During her pregnancy with Quinn, my wife attended her semi-annual reunion trip with her college soccer teammates in Nashville, but was going through a rough, fairly consistently ill period in the first trimester and missed the group's night out at the Grand Ole Opry. I'm not a huge country music fan by any means, but I thought she would enjoy an Opry-included Nashville do-over.
Nashville was the "Sarah leg" of the trip. The "Chad leg" stopped in Knoxville, Tennessee, where the state's beloved Volunteers would be opening up their 2016 football season against the Appalachian State Mountaineers. Sarah and I had been to a few games, in fact only missing a live football experience together over the first four years that we knew each other only once (the 2009 season). After our daughter was born, though, her Saturday football viewing declined and taking her "on tour" with me was just not a topic of discussion that came up very often.
College Football is a blast to see in person, complete as it is with the unique food, beer, and setting of each town, so I thought she would enjoy with me the Tennessee Vols on the first Thursday night of the new season, then I would enjoy with her the one-and-only Grand Ole Opry on Friday night. It proved a nice combination-trip featuring things that we each really wanted to do mixed with a few things that we both enjoyed doing; a vacation format certainly to be utilized again some day.
We headed out toward Knoxville on Wednesday, taking a pit stop for the night in Asheville, one of the prettiest places to visit in North Carolina and home to a wide variety of good restaurants. For future Asheville reference, consider a meal at the Corner Kitchen and a post-dinner cocktail at the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar. The weather there during the transition period between summer and autumn is just perfect. Then, off to Knoxville we went the following morning.
Sarah had just started out that summer as a consultant for LuLaRoe, an increasingly popular clothing company that wound up woven into the fabric of our long-weekend getaway, in fact, even as it pertained to the game itself. For the game, we wore matching orange Vols shirts and she added to her ensemble an LLR skirt that, as we frequently joked that day, appeared to be Dorito-themed, as it was covered in rippled orange triangles that looked like Dorito chips. You could not miss it if you saw it reasonably up close.
When we got to the stadium area, our first destination was a popular tailgating spot called Calhoun's On The River. Though the place was too crowded for us to sit down to eat dinner, there were a couple of food trucks parked outside in the heavily populated parking lot and adjoining river walk. Neyland Stadium is actually situated right off the Tennessee River, making up for the venue's aging, rusting architecture with a heck of a surrounding aesthetic view. The food trucks provided some really good local craft beer and the river walk provided a really cool place to absorb the atmosphere of a Volunteer Nation coming into 2016 with high expectations and a pre-season #9 ranking. Sarah and I used the time to simply enjoy each other's company and a beautiful view.
|Check out that view! They call this "The Vol Navy"|
|The picture that made the Neyland Stadium big screen!|
Through the first half, it looked like App State was going to pull off their biggest upset victory since the famous 2007 shocker over Michigan. The Mountaineers have a proud program on the rise in the FBS/Div. 1A and they played inspired football, frustrating everything that the Vols tried to do on offense and playing well enough on offense themselves that they went into halftime with a 13-3 lead. I sure was glad that our picture ended up on the big screen because, beyond that momentary excitement, the energy in Neyland was sucked out in a hurry on account of the Vols failure to come right of the gates ready to further revive their national reputation. App State was never going to be a pushover, but the Vols got caught, I think, looking ahead to their much-advertised game against Virginia Tech at the humongous NASCAR venue, Bristol Motor Speedway. Tennessee did pull it together, tying the score in the early fourth quarter and shutting out ASU for the rest of the game. Joshua Dobbs actually fumbled into the end zone on UT's overtime possession, peaking the game-long panic among the Vols faithful until their running back, Jalen Hurd, recovered it for the touchdown. It was easily the most exciting play from a game largely void of exciting plays and from a team that would routinely go onto produce some of the most exciting plays of the entire college football season.
The Vols started 5-0, lost three in a row to reset their expectations, and finished strong at 9-4. If Butch Jones leads them back to prominence, I'll have been happy to be a small part of their journey and, if he doesn't, then I'll still maintain fond memories of Tennessee football.
I had been flirting for years with perhaps making the opening weekend a new traditional time for taking tour stops, particularly at schools with a lot of hype so as to catch their fanbases feeling a maximum amount of good vibrations, but after seeing Tennessee struggle so mightily to open 2016 and sharing with them the angst that comes from the realization that your team may not be as good as you hoped it would be, I have gone back to the Tour's standard of games in the mid-season or beyond in 2017; we'll see what happens in the future. I definitely plan to do more combination college football-stuff Sarah enjoys type trips, that's for sure.