Walk softly on sacred ground

Marvin Westwestwords

If Butch Jones had asked me to address the mini-multitude at the Orange and White event, here’s what I would have said:

Look around Neyland Stadium, soak up what you see – giant arena with more than a hundred thousand seats, skyboxes for the rich and famous, jumbo scoreboard that makes loud noises, classic checkerboard end zones and the green, green grass of home.

If you ever set foot on Shields-Watkins Field, walk softly. It is sacred ground. Many of the greats in college football history played here. Please grasp these names and savor the memories.

Gene McEver, Beattie Feathers, Herman Hickman, Bobby Dodd, Bob Suffridge, Ed Molinski , George Cafego, Bowden Wyatt, Hank Lauricella, Doug Atkins, John Majors, Bob Johnson, Steve DeLong, Steve Kiner, Reggie White, Frank Emanuel, John Michaels and Chip Kell went from Tennessee to the College Football Hall of Fame.

The list of legends goes on: Condredge Holloway, Jack Reynolds, Willie Gault, Richmond Flowers, Larry Seivers, Heath Shuler, Charley Rosenfelder, Peyton Manning, John Henderson and Al Wilson wore orange and white (before gray became the thing).

Bear Bryant and Joe Namath appeared in Alabama red. Babe Parilli and Bob Gain wore Kentucky’s blue. Pat Sullivan and Bo Jackson represented Auburn. Billy Cannon ran on behalf of LSU and Herschel Walker for Georgia. Archie Manning played for Ole Miss.

If only the stadium could talk…

Never take for granted the great ball park or the tremendous Tennessee tradition. It didn’t just happen. It was built, one victory at a time, by outstanding people. In truth, some losses turned into building blocks (before Butch invented brick by brick).

Going back to the beginning makes what is here even more amazing. Historians think Tennessee played a game in 1891. A party of 40 or more Knoxville lads caught the train to Chattanooga, slopped around in the rain, got whipped by Sewanee and finished the outing at a culturally enriching theatrical performance.

What they played could have been football but it doesn’t read much like it. One of Tennessee’s participants was H.K. Denlinger, a Princeton graduate on the UT faculty. Four others said they were studying science and Latin, two were in engineering and one was majoring in Greek.

I ask you, does that sound like a football team?

The next year, Tennessee lost twice to Sewanee and Vanderbilt, home and away, but beat mighty Maryville. In 1893, Tennessee made a little swing through Kentucky and North Carolina, played four games in short order, and brought back bruises and setbacks that still scar the record book. Scores were 56-0, 64-0, 70-0 and 60-0. The worst defeat in school history was in Durham, at the manicured hands of Trinity College, now Duke University.

Robert R. Neyland conducted general improvements for Tennessee. His quarter of a century produced astounding results, including a season without yielding a single point. That’s why the stadium name has not been sold to Pilot or Food City. Even bold John Currie wouldn’t dare.

There are critics who believe Tennessee football is much to do about nothing. They have the misconception that a great university should be only about academics. They point to the exploitation of young men, some of whom might actually be students if they didn’t have to work such long hours in hand-to-hand combat.

Bull feathers! A degree in Tennessee football is wonderful preparation for real life.

Let us admit that Tennessee football has different meanings for different people. As I said in my first book, some see it as a religion, built on faith. Clearly ritual and worship are involved. There are hymns about homes in high mountains. I suppose there is even tithing, considering ticket prices and regular appeals for additional donations.

Others see Tennessee football as a colorful corporation. Indeed, it is big business, driven, some might say blindly, by victories and profits.

Others might see Tennessee football as drama, good gladiators against bad guys, fancy costumes and hard hats, pomp and circumstance, peppy music during pauses, all played out before large audiences, including some who won’t sit down.

As I have said several times, Tennessee football is a wonderful ensemble of very special people, a collection of remarkable snapshots, moments inextricably linked by blood, sweat and tears, always orange.

That’s at least some of what I would have told the fans if Butch had asked.

Marvin West invites reader reaction. His new address is marvinwest75@gmail.com


One Comment on “Walk softly on sacred ground”

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