I pulled for Alabama as a child, but it wasn't until I moved from the safe confines of God's state -- Alabama -- to the state of Volunteers, Davy Crockett coon hats and songs about a girl who's half bear and half cat that my 'Bama fandom was solidified.
Granted, the rivalry has taken a decided turn toward the 'Tide since 2008. As Nick Saban and Phillip Fulmer's ships crossed on a crisp October night on the Tennessee River in Knoxville with 50,000 Alabama fans looking on, Saban was building a dominant program while Fulmer was preparing his farewell speech.
None of that matters to me. Beating Tennessee still means something to an Alabama fan. Just like it did to a Tennessee fan when the Vols beat the 'Tide even as they stood atop the SEC while Alabama struggled to beat Central Florida and Louisiana Tech.
So, for those who believe the Third Saturday in October is just another weekend, I challenge you to read the rest of this submission and not change your opinion. It makes little difference whether Peyton Manning or Matt Simms is under center. There's no better smell than that of a victory cigar burning as the late afternoon sun sets behind Bryant-Denny or Neyland Stadium.
I was born in Sylacauga, Alabama in 1977 and stayed there until my parents drug me kicking and screaming to Springfield, Tennessee in 1984. I dreamed of having a website called ericfromsylacauga.com, but I’ll have to settle for ericfromspringfield.com.
The popular story people tell about folk from Alabama is that when you are born you have to choose – Alabama or Auburn. When I was four years old, I put my face against a storefront window and saw two cakes. One cake was decorated with the Auburn logo and the other with Alabama’s old script “A” with Big Al just about to bust through the middle of the “A.” I pointed and proclaimed my devotion to the Auburn Tigers. “I like the Auburn cake, mama,” I said. “That’s my favorite.” I would have earned more favor from my mother had I grabbed a cigarette, took a long drag and blew smoke in her face.
“No, no!” my mother exclaimed. “We like Alabama. Not Auburn. Roll Tide.” She wasn’t rude. She didn’t spank me or seem angry, but I could tell that I had momentarily fallen out of favor and would possibly need to find an apartment. Or a trailer. Then I knew that Alabama was a piece of the same Heaven in which God resided.
Looking back, I would have it. No. Other. Way.
Fast forward to the Fall of 1987 when I was finally given an Alabama shirt. I didn’t have a ‘Bama shirt that fit. This was a time before the internet, and there were no sporting goods stores that carried anything other than Tennessee Vols’ apparel. Gross. Friends of the family visiting from Alabama changed my life forever by bringing me two of the most beautiful Alabama shirts ever made. I knew how Joseph must have felt when he first tried on his multicolored coat.
When I wore that shirt, people magically turned against me. It’s as if I showed up to a Civil War reenactment in a Union soldier uniform, with a torch and a map of Atlanta. Football was no longer football. It was war. And I was no longer in the state of Tennessee. I was in Big Orange Country.
The first shot came from a classmate in fifth grade. He was a Tennessee fan that we’ll call Brock Boyter. Oops. That’s his real name. Let’s call him Rock Royter. Brock is a good friend of mine now and the last thing I want to do is put his name in a bad light. Rock, that is.
Our class was walking to the restroom and no sooner than I step up to the urinal do I hear, “Alabama sucks!” It was Rock. “We’re going to kill y’all this year,” he said. I thought that was a presumptuous thing to say since Alabama plowed Tennessee 56-28 the previous season by running the same play 26 times, but I was willing to listen to his reasoning. I found out over the years that “reason” and “Tennessee fans” do not mix. The same rings truer and truer for all football fans in the South- especially my brethren in Alabama (see Harvey Updyke) – so I’ll give some of you Tennessee fans a pass. Some.
“Y’all got lucky last year,” Rock continued. “I hate Alabama.” I didn’t understand his hate, but I found out there were others who hated Alabama with a passion. Since they couldn’t scream at Ray Perkins, Mike Shula, Bobby Humphrey, Siran Stacy, or Derrick Thomas, they informed me of their hatred. As I entered middle school, it became unbearable. Each year Alabama slapped Tennessee around. First in Knoxville. Then in Birmingham. Then again in Knoxville. Year after year. Tennessee head coach Johnny Majors had Tennessee teams that could have beaten the 1985 Chicago Bears, but when the Third Saturday in October arrived – like clockwork – Johnny Majors would leave his football brain cells on Cumberland Avenue.
Each year, I would listen to one annoying classmate clad in orange sweatpants after another explain to me how this year would be the year. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that from fourth grade (1986) through middle school (1990), Alabama did not lose to Tennessee – or for five years after for that matter. In fact, most games were rather lopsided in the Tide’s favor. ‘Bama won 56-28 in 1986, 41-22 in ’87, and 47-30 in ’89. 1988 was a little closer for UT, but they still lost 28-20. 1990 was close, but it should have been a blowout from the beginning – for the Vols. It was this game that defined the series from 1986 to 1995 better than any before or after. Other than 1972 – ask a Vol fan old enough to remember that one – the game in 1990 solidified to many diehard Vol supporters that they would never, ever beat Alabama again.
There was no way Johnny Majors would mess this one up. Tennessee was the third ranked team in the country and averaging over 40 points per game. Alabama was mediocre at best.
Gene Stallings was in his first year as head coach and his brand of football nearly put Nyquil out of business. Alabama’s biggest weapon was to hope that the offense put the opposing team to sleep. It wasn’t very successful thus far. The Tide were 2-3 and had lost to Southern Miss, Georgia, and Florida to open the season at 0-3. ‘Bama did have two consecutive wins coming into the game, but the fact that those wins were against Vandy and what is now known as Louisiana-Lafayette didn’t exactly give ‘Bama fans the warm and fuzzies about Stallings and the 'Tide.
The 1990 game was probably the most exciting boring game in the history of the series up to this point. The game was tied at 6-6 in the fourth quarter. As the clocked ticked below eight minutes to play, it looked as though the game may end in a tie.
Tennessee lined up for a 50-yard field goal with just under two minutes to play. John Becksvoort had already succeeded from 51 yards out to tie the game at 6-6 with ten minutes to play, so this kick was more than makeable. If Tennessee hits the field goal, it’s safe to assume the defense can hold the stagnant ‘Bama offense and end the four-game ‘Bama winning streak.
Snap – Good. Hold – Good. Thump, thump.
The dreaded second thump immediately after the ball is kicked is the worst sound a kicker can hear. It’s blocked.
The ball ricochets off Stacy Harrison’s giant paw and Tennessee fans swear the ball rolls 100 yards behind Becksvoort. What seemed to be a field goal to win the game had suddenly turned into great field position for Alabama and every Vol fan’s worst nightmare. The ball had caromed all the way down to the Tennessee 37-yard line where Bama would begin with 1:35 left in the game. Bama runs three plays for 7 yards and milks the clock to :04 seconds to play before Phillip Doyle is sent out to try the 48-yard game-winner.
I’m at a church get-together with about 20 Tennessee fans. The brotherly fellowship was quickly subsiding. The best line came from a guy named Chris Williams. He was an avid Vol fan, and we loved nothing more than to talk trash to each other between Sunday School and worship service. Chris was not a contemporary. He was a grown man who loved to talk smack to middle school kids like me who supported teams who did not play home games at Neyland Stadium. But Chris was good people.
“Will they vote us national champions with three ties?” Chris asked. It was as if he were talking himself through a best-case scenario about which he didn’t seem too excited. Tennessee had already played to ties with Colorado and Auburn, but his question quickly became pointless.
Snap – Good. Hold – Good. Thump – No second thump. Time expires.
The cheering from the visitor’s section in Neyland Stadium couldn’t be heard over the deafening silence of the 85,000 fans dressed in orange and white. Johnny Majors had grasped defeat from the jaws of victory over Alabama yet again. To make matters worse, this was Tennessee’s third loss in the last 25 games. All three coming from Alabama. If this Tennessee team couldn’t beat this Alabama team, then what Tennessee team could?
The answer to that question would come five years later when a sophomore quarterback with a secret passion for directing marching bands showed up in Birmingham and erased the past in one October night. His name was Peyton Manning. He was good. Really good.
Life in Tennessee was great from fourth grade through my senior year in high school. Alabama never lost to Tennessee from 1986 through 1994. Even when Alabama and Tennessee played to a 17-17 tie in 1993, it was Vol fans that felt as though they had lost the game. ‘Bama earned a tie. The Vols lost the win. Don't believe me? Find video footage on YouTube or ask Phillip Fulmer. That tie bothered Fulmer for years. Of course, he got over it after 1995 because he didn't lose to Alabama again until 2002. But I'm not here to talk about those days. Those days are still fresh for Alabama fans and there's no need to open up such a nasty scab on such a pretty site as OKTC. And I won't. You're welcome, Clay.
I’m now 35 years old and as I look back, it was the hate from Vol fans that made me love Alabama so much. I love nothing more than a Saturday in Tuscaloosa surrounded by Saban Nation and Bryant-disciple brethren. However, there’s something symbolic about driving Eastbound on I-40 from Nashville to Knoxville on the weekend of the Bama-UT game. Sure, I love honking and waving at ‘Bama fans on I-65 South to Tuscaloosa, but I feel most at home driving to Knoxville.
A fist shake here. The flip of the middle finger there.
My heart is in Alabama, but my home is in Tennessee.
Being surrounded by the enemy upon arrival in Knoxville is therapeutic. Instead of despising the UT fan that yells, “ALABAMA SUCKS,” I’m almost disappointed when a Vol fan walks by and says, “Good luck today, guys.” This is THE THIRD SATURDAY IN OCTOBER! Don’t talk to me like that. Give me dirty looks. Give me the finger. Just don’t tell me to have a good game.
Then, just as I hand my ticket to the attendant and walk inside the concourse of Neyland Stadium, a kid no older than 14 yells, “This is Big Orange Country! Go to Hell ‘Bama!” And with those vitriolic words from the supporter of a team I hate as much or more than Satan’s team in West Georgia --that is Auburn for those of you not in on this hilarious joke (hey-ohhhhh!)-- I’m taken back to that day I was chided by own mother for choosing the wrong cake in the window. And although my name is not 'Bama, I know he's talking to me. And he means it.