Hyundai Fanthropology: Becoming a Fan and Remembering the Stumble and Fumble

Jim Brown-US PRESSWIRE

Cobbwebbattack and I talk about how we became Tennessee Volunteer fans and what we were doing when Clint Stoerner stumbled and fumbled and we took back our magical championship season.

As we posted earlier, CobbWebbAttack is the RTT Finalist in the Hyundai Fanthropology Contest. He and I talked a bit via email over the last week or so, and we'd like to share that conversation. Please chime in with your own responses to the same questions if you care to.

Joel: So let's start with how we became fans. Me, I was a casual college football fan when living in Florida in the 90s. Living in South Florida at that time, the choices were really Miami, Florida, or Florida State, and to me, that wasn't really much of a choice. Seminoles all the way for me. When I moved to Nashville to finish undergrad at Belmont, I remained an FSU fan from afar. But everything changed when I decided not to go to Vanderbilt for law school and instead headed east to Knoxville.

It took me awhile to catch on to the fact that folks started talking about "the game" (and I had to ask which game they were talking about -- duh) on Tuesdays. The atmosphere on campus for the entire football season was just absolutely incredible and quite contagious. Of course, we were in the Peyton Manning years, so it was easy. But the first time I stepped into Neyland Stadium was just awe-inspiring. The place looked big from the outside, of course, but the coolest things was that moment after walking around in the bowels of the thing for 15 minutes when you finally getting inside the bowl and the entire huge, beautiful place just opens up before your eyes. It's like walking into a different world. And then there was the "Pay these prices and please pay no more," and the Pride of the Southland Marching Band doing their pregame routine (with the drum major doing the lean-back high step as the band threatens to close in around him), the Running Through the T, and the "It's Football Time in Tennessee." It was just so cool and so fun.

And there were so many Moments during those ten years or so -- too many to recall here -- that were so fantastic that the nostalgia has gotten me through some really dark times on Rocky Top in the last ten years. It's those special Moments that allows the team to get its hooks in you, and you become a fan for life.

So that's my story in a nutshell. What's yours?

CobbWebbAttack: I became a true Volunteer fan during the magical national championship run of 1998. It was my freshman year of college, and my homesick best friend and I agreed to watch the Syracuse-Tennessee game to see what the post-Manning Vols would look like. I had watched a fair amount of the Heath Shuler/Peyton Manning era Tennessee teams, and my older brother had graduated from Knoxville, but having moved to Nashville from New Orleans (with previous stops at West Point and Ann Arbor), I lacked any significant emotional investment in the Vols, although I had learned enough to thoroughly despise Spurrier's Gator teams. What can I say about the classic that unfolded in the Carrier Dome, except to say that neither of us doubted that Donovan McNabb was the best player on the field, and that when Jeff Hall banged through the winning field goal in the final seconds, I felt a palpable sense of relief, and a strange elation, as though I'd witnessed a small but precious miracle. My friend and I promised each other that we would set aside time from our busy schedules of drinking, schoolwork, awkward flirting with freshman girls and Bond 64 to watch the next game.

The next game, of course, was an all-time classic. Unfortunately for the two of us, it also unfolded at the exact time that the fraternity to which we had pledged our undying loyalty had scheduled the very first pledge meeting/line-up/hazing of the semester. [Ed. Note: This fraternity should be banned for Egregious Scheduling of Things During Football Games.] Of course, we were prepared by the previous years' losses for the game to be essentially over in the first quarter, so we staked out a TV in the athletic complex and readied ourselves for disappointment. As the clock crept closer to fraternity pledge d-day, I realized that Tennessee was not, in fact, going to roll over, and that this team might be made of sterner stuff. Al Wilson, my friend said presciently, refused to lose. He said no, not today, not on his watch. If the Gators were going to win, they were going to have to physically beat Tennessee, and not just wait for the Vols to crumble. We decided, consequences be damned, to blow off what we believed to be the centerpiece of our social lives to watch Tennessee try to do the unthinkable. The game itself remains a blur to me, except for two moments: first, sometime early in the fourth quarter, two of our future fraternity brothers arrived to corral us, having searched the entire campus. Although they were understandably upset (for an ultimately foolish social club), I bargained with them, explaining a historical significance that I was just beginning to understand myself: I hated Florida, and Al Wilson was singlehandedly about to defeat them. I was going to watch the game, and they could watch it with me and my friend, or they could go to hell, but I was not leaving. Second, Jeff Hall lined up for a field goal in overtime, and I knew that we would win... and in that moment, everything changed: pronouns (them to we), logic (Tennessee couldn't win), and loyalty (I knew what it meant to belong, and for a nomad, why it was desirable). When the Florida kicker missed, it was simply the culmination of everything good and right in the universe, and an affirmation that a higher power exists and is benevolent.

And that was it. One game, one season, and I was hooked. All of the ambivalence and intellectual distance I tried to cultivate was gone, and the only thing that mattered was that I belonged, and that this special team belonged to me.

Joel: Fantastic. Like I said earlier, that season had enough magic moments to get us through some pretty dark times recently. So speaking of the "sterner stuff" you mentioned above, I'll tell you my Clint Stoerner story if you tell me yours. (I have an advantage, because I've told mine before.)

I was watching on t.v. in a townhome complex off Middlebook Pike in Knoxville. The units are adjoined, and you could always hear your neighbors through the walls during Tennessee games.

Well, some visiting idiot was out trying to sell magazine subscriptions during this game, and he could hear the excitement from within at every door on which he was knocking. He could hear, but that didn't stop him from interrupting. You know the type.

Anyway, right after Stoerner's fumble, the neighborhood exploded. The knock on my door came almost immediately after that.

You know the drill. The pock-marked traveling salesman knows he has less than three seconds to scale the mark's defenses by establishing rapport. This guy thought he had just the trick.

"Who's winning?" he asked with feigned enthusiasm.

I was still coming down off the excitement of The Stumble/Fumble, and there was no way in Perdition that I was going to waste ten of the finest seconds of Tennessee football history explaining the situation to a guy who only wanted to know so he could sell me something. Instead, I just shouted "Arkansas!" while still fixated on the t.v.

"Yes!" the guy yelled, and my peripheral vision registered that he had pumped his fist for added effect.

Dude didn't even know what state he was in.

I never turned to look at him. I just closed the door. I'm sure he subsequently flipped me off because that's how those encounters usually end, but I never saw it. I was too busy watching Travis Henry devour the shocked Razorback defense.

So how about you? What was happening where you were at that fateful moment?

CobbWebbAttack: It must be a quirk of memory, but for the life of me, I can't recall the first three quarters of that Arkansas game. I remember the pre-game CBS intro: Arkansas, undefeated under new head coach Houston Nutt, but lacking any signature victories; and Tennessee, finding an identity post-Peyon Manning by dominating on defense while doing just enough with Tee Martin to win games. I remember the setting: my best friend and I staked out a pair of leather coaches flanking a giant rear projection television in the Bryan Campus Life Center (at Rhodes). I remember the company: a couple of girls with whom we were trying to negotiate the friend/girlfriend zone. But I don't remember anything about the game action until the penultimate drive. My first memory of that game after the kick-off is this: the television camera cuts to the sideline and Clint Stoerner and the Arkansas offense begin to trot back out onto the field, with a shade over two minutes left on the clock. The Arkansas line had held up pretty well against the Al Wilson-led front seven, and as they began to line up in their all-white uniforms, I began to realize that the magic had run out on the Tennessee season.

Of course, we all know how it turned out, but I think the magnitude and the emotion of the situation cannot be overstated. Tennessee had beaten Florida, dominated Georgia, and destroyed Alabama. It was unthinkable that such a magical season could be undone by a clownish passel of hillbillies from our backwoods neighbor. First down was a running play of some sort, and if I remember correctly, Darwin Walker and Billy Ratliff hammered the back for a two yard loss. Second down, the Razorbacks lined up in running formation, but I felt sick to my stomach as I contemplated Houston Nutt going back to the well one more time, calling for a play action pass to Anthony Lucas, who had used and abused Dwayne Goodrich all afternoon. But as soon as the ball was snapped, it seemed like the entire Tennessee defensive line was in the backfield, Stoerner was on the ground, and chaos reigned. On the field, an orange jersey cradled the ball like a newborn. On the sideline, orange jerseys danced, waved towels, and celebrated... only one face in the stadium bore the look of steely concentration: Phillip Fulmer. The girls with us were confused. "What happened?" "Did they win?" One, a midwestern girl with more football savvy, asked the most insulting of questions, "They haven't moved the ball all day, why do you think they'll do anything now?"

But I'd seen the look on the old offensive line coach's face. I knew he was thinking one thing, and one thing only: we are going to line up and pound them into paste before they have a chance to recover. And that's exactly what I told her, and that's exactly what ensued. Travis Henry ran behind a line as fired up as any I've ever seen, in as fine an example of Fulmerball as has ever existed. He ran over, around and through the defenders, pounding them in a display of 1970s dominance. It was glorious. When Henry went over the top, we erupted into cheers, and I told the smart-ass midwesterner to get her pretty little behind into my friend's car, because we were going to celebrate. Mission accomplished.

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So those are our stories. How did y'all become fans, and what were you doing when Stoerner fumbled?

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