I was lucky enough to be one of the 102,035 in attendance at last Saturday's Oregon/Tennessee football game. Only those in the sky boxes escaped a pure soaking. More on that in a bit, but my experience in Tennessee overall was quite pleasant. At one point I thought to myself, "I could see myself living here".
Knoxville does the southern hospitality to the "T". Sir's and Ma'mas were used a plenty. "Welcome to Rocky Top" was a common phrase. The Tennessee-ites seemed almost shocked that we came all the way from Oregon (at times it was Orygun) to watch the game. The next question was always, "Did you fly?" Maybe a lot of people who live in Tennessee have never been on a plane?? Tons of people were happy to see us there, despite the fact that we wore the green and yellow.
The weather was the big story, aside from the game. We started out game day with morning thunderstorms and a flood warning in Knox county. That ruined our plan to kick it on campus and check things out. We were forced to then take a shuttle from our hotel to the game. But it turned out that the shuttle was full and we were unable to use it. So we piled in a cab that dropped us off on Cumberland Avenue (think 13th Ave. in Eugene for all those who know what I am talking about). This street was jam packed with Vols fans and plenty of tailgating to go around. Fast food joints turned their parking lots into tailgating spots, same with gas stations. There are plenty of bars on Cumberland, just stop by one and pick up a beer. Beer was especially nice that afternoon as the sun came out and it really got warm and muggy in a hurry. While making our way to Neyland Stadium, we encountered the pre-game pep rally right outside the stadium with the band. "Rocky Top", the unofficial fight song of the Vols, was played about 15 times during the march. When "Rocky Top" is played, all people in orange sing along and it gives you chills! A really awesome experience that I wish Oregon had.
As we approached our entry gate, a quick glance behind us revealed the wall of dark clouds that would soon turn out to be one of the greatest storms I have ever seen. Once inside Neyland Stadium, you go silent as you are struck with the shear grandness of the stadium. I've been to Michigan Stadium (capacity 109,901) and it has nothing on Neyland (102,459 capacity). Michigan Stadium is dug in a hole, Neyland stands straight up. By far, Neyland trumps Michigan Stadium. Our seats had great views, not a bad seat in the house I would imagine. As the Pride of the Southland (marching band) took the stadium, the chills returned. Seeing a band march in perfect formation, working together to march out "UT" and various forms of their famous "T" logo. It leaves you breathless as the Vols enter the stadium through the spread "T".
The rain started falling right about kickoff. Started light, but the drops were big which was not a good omen. Falling behind early was not a good omen, either. With each passing play, we could see more and more flashes of lightning off in the distance until it closed in enough that the teams were asked to leave the stadium. As soon as the teams hit the locker rooms, the wall of rain was visible at the opposite end of the stadium. It was a mad dash to throw on the poncho before that wall of rain made it to our end of the stadium, but eventually it would not matter. The rain was so soaking that the only comparisonn I have is to being sprayed in the face with a hose at a decent pressure. I struggled to catch my breath, the wind was howling so hard that my hat blew off. And it didn't just get knocked off, it blew away and I never found it. The lightning was more like a fireworks display, eventually crackling right over the stadium and the thunder rocked the walls. Finding any cover was almost impossible with 102,000 people trying to head for the exits at once. We waited out a good portion of the storm at our steats, which happened to be made of metal. Once the lightning was getting too close, we decided to seek shelter. I eventually ditched my poncho as my clothes were soaked: from my undershirt to my shoes.
Once in the tunnels, we could watch the storm pass. It was labeled as a severe thunderstorm, to no surprise. Such an awesome display of nature, it was so cool to watch the sky just light up. It took about 70 minuets to pass before the teams came back on the field. As we made our way back to our seats, we waded through about an inch of standing water in the tunnels. Just crazy how much rain fell in that time span. After the show in the sky, the Ducks finally put on a show on the ground. It really became a laugher in the second half, and in fact most of the Oregon section I was sitting in started using Vols chants for our own. All in all it couldn't have been a better way to finish the day.
It took 2 days for my shorts to dry out. I took a blow dryer to my shoes and I lost my hat. I ate at the famous Calhouns BBQ restaurant along the Tennessee River and saw the biggest storm of my life (although by South standards, that was probably run of the mill). And in the end, the Ducks showed the SEC how the west coast plays football.