzas in the toaster oven for my young son, while his father and I went to the games. Mac understood that Gmamma’s world didn’t extend past those two rooms. He wouldn’t have recognized her without her signature apron over her dirndl denim skirt pulled up almost to her armpits.
You can imagine our surprise when DooDaddy announced that he and Gmamma were going to an actual game, only a few years ago. A night game, no less, under the lights in the sweltering September heat. Because dear friends Bobby and Diana had invited them. Their premium seats were on the 50-yard line and their parking pass was “just across the street” from the stadium. Gmamma, knowing her limits, said no thank you, but DooDaddy was never one to turn down an invitation. He still isn’t.
That fateful night, Gmamma and DooDaddy (who still drove then) headed to Bobby and Diana’s lakefront home for cocktails and to watch the Vol Navy from the terrace before heading to the game. Gmamma, who was prone to heatstrokes, began to feel queasy but kept it to herself. If only the evening had ended then.
The merry foursome gamely carpooled through bumper-to-bumper traffic to their reserved parking spot and deftly navigated the masses of rowdy fans. Gmamma was moving in slo-mo on two artificial knees with all manner of hammertoes, bunions and tender feet that should never have left the safety of her kitchen. She was jostled and stepped on, but like a bound-foot Chinese lady, Gmamma soldiered on, nearly tumbling down the stadium steps to the choice seats. Then the digital signage lit up and the loud speakers blared “Smokey’s Growl,” which Knoxville News Sentinel columnist Sam Venable calls the “guttural attack bark” that surges through Neyland Stadium with ear-piercing frequency. It sounds like a thousand Harley Davidsons revving their engines.
The experience had changed dramatically since Gmamma and DooDaddy had last attended a game. It wasn’t just the Pride of the Southland Band and Tennessee Walking Horses anymore. Navy blazers and silver flasks. It was surround sound, strobe lights and the pungent aroma of Petro’s Chili & Chips. The stifling heat pulsed among the 107,000 screaming, stomping, sweating fans as they formed a never-ending human wave around the stadium.
On sensory overload, Gmamma made it until halftime.
“I’m going to be sick,” she whispered to Diana, who kindly led her back up the treacherous steps and out of the stadium, assuring my mother that she too felt unwell. It was all too much of a muchness. Doodaddy, ever the life of the party, seemed surprised.
When I regaled my son, by then a teenager, with the fateful tale, he was nonplussed.
“Gmamma said she didn’t want to go. She lives in the kitchen and the breakfast room. Doodaddy should have known better.”
Karma would catch up with DooDaddy a few years later when he went to a game with my brother, hiking from the hinterlands and tailgating like an overage frat boy. The Doo could no longer go the distance.
Both geezers ultimately resigned themselves to wearing their team colors and peering over the tops of their walkers at same little rabbit-eared TV from their Sequoyah Hills breakfast room relocated to the living room of their apartment at Shannondale.
Now Gmamma is watching from Heaven – or not, if she thinks it will bring her beloved Vols better luck.
“What torches kindled at that flame
Have passed from hand to hand
What hearts cemented in that name
Bind land to stranger land.”