Joining the ranks of the recently retired may seem like a simple concept to some. With all of that newly found freedom, you just get up when you want and go do whatever you want, right? For the first few weeks, doing “whatever you want” could mean “doing nothing”. I tried that for about one week and realized that staying happy, active, and connected in retirement requires a plan. Now that a lifetime of being driven by whatever was required for work and career is no longer a factor, some of that energy and creativity that was necessary for my livelihood needs to be brought to bear on “what’s next” or else my days will be spent in contact only with spouse, the TV, and maybe the mailman. I’m still working out the plan but realizing that I needed one is a great first step. Fortunately, we’re able to travel, and that will be a large part of the plan for a while, but what fills the gap between trips is still a question that has not yet been fully answered. We’ll explore the options in the weeks to come, so stay with us as we Ease Along.
There is one activity, however, that I didn’t have to add to the plan just to fill a void created by retirement. Sports, including football, have always been part of the plan. I’ve consistently held on to the belief that following sports is the one human endeavor whereby a person can devote complete and total passion with no consequence, and following University of Tennessee football is something about which I am unapologetically passionate. I have been a devoted Tennessee Volunteer fan for as long as I can remember, beginning around age 6 when a gifted athlete named Johnny Majors was dashing out of my Dad’s radio and running wild through our small living room. I attended my first game at Shields-Watkins Field at around age 8. It was cold, but I didn’t care. Tennessee beat North Carolina 30 – 0 and I was happy. In my high school years, I sold programs in order to get into the games. In my college days, I would stay up nights to be the first in line to get student tickets the next morning. I served meals in Gibbs Hall (athletic dormitory) just to be closer to the program.
I’m not one of those with my hair dyed Orange and White, but I have stickers on my cars, souvenir mugs in my cabinets, and past schedules on my garage walls. With only one exception, every cat that has ever lived in my household has been orange and white. Thankfully, this is one activity that was part of the plan long before the plan was simply something to do later. Nevertheless, while the activity hasn’t changed, the act of watching it has changed a lot since I was introduced to it. Ease Along with me here…
After I was released from active duty with the Army in 1976 and returned home to Knoxville, I was reading the local paper and came upon an advertisement announcing the opening of a section of seats in the newly constructed upper deck of Neyland Stadium. The ad was seeking applicants for season tickets in new seats added to the south end zone. The total price for the tickets also included a $25 fee for each season ticket requested. I don’t remember the price of the tickets, but I also have no clue where the money came from ‘cuz I didn’t have any. Nevertheless, I filled out the form that accompanied the ad, cobbled together the money I got from somewhere and sent it in along with a note from me asking for seats as low in the upper deck as possible.
After a few months, I received my new tickets in the mail. I went Big Orange Crazy with excitement when I saw that we had been issued tickets for Section JJ, Row 1, seats 7 and 8. To say I was elated is a gross understatement. This is my 39th year in those seats.
The first season in those seats was not the best in terms of football. The team went 6-5 and it was the last season for Coach Battle, a good man. Nevertheless, we had one helluva good time in Section JJ in spite of the record. First and foremost, the seats were awesome. We were sitting in the first row of the upper deck. There are two rows of box seats in front of us, but the aisle for those two rows are directly in front of seats 7 and 8 so we have an obstructed view of the playing field.
Second, but equally important, the people sitting around us in that first year, and for several seasons thereafter, were just a large amount of fun. Except for my lifelong friend, Rob, who sat two rows behind us, I knew every other fan only by their first name or by a nickname we made up. Immediately behind us sat four miners from somewhere in Middle Tennessee. We gave them the nickname “Benny and the Miners”. There were Benny and his nameless brother, plus another nameless guy who was raucous and rowdy, and “Dawg”, who always came well lubricated. These guys were true fans who loved their team as much as anybody and celebrated every positive play with another shot from the flask. During one victory over Alabama, Helen got a Jack and Coke shower with every pass completion. After a few seasons, Dawg got married and his new bride took the seat of one of the nameless guys, and Benny and the Miners calmed down a bit. I hated that, but I didn’t have to carry a poncho for Helen anymore. I haven’t seen them in years.
About four seats to our left sat a fellow everybody called “Red” due to the color of his hair. The nickname turned out to be prophetic because after every incompletion, fumble, or officiating call, not in our favor, Red would go into a rant until the color of his face matched the color of his hair. We love Red for his passion and his loyalty.
Behind Red sat a guy I named “Socks”. Socks, a big guy who arrived early for every game, always wore Bermuda cargo shorts regardless of the temperature. Those shorts were held up by a multi-colored pair of suspenders with numerous pins and buttons attached to them. My favorite was a button that read “Kiss Me, I’m Stupid!”. Socks was so named because of a pair of white knee socks with vertical Orange letters spelling out Tennessee from his knees to his ankles. He wore them to every game. You can’t have enough fans like Socks.
Over the years there have been many others who came and went or, came and stayed. There were Tina and Terry from Nashville. Terry knew a lot about football and I consulted him often about strategy. Tina hated Gators with a ferocity unequaled by anyone. They moved on. There was also a guy who had one of the box seats to our front (nickname “Slapper”)who stood up the entire game, and high fived everyone in sight when Tennessee scored. He moved on as well, but I was in Los Angeles for a game with UCLA a few years ago and, seated about five rows in front of me was none other than Slapper. He now was fist bumping instead of giving the high five, so I changed his name to “Bumper”.
In addition to the ebb and flow of the great fans surrounding us over the years, Neyland Stadium has undergone a transition as well.
The first big change was the addition of Skyboxes where small groups of fans with lots of money can sit in comfy, air conditioned seats behind a glass window and watch the game on TV screens. I have seen only one game from a Skybox and found it a little stifling. I had rather be with Benny and the Miners.
Next came the Jumbotron, a gigantic TV screen that features replays and various shots from around the stadium. I like the Jumbotron even though I have to turn around to see it from where we sit. That’s probably a good thing, otherwise, I might watch it all of the time rather than the action on the field.
The stadium got a facelift to include a brick front. It looks great, but the old one looked fine. Inside one of the gates, a giant size statue of General Neyland was built in recognition of the contribution he made to the tradition that is Tennessee football. General Neyland might not have approved, he was a modest no-nonsense guy, but I’m glad they did it.
There have been many other changes in 39 years. The food is better (but more expensive). The Athletic Department added Club seats and the Terrace for fans who also have a lot of money but preferred to stay outside. They have great food in their section and TV’s to watch while they eat.
There have been a couple of changes over the years that I don’t think have been good.
There once was a tradition that began in the 60’s of having a Tennessee Walking Horse prance around the field before every game. I loved it. The horse always held his head high and seemed so proud to be there. I thought it was a marvelous way to salute the State of Tennessee. The regular appearance was discontinued sometime in the 80’s and now we get to see our Walking Horse at homecoming only. I miss this tradition a lot.
There is one other situation that leaves me scratching my head. With the advent of cell phones, I am amazed at how much time the fans around me spend staring at them. They are forever texting, snapping selfies, or reading emails, instead of cheering on the team. I hate this. The Pride of The Southland Band is as good as always, if not better, but no one pays any attention to their performances anymore because they can’t tear themselves away from their precious cell phone. Sad!
If I were suddenly made the Sultan of Big Orange Country, there is a change I would make on day one. I have always felt that we don’t do enough at football games to promote the country and bluegrass music that Tennessee and our region is famous for. I would LOVE to see country music stars, joined by talented student musicians and our beautiful dance team girls, put on a show for our fans somewhere outside the stadium before every home game. Think about what that would do to impress the visitors who travel from all over the world to the games. Think about what it would do for recruiting. ESPN would be here every week. Maybe it will happen someday.
After a lifetime of devotion and 39 years in the same seats, is it reasonable to think that this activity will end just because retirement has freed me up to do other things? No way! I’d be less than honest if I said I hadn’t considered it. With TV timeouts and play reviews, the games are much longer now. Night games sometimes end close to midnight. Parking is complicated. A flat-screen HD TV and a cozy fire in the fireplace is a temptation hard to resist…but I can.
No…I’ve thought about it, but I’ll be there. Red is a little grayer and a little calmer now, but he’ll be there as always. I can count on Socks too–he never misses. After about twenty seasons, his white socks must have evaporated so he replaced them with an Orange and White checkerboard pair (Bermuda shorts to match) and still gets there before most of us. Most of the old guys are gone, so the Vols need the three of us to lead the fight in Section JJ.
I think of myself as a true team player…an old quarterback who can still grip the ball, but, in reality, I think the old ball has gripped me…
I’ll be Easin’ Along. Bowl practice starts next week.