Tennessee’s incredible comeback win over Indiana in the Gator Bowl warmed the hearts of many long-suffering Vol football fans. Count me among their number.
If you grew up in Knoxville as I did and still resisted the magical allure of Saturday afternoon gridiron showdowns with the likes of Alabama, Georgia, Auburn and UCLA you have been emotionally deprived. There’s nothing like suffering and celebrating with “your” team vicariously to produce a well-rounded case of orange-tinted neurosis.
The experience is even richer when your young imagination knows no bounds. How often I swept around end or cracked the line after taking a pitch from tailback Mallon Faircloth! Delirious cheerleaders wrested me from the grasp of teammates and…Oops! That came when I was a little older.
For now, it was enough just to hear the crowd calling my name: “Hooray for Van Glider! I mean Vandergild! Ahh, you know what I mean! Yay!” Sort of gives you chills, doesn’t it?
Yes, at the age of 11 or 12 only a lack of speed, strength, agility and natural athleticism kept me from lining up with my pigskin warrior heroes. But I would not remain 11 or 12 forever, and when I turned 18, I devoted every spare hour to gin rummy since speed, strength, agility and natural athleticism continued to elude me.
But imagination never failed, and not even the agony of defeat (and my Vols experienced plenty of that) quelled my adolescent daydreams.
Granted some losses were harder to swallow than others. I was a mature 16-year-old in October 1966 when Vols kicker Gary Wright missed a short field goal in the waning moments of the Alabama game sealing an 11-10 defeat.
My 16-year-old maturity was on full display when I hurled my clock radio into the wall, an act which benefited neither the radio nor the wall. It also put a dent in my meager cash reserves when I had to replace the radio. I was grateful it hit a stud.
Wright is still known (unfairly, it was a tough angle) as “Wide Wright” by some zealous fans. I’m no longer bothered by the miscue – I haven’t sent him a threatening letter in a couple of years now.
When I was winning games for the Big Orange in my imagination, I didn’t limit myself to flashy positions like running back. I was one heck of a special teams player as well.
Many true fans remember Herman “Thunderfoot” Weaver and his booming punts. In all modesty, Weaver’s mighty leg fared poorly against Larry “Dynamite” Van Guilder and his routine 70-yard missiles.
I was so pinpoint accurate in my punting that we would often punt on first down just for the opportunity to push the opponents closer and closer to their own goal line. Eventually, the other team cracked under the pressure and turned the ball over. We won a lot of 7-0 games that way.
But even my unfettered imagination would not have dreamed up a successful onside kick in the final four minutes that led to a one-point victory. Isn’t reality sweet?
Larry Van Guilder is the business/government editor for KnoxTNToday. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.