I feel fortunate to have been a part of history tonight. I spent a long day in the car and traffic to make it back to Knoxville. I walked a mile and a half in the rain to get to the stadium, hurrying so that I could see the seniors and Coach Fulmer walk through the T one last time. I stood in the cold rain amongst the most faithful of Vol fans, each one of whom came out to see the same thing - Coach Fulmer and the Vols put on a performance that we expect and knew they were capable of giving. I'm happy to say that we were vindicated tonight, and I'm even happier to say that there was plenty of vindiciation to go around.
Throughout all of the adversity, criticism, humor at their expense, and doubt, the 2008 UT Football team has stuck together. There was never any real indiciation of infighting or resentment between offense and defense. Problems and disagreements certainly existed, but they were kept within the family. Tonight's game was like our entire season compressed into 60 minutes. And we once again had the fortune to witness a team that exhibited no quit, despite what it was up against.
As a team, the offensive struggles of the first half seemed all too familiar. It took six (seven?) tries to get the ball into the endzone from the 1. But the team never quit. They kept pounding that rock, and on the final try, the O-line got just enough push to get Crompton in there for 6. Just like Josh McNiel pushed the noseguard off the ball, an offense like we have not seen all season was unleashed in the second half. All it needed was a tipping point, and that goal line score was it.
The offensive line, which struggled mightily in the first half, came to play in the second. On most plays, the blocking was sound, and on a few them, the holes were so big you could drive a truck through them. I am happy that the offensive line got to end their season strongly.
For all of the abuse Arian Foster has taken this year for not being a team guy, not being able to securely carry the ball, not being able to hit the hole hard, etc, I am happy to say he played a great game tonight. His stats won't blow you away, but I was less than 100 feet away from him when he was trying to score at the goal line to conclude the first half. It was his refusal to be denied and willingness to sacrifice his body that got us in position to score. Pure individual effort at times. And, just as it has been all season, in the end, he wasn't even the one to get the touchdown. He carried us to the Promise Land, and celebrated when someone else got the Glory. Arian, you Sir have nothing more to prove to the Vol faithful.
Jonathon Crompton may very well be one of the most hated Vols of all time. He doesn't always make the best play, and sometimes he makes the flat out wrong play, but not one of us can deny his determination, toughness, and grit. His game started out rocky, and there was certainly grumbling in the stadium, especially in the student section. When he scored on the QB sneak, I saw a player celebrate with the rest of his team in a way that I have not seen much this season from our guys. While I'm up in the stands being pessimistic and wondering why in the world it took us six (seven?) attempts to score, the players on the field are relishing the moment. The other first downs he picked up with his legs, and his beautiful deep pass to Denarius Moore were very much the difference in the game. Most of us, myself being one of them, would have become cynical and disinterested at the thought of playing for.. well, us, the fans... long ago. But not Jonathon Crompton. Through it all, he has shown his love for his teammates, and his willingness to do whatever it takes to get the win. Jonathon, you Sir have nothing more to prove to the Vol faithful.
And finally we come to Coach Philip Fulmer. His vindication came about long ago, but it was brought back to the forefront tonight. As we had time to reflect and think about all that Coach has done for our University and football program, we all realized that he is Tennessee, and he can never be replaced. As the game concluded, I saw a Kentucky football coach who had so much respect for Coach Fulmer that he didn't bother with calling meaningless timeouts. Heck, he hardly even bothered with throwing the ball on the final drive. Tonight, I saw thousands of fans, standing, waiting, watching Coach Fulmer has he walked to the center of the field. As the rain came down and the crowd chanted his name, Coach Fulmer took a knee at the center of the field, and, one last time, lead his team in prayer. I then saw a big strong man who would probably never let you give him a hand up if he fell (though he would certainly offer you one should you ever need it) lifted up and carried off of the field by those who he has carried on his back for four years.
I then saw something I've never seen before at Neyland Stadium. I expected everyone to kind of hang around as Coach Fulmer made his way into the tunnel, and, as expected, they did. But then something happened that I did not expect. Even after Coach had left the field, the majority of fans remained. It was like we all realized that once we left the stadium, it was all over. Not just the season, but the end of an era. We will never come to a football game at Neyland Stadium and see our beloved Coach Fulmer on the sidelines. None of us wanted to accept it, but as it goes with life, we eventually came to terms with it, and made our way out.
Coach Fulmer wanted to Stay the Course, knowing he could Right the Ship. He did, and, in a lot of ways, he has. Vindication.
Coach Fulmer, you Sir have nothing more to prove to the Vol faithful. Thank you, good luck, and happy trails.