Vivid memories from the Vols history bring elation for the season ahead
As I sat waiting for the kickoff, I felt detached from reality. The entire stadium was in a stupor with little sound and suspended movement. Was this a football game? Stoll Field had never been the scene of a more bizarre gathering. It was November 23, 1963, and Tennessee was about to face the Kentucky Wildcats in the annual renewal of their long rivalry for the Ole Beer Barrel.
Watching early play, I remember thinking about how trivial the game, the bands, and the outcome were because the President of the United States, my president, had been killed just 24 hours earlier. I identified with President Kennedy because he was young and had reasonable answers to complex questions. Why did I even come to Lexington with my friends for this meaningless game? The entire nation should have stopped to weep. Tennessee won the game, but who cared? The 1963 Tennessee/Kentucky football game is one I will never forget because it was truly a game of no consequence.
We drove back to Knoxville Saturday night, and I slept late the next morning. I turned on the television and fell back to sleep. I woke as the suspected assassin was being transferred in the Dallas jail when suddenly he was shot and killed on live TV. For me, the Kentucky game will always be sad and associated with the Kennedy assassination.
I have lots of other vivid youthful memories of football games, and always suffer a few pigskin flashbacks this time of year.
As a kid, I was a loyal Tennessee Vol super fan. I bought a 35 cent game program every time I attended a Tennessee football game at Shields-Watkins Field and added it to my display on the knotty pine walls of my Lincoln Park bedroom. I also had 8-by-10 glossy black and white photographs of my favorite players framed and mounted next to my programs. Included in my gallery were Andy Kozar, Hank Lauricella, Bert Rechichar, John Michels, and Doug Atkins. These are the men who built the tradition we like to talk about today.
I remember when Chattanooga beat Tennessee in 1958 and how it seemed like the end of the world to a 15-year-old boy. I didn’t even know there were Chattanooga fans there that day until they rushed the field and tore down the goal post on the north end. I watched as the police intervened in the celebration and pieces of the goal post were carried away. It was called a “riot” because police unnecessarily used billy sticks to beat the crazies from the Choo-Choo City and loaded them into a paddy wagon. It was the only time Chattanooga had beaten Tennessee, and the post-game skirmishes between fans and the Knoxville police were more exciting to watch than the game itself.
In October 1981, I took my family to Birmingham to see Tennessee try to beat Alabama. We made a point to get to the stadium two hours early because I wanted our sons, Robbie (then 13) and John (then 10), to see Coach Bear Bryant up close. The Bear had a tradition of bringing his team out on the field in street clothes before the game, and they would casually walk around the field as if they had never seen it before. We had good seats that day on about the 35-yard line in the Alabama section, and when the Bear came out I lectured our sons on his importance to the college game and how they should relish the chance to see him up close and remember it as a sports highlight in their lives. Well, it got better than that. Our seats were close to the field and Coach Bryant walked over to speak to some workers organizing Alabama equipment on the sideline. He leaned on the fence close to our seats, and I seized the opportunity to take the boys down to speak to him. John was too bashful, but Robbie, the more adventuresome, went with me and met and shook the hand of the great Bear, who was gracious in his houndstooth hat. What a great memory—even if Tennessee did lose the game. He retired after the 1982 season and died a month later.
My boys and I were in attendance with all the men in our family and a few close friends in November 1991 at Notre Dame Stadium when Tennessee made a great comeback to win the game. We had two seats together behind the north goal post and a solo seat in a folding chair on the field in the southeast corner next to the UT band. I sat in the chair on the field for the first half and met up with the boys at the north end near their seats at halftime. My son, John, was so excited predicting a definite comeback for Tennessee notwithstanding the fact that we trailed 31-7. Because of John’s prediction and the long walk back to my bad seat, I stayed in the concourse tunnel in the north stadium for the second half so I could watch the boys’ reaction as the game unfolded. The rest is history. You will recall that Tennessee scored 28 to Notre Dame’s 3 points in the second half to win 35-34 by blocking Notre Dame’s last second field goal attempt. If you were there, you will never forget it. It probably was Coach Johnny Majors’ greatest Tennessee moment. Years later, I spoke with him about it over lunch, and we agreed it was a great day to be a Vol. I told him how important that game was to my family, and he confirmed it proved very important to him and his long career.
As a kid growing up in North Knoxville, I was always a high school football fan. My family annually attended the city-county Thanksgiving football game usually played between Knoxville High School and Central High School. I don’t remember any game details, only that it was always freezing cold and Knoxville High usually won.
My first exposure to high school football in Knoxville was at Evans-Collins Field on the site of the present day Caswell Softball Complex. In the 1950’s, Fulton, Catholic, and East played their home games there just as Knoxville High School had done before them. I remember the lighting was poor and the team dressing rooms were under the grandstand. The teams entered the field and returned to the dressing rooms together through one 50-yard line gate resulting in a lot of pushing and shoving. Many great Knoxville area high school players battled on Evans-Collins Field. Fulton was always my favorite team, and I followed their athletic program from the school’s opening in 1951. I can remember now cheering for those early athletes in maroon and white like Babe Craig, Jay Bayless, Don Lobertini, and my lawyer friend, Jo Mont McAfee. I see Jo from time to time in downtown Knoxville, and we always stop and reflect on those great early Fulton teams.
For you younger folks, you should know that several early and important high schools have long since closed. South High School was known as “The Rockets” and wore red and white. Rule High School had a “Golden Bear” mascot and wore blue and gold, and the always powerful Young High “Yellowjackets” played at Duff Field on Chapman Highway. Young’s colors were orange and black. They always reminded me of Halloween. There was no Austin-East in the early days and East High School wore blue and gray and went by the name “The Mountaineers.” These schools all fielded competitive, tough teams in their day.
The memorable Knoxville area high school football players from the 1950-1965 era when I was watching from the bleachers, and later playing for Bearden, were Johnny Payne (Central), Ed Poore (East), Chubby Watts (East), “Cracker” Murrell (South), Pig Raggio (Fulton), Bob Black (Fulton), Claude Messamore (Fulton), Fred Cope (Bearden), Johnny Comer (West), Mickey Snyder (West), Albert Davis (Alcoa), Jackie Pope (Oak Ridge), D. D. Lewis (Fulton), and Bryant Jarnigan (Rule).
One memory I’d like to forget is the Old Timers Charity Football Game in 1971 planned to raise money for my alma mater, Bearden High School. I was 10 years post-Bearden and football, but was harassed to return to the gridiron one last time to quarterback the squad of older guys in a game against more recent graduates. I promised Norma I would not play in the game because she was nine months pregnant and I was too slow, too fat, and totally out of shape. However, it was hard to resist when they elected me captain of the “Over-the-Hill Gang,” and, after all, it would be the only opportunity for my firstborn, Robbie, to see me play as a Bulldog. Norma begged, but duty called.
They carried me off the field on a stretcher in the second quarter out of breath and with a broken arm. Unfortunately, Robbie missed all of my brilliant plays and how brave I was in the face of injury because he was at the concession stand. Do me a favor and please never mention this game to Norma.
Perhaps these events and names will help trigger your own football memories as together we begin another Big Orange campaign. Go Vols!