Before all the new bells and whistles -- beautiful brick facades, the ritzy external resurfacing of the Tom Elam Pressbox, concourse upgrades and statue of General Robert Neyland -- I loved the guts.
Many thought Neyland Stadium was an eyesore, what with its iron criss-crossing innards dulling in the Saturday sun, the stained sides, weathered with God-knows-what, and the block-lettering that looked like it was straight out of 1977.
Not me. I loved Neyland Stadium and all its flaws because they simply weren't considered flaws in my mind. It was historic, majestic, beautiful in its own way.
My Tennessee Volunteers could play in a post-apocalyptic wasteland strewn with candy wrappers and crushed beer cans and it would still hold a certain ethereal beauty. Because, to me, Neyland Stadium represents more than just a place where a football team plays. It is a place where I've laughed, cried, celebrated, felt decimated. I've worked there, watched games there, come of age there. I've made countless pilgrimages across the 3 1/2 hour stretch of Tennessee interstate to get there, and I've returned to Southern Tennessee and Northern Alabama with enough memories to fill a stadium in my dreams. ... Neyland is a stadium of my dreams.
When it's rocking, there's nowhere like it. When it's loud, you can't hear your own voice. When it's full, you look across that sea of orange and feel the pride of what it means to be a Tennessee fan. Even when it's half-empty, quiet, dominated by opposing fans, its mere presence is a beacon of hope. I can't tell you how many times I've looked at that gargantuan facility and thought, "There's no way we'll be down forever. There's no way this will wind up being a mausoleum on the river. This university won't allow that to happen. Look around at the commitment we've already made."
Teams that play in stadiums like Neyland don't lie dormant forever. It is a symbol of what Tennessee stands for, what we are and what we will be again.
Even with the beautiful new brickwork, it still holds the same old nostalgia.
Neyland Stadium is snapshots of that first game back in 1990 against Temple, the one where an 11-year-old boy from Vanntown watched the Vols beat the Owls with his Daddy. Neyland Stadium is watching a skinny quarterback named Peyton squeak out a narrow victory over Washington State in his starting debut. Neyland Stadium is Jeff Hall kicking a game-winning field goal over Georgia to combat a game where one of the all-time great performances -- from Dawgs running back Robert Edwards -- could only be stopped by a knee injury. Neyland Stadium is the fans storming down the stands after Collins Cooper's field goal failed to find the mark in '98. It's Billy Ratliff pushing Brandon Burlesworth into Clint Stoerner and the ball finding the ground and leading to Travis Henry's coming-out party.
It's also the Casey Clausen end-of-the-half fumble in '03 returned by Sean Jones for a 92-yard touchdown to turn what should have been a 14-13 UT lead into a 20-7 Georgia lead and eventual UGA blowout. Dad and I sat blocked behind a fraternity house for five hours after that game, unable to go home. It's the demoralizing loss to Wyoming. It's so many disappointing games in recent history.
And that's OK.
Because Neyland Stadium is real. It holds plenty of personal joy and plenty of personal pain. Like life, the presence and memories of the joy make the pain better. During the good times, it's difficult to even recall the bad. Maybe I romanticize it too much, but Tennessee football holds that kind of emotional weight with me, and I'm totally OK with Neyland being a place where I've run the gamut of emotions. The hard times simply make me excited to return to the times when it's going to be the place I love it being.
The old girl holds 104,079 fans -- less than what it used to before luxury boxes and other money seats shrank the capacity. That number is still currently good enough for the third-largest stadium in the nation. According to the UTSports site, it has undergone 16 additions or renovations since the West stands were built in 1921, seating 3,200.
It has gone from natural grass to artificial (astro) turf back to natural grass. The famed checkerboard end zones are known internationally. The Vols have built a .799 winning percentage on the field and once won 30 consecutive games in the stadium between 1928-33. The record for attendance was back in 2004 when 109,061 fans watched UT beat the Florida Gators 30-28.
Oh, how we wish the glory days will return. When they do, they'll take place on Shields-Watkins Field inside Neyland, a 92-year old relic that still has those iron guts under all this pretty new polish. It's still a place where the men who wore the orange and white lived in the dorms on the back side of the stadium over behind the Hill. It's the place where General Neyland marched his UT troops to battle every Saturday. It's where Johnny Majors dominated and where he came marching home to. It's the place where you can take a wrong turn, look down a dark hallway and wonder if there are any ghosts of players past lurking. Bones of the dead from Tennessee's famed Body Farm are still stored in the deepest, darkest pits of the basement.
It will see more bad times, but it will see plenty more good times, too. Until those good times, those of us who care greatly about Tennessee football will keep going and keep anticipating that the hope that stadium brings just by sitting there will soon be fulfilled.
She sits on that hill, overlooking her city and the Tennessee River, and she waits for a winner.
We all do.