Monday, September 4, 2017

Good Ole Rocky Top - WOOO! - Rocky Top Tennessee

When you have kids, the changes in adult life are far more pronounced than when you start your career or when you get married; once babies enter the picture, something as habitual as taking a trip with your spouse becomes more challenging. Having the time or the energy to make plans and arrange for the care of your children may seem like a small thing to those who do not have kids, but nothing gets you as firmly ensconced into the routine of everyday life like a pair of toddlers. Such is why, for Christmas 2015, I planned a trip for the following September with my wife, confirming nine months in advance that my mother would watch the kids (and the dogs). We had not been away together since our son, Quinn, was born in May 2015 and we needed that time for just her and I...but there was the desire to watch football in a live setting to be considered as well.

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"

One interesting aspect of being there with Sarah was the context of how we received the younger members of the tailgating crowd. It had been about five years since she and I had been in a comparable environment together; back then, we were still quite new to the career-oriented part of our life as a married couple and our college memories were not at all far in the rearview. Most of my subsequent College Football Tour stops have been with friends, and it's safe to state that guys getting together for a day of on-campus football comes with a different vibe than going to a college game with your wife. As we walked by the girls talking to the guys about their random meetings in the club, my wife could not help but joke about the trivial things that we care so much about when you're that age; I, meanwhile, could not help but follow her train of thought into thinking like a dad for the first time on one of these stops, shuddering at the idea that our daughter would become one of these young women that wear too little clothing and drink too much around a hundred thousand strangers someday. There's a special community aspect to football, but there are also a lot of boozed up dudes who need to stay away from my little girl (warning you in advance, punks!).

Certainly a plus of having my wife there as my companion was my attention to details like pre-game rituals of the team; I wax and wane on how punctual I want to be in order to see a lot of them, but always end up feeling happy about it when I do make the effort. At Tennessee, Sarah and I were able to catch the tail end of the Vol Walk, when the team and the band make their way down roads named after Peyton Manning and Phillip Fulmer to get to Neyland Stadium. "Rocky Top" was played about a thousand times across the six to seven hours that we spent in that vicinity, but the renditions during the Vol Walk and at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville the next night stand tall as the most memorable for yours truly. The first time that I had heard that song was at the funeral of one of my youth soccer coaches, who played for the Vols and was the father of one my childhood friends; I remember there being a release at the end of hundreds of orange and white balloons into the air to celebrate his memory...I thought of that several times when Sarah and I joined in the chorus of UT fans singing their fight song.

It was not all sunshine and "Rocky Top," however. The downside to going to the game with my wife was that she brought her purse and, according to the fine print on the back of the ticket that nobody ever reads but that apparently for once contained must-read information, she was not allowed to bring her purse into the game with her. Having just listened to Mickey argue his way into being permitted to carry a pocket knife given to him as a special token of appreciation from a client into AT&T Stadium for WrestleMania 32 in Dallas five months prior, I tried my best to convince the security guard to search her bag and let us move on, but he was adamant that we go to the bookstore, purchase the recommended clear pouch that the back of the ticket explained was the preferred option, and then all would be well.

We went through the song and dance mainly because we needed to get Sarah's LuLaRoe item into the stadium. You see, as sort of an innovative way to get her name out there, she brought with her a pair of leggings that she gave away for free to an unsuspecting woman among the 102,455 people in attendance (Neyland houses the fifth largest capacity crowd in college football). She advertised her LLR presence with the picture below on her instagram account, marked with a bunch of hashtags that actually put her post on the radar of the folks who run the scoreboard and giant video screen on one end of the stadium; early in the game, our attention was called by the PA announcer to the 'tron to check out various fans in attendance...and there we were! If you have followed this blog at all, you may know that the College Football Tour has a history of producing awesome moments that enhance my overall experience (i.e. Vince Dooley showing up where I was tailgating at Georgia to sign autographs, an unexpected, chance photo with Howard's Rock at Clemson, etc.). Add Sarah and I being featured on the Neyland Stadium video screen to the list! That would not have happened without LuLaRoe, so here's a quick plug - if you want to join my wife's exclusive shopping group, click here.

The picture that made the Neyland Stadium big screen!

The game itself was disappointing for Vols fans.  The lofty pre-season expectations proved a little over-exaggerated by the end of the overtime win.  Of course, that had no bearing on my enjoyment of it; I had never seen an overtime game before in person.  No other sport has a better, more exciting overtime than college football.  When I am watching at home and the game is close (and it is not already after midnight), I openly root for the game to go to overtime.  If the Irish or Wolfpack are in overtime, nothing is worse, but if you're watching without a rooting interesting, nothing in sport is better.  My favorite sporting event that did not involve one of my favorite teams remains the double overtime National Championship game between Ohio State and Miami.

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. 

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