My first Saturday at Rocky Top

Three days ago that list of things I’ve never done in my life grew a little shorter as I followed through on a years-long promise to a good friend of mine and attended a Tennessee game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.

It was a cool day with plenty of sunshine. A cold front had passed through hours earlier and cleared out the sky. The visibility was so good you could clearly see the Smoky Mountains from our vantage point near the top of the stadium.

My friend parks about a mile-and-a-half from the stadium. Even that far away, you have to pay to park. That’s how many cars cram into downtown Knoxville on game day.

Neyland Stadium really is that big. It seats over 100,000 fans, and I would estimate at least 80% of the seats were occupied during the game, maybe even more. It’s big. It’s loud. It’s orange. Everything is orange. My gosh, everything is orange.

I can understand the allure of game day if you’re a Tennessee fan. Their football tickets are not cheap. Parking spaces are at a premium. You have to drive there and fight traffic. And then you have to walk and climb a labyrinth of ramps and steps. The higher you go, the steeper they are. But the place is noisy, and when the Vols are winning, the excitement meter gets dialed up really high.

Me? I’m a Memphis Tiger. Our games are at the Liberty Bowl, which seats just under 60,000. Our crowds the last couple of years have typically run 35-40,000. I’m happy with that. These are good times for us. We’ve experienced a sort of football renaissance lately after years of banishment in football purgatory. Unlike my friend, I get to park on the street for free in a residential area. My walk is maybe half-a-mile to the stadium. My football tickets cost only a fraction of what he has to pay. So I do enjoy a few advantages. Playing in front of 100,000 fans isn’t one of them. Neither is playing in the SEC. (However, the AAC has evolved into a pretty good football conference. Can I get an “Amen!” somewhere? Hello? Hello?)

I write all that to say that I walked into Neyland Stadium without a vested interest in the outcome. I simply wanted to enjoy a good football game. And it was a good football game…if you like points. And who doesn’t like points? How about 100 of them? Yes, Tennessee beat Missouri 63-37. Ironically, the score remained within one possession the first three quarters and part of the fourth before the Vols started pulling away. We all suspected they would. Missouri wore down and Tennessee took full advantage in the final period. The hometown folks were delighted. They played Rocky Top over and over (and over and over and over and over and over). It really was a remarkable experience if you’re a fan of college football. (And screw the NFL, by the way.)

Neyland Stadium is an old stadium, which is good, because I like old stadiums. The Liberty Bowl is 51 years old, and Neyland is even older. Granted, it’s been modified several times. It wasn’t always the behemoth it currently is. Also, this was my first time in Knoxville. I’ve heretofore always driven through Knoxville en route to some other place, but Knoxville had never been my destination, so I had seen very little of the city before Saturday. Since Tennessee was originally settled from east to west, Knoxville is in the old part of the state. And I was fortunate to see some bonafide relics. There’s an historical marker I posted Saturday evening commemorating the home of one of our actual Founders. There are several noteworthy buildings and churches still situated in this part of the city and on campus. I wish I could have seen more.

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