That's me on the right with my oldest friend and college roommate at UT on a Thursday night in Blacksburg a few years ago. There's no upper deck at Lane Stadium, and the Hokies have a clever way of labeling their tickets that makes you think "5F" might be somewhere closer than the 110th row.
I got my pastoral license in 2006 and my first assignment took me from Knoxville, born and raised for the first 24 years of my life, to southwest Virginia. Ceres is situated beautifully in the middle of nowhere, which is an apt description for much of the area that makes up Hokie Nation. And having lived here for six years, I can assure you that I mean that as nothing but a compliment.
I moved here in June of 2006 and started blogging ten days later. You'll find that most sports bloggers are (A) less than thrilled with their day jobs and (B) moved away from the team they loved. While I have gleefully avoided (A), (B) created an immediate void in me that had to be filled.
So I created SouthEastern Sports Blog, and away I went for two and a half years with an audience comprised almost exclusively of my friends back home. There were almost never any comments outside of that circle, and I got as many pageviews in two and a half years as RTT gets in two weeks during football season. But it filled that void for me in so many ways.
Sports are a funny thing, unique in a thousand ways. The thing that we as fans are perhaps most known for is often the thing that's least understood by those who don't have favorite teams and don't own an unusual percentage of orange and, you know, don't read these blogs: we get emotionally involved in undecided outcomes that, no matter how loud we may get, are largely unaffected by our presence and our emotion. It's not like getting attached to a fictional story, it's not quite the same as a long night of blackjack or Call of Duty or whatever floats your boat, and it's not even the same as picking up a golf club or a fishing pole and taking care of business yourself. Being a passionate sports fan is different than any other form of entertainment; it's never fiction, and sometimes it's not even entertaining (see much of the last two years for us). And yet, we keep coming back. There is no title Tennessee could win to forever quench our desire nor any number of consecutive losing seasons that could keep you or I away. We keep coming back because we don't know what's going to happen, but we can't wait to find out. And specific to college football, what happens matters more on every Saturday than in any other sport.
What I have discovered in my time away from the Volunteer State is that it also matters who you share it with.
Joel asked me to come on board here at RockyTopTalk in December of 2008. The picture above was taken the month before, three days after Phillip Fulmer cried at a heartbreaking press conference on a terrible day. It was so strange to be there that night - the Hokies en route to another ACC title, taking down a ranked Maryland squad - because their game mattered, and I wasn't sure when one of ours would again.
In many ways, what's great about being a Tennessee fan is what's great about being an Alabama fan, Georgia fan, Virginia Tech fan and many others. Blacksburg shares what separates Knoxville from every other major college football town in the SEC: we're the only sports team in our region of the state. There's not the Falcons or the Saints an hour away. And while I can't show you a line that divides Alabama and Auburn fans in the Heart of Dixie, if you give me a map I will paint all of East Tennessee orange and all of Southwest Virginia maroon. If Virginia Tech ever makes it in to the SEC, Blacksburg will fit right in with Knoxville, Athens, Tuscaloosa and the rest, and anyone who says different has never been there on a Thursday night.
As such, I've really enjoyed having people in my community here who care as much about Virginia Tech as I do about Tennessee. I've even had the Hokie Bird in my congregation for a few years. Aside from one Chick-Fil-A Bowl that really didn't go the way I wanted it to, I've found myself cheering for Virginia Tech because I knew their success would make people I cared about happy. It's been a great community to be in.
But the community I am most thankful for when it comes to sports is the one here at RTT.
Since I started here in December 2008 some crazy things have happened in Knoxville. Removed from the regular face-to-face conversations I'd grown up with, had Joel never asked I would almost certainly still be typing away at my old site today regardless of readership. But one of the best things about this site for me is the community it fosters - we could write this stuff anywhere for however many or however few to read, but together all of you who read and comment along here over the years make this place something more. When you're in the middle of nowhere with no one else who bleeds our shade of orange, it makes a real difference to discover a sense of the community you left behind in East Tennessee.
I've still made it in for about half of the home football games and a couple of basketball games every year, dragging back at hours I'm getting too old for. There is still no substitute for Neyland Stadium.
That's why we're the second best way to watch a Tennessee game.
So, all of that to say this: after what have been without question six of the best years of my life here in Ceres, I'm moving in two weeks to take a new pastoral assignment as an associate pastor in Athens, TN. I'm very blessed and tremendously excited about this opportunity. And as a bonus, I'm moving back to the orange part of the map.
This isn't goodbye, or anything remotely associated with the idea. But as I am looking forward to seeing more of Neyland and more of Thompson-Boling, more of my boys back home and more conversations with old friends and new faces, I wanted to take a moment and say how much I've appreciated all of you these past few years, and how much this community has meant to me. Living as a Vol in exile, it's been so great to share everything orange with y'all the last few years. It made having thirteen men on the field in Baton Rouge a little easier to take, because we took it together. And it made finally getting through to the Elite Eight a little sweeter, because we celebrated it together. I watched both of those and many points in between from my living room here, but this site ensured I never experienced them alone.
So, on we go. 88 days to kickoff. I'm looking forward to sharing what's next with y'all as well. I'm looking forward to once again living in a place where orange is the rule and not the exception (and if you're ever in the area, stop by and say hey). And hey, maybe we'll win again? Wouldn't that be something?
But win or lose, we carry on. Being a Tennessee fan continues to be like everything else: you get out of it what you put into it. And I am very thankful that this place makes being a Tennessee fan, win or lose, that much better.