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Where I Come From: How I Became A Tennessee Fan

This post is sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 11, in stores July 13.

Why are you here?

We kickoff our weeklong celebration of what makes college football great by sharing our most basic story:  how did you become a Tennessee fan?

Age and time may separate us:  some fall in love with Tennessee later in life, thanks to a move or a grad school decision.  Others may not know much about the Vols when they walk on campus as freshmen, but leave the university with a passion that lasts the rest of our lives, having experienced the orange and white firsthand.  And some of us are lifers, East Tennessee born and bred, wearing orange from the time our parents put us in it as infants, to this very day. 

But whatever your story, our love for Tennessee works together for the common good.

And yeah, we'd love to hear how you came to RockyTopTalk as well, both from our greatest community contributors down to the longtime listeners/first time callers.  All of the posts that EA is sponsoring all throughout our college network this week celebrate that which makes college football great, and will do so by our community sharing our greatest stories, favorite traditions, teams, and players...and our proudest moments.

So what's your story?  How did you become a Tennessee Vol, and where has that journey taken you? 

Will's Story

( which I try not to turn this into a manifesto...and fail.)

Looking back, I'm really not sure I had a choice in the matter...and I wouldn't have had it any other way.

My parents are both from the Memphis area, but met as students at UT.  They got married in '78, and were back in Knoxville three years later when, in the middle of football season, I came along.

It's interesting now, with my friends starting to have kids of their own, to talk with them about how old their children have to be before they'll allow them at the tailgate and the game (which are probably two different ages, and for good reason).   

We moved from West to South Knoxville when I was still young and I started going to Alcoa in first grade; my parents still live in South Knox today.  When the north end zone at Neyland Stadium was enclosed in 1980, my Dad and several of his old fraternity brothers got season tickets together in Z11; I still sit there every Saturday.

My first game was Army in 1986, two days before my fifth birthday.  I don't remember it, but as it was Army I'm sure my parents took me because they were expecting an easy blowout...and we lost, 25-21.  Beware the service academies. 

In '86 and '87 they took me to only a few games - they used to have hot air balloons that went up over the water on gamedays, and as a little kid I was always more interested in them and would make my parents get up and leave the action to go see the balloons.  My Dad had more patience than I imagine myself having today in the same situation.

In 1988, I had a choice.  I had been playing AYSO for a couple of years, but the games were always on Saturdays, and Tennessee both wasn't all that good, and wasn't playing many games at night at that point.  But even at age six, you could already tell I was going to suck at soccer...which means I thought it was stupid...which means I gladly gave it up to go to the games every Saturday with my Dad.  My Mom gave up her seat for me, to stay home with my two younger sisters.  I have never relinquished it.

Picking '88 as the year to really start paying attention, both in going to the games and being old enough to start to putting things together, could've been disastrous:  the Vols started 0-6 that year.  I could've quit on it, even when we won the last five against our usual easier backstretch.  But I didn't.

So my first real experience with Tennessee Football was one of the worst years in the history of the program.  And then the very next year, the greatest run in the history of the program began.

The '89 Vols went 11-1 out of nowhere, sharing the SEC title in a three-way tie.  The '90 Vols repeated as outright champs.  And we were off and running.  My first taste of Tennessee Football was bitter...and then it was all honey for the next thirteen years.  The timing, she was excellent.

I didn't get to play football as a kid, and I never really missed it because I loved basketball so much.  And so my entire football experience was Neyland Stadium on Saturdays, or my parents' basement watching on TV with the sound on mute so we could listen to John Ward on the radio during road games.  I love that I'm old enough, just barely, to be able to say that I did that.

We went every Saturday, period.  I missed Chuck Webb's injury game in 1990 because my Mom made me go to her family reunion (Dad stayed and went to the game by himself).  The next home game I missed was in 2003.  How lucky was I?

I'm here because every week for all of my childhood, my Dad took me to the game.  And I loved every minute of it.

We started going on the road some in the 90s.  First we just did the safe ones, which explains why I've been to Columbia five times and Lexington four times.  Then we decided we'd do a family vacation in Orlando for the Citrus Bowl after the '95 season...and I remember sitting on the top row of the upper deck, watching Eddie George struggle through the raindrops.  In '97 we were there for our first trip to the SEC Championship Game.

In the fall of 1998 I was a senior in high school, a great year in anybody's life.  And then things just started coming together.  We went to Columbia and Nashville.  We went back to Atlanta.  And we were there in Tempe the night it all came together.

It was the last game my Dad and I went to together, the National Championship.  I started as a freshman at UT the next year, and had some great times in the student section.  His back was going on him, and by the time I was done with the student section he was done period; he hasn't been to a game in almost ten years.  And I know he'd love to go and I'd love for him to go...but it's also fitting that we ended our run together with the National Championship.  We went to 56 home games in a row together from 1990-98, and went 10-0 in road/neutral games.  And I will love every one of those Saturdays forever.

One of the positives about attending UT when you've lived in Knoxville your whole life is that you don't go alone:  the group of guys I went to games with while we were in the student section comprise the same group of guys I still go with and tailgate with today, give or take a wife or two.  In college we went to new and exciting places like Gainesville, Athens, and Tuscaloosa.  And even now, pushing 30 and working super-adult jobs, we're still trying to arrange road trips around our busy schedules.  Most often now I go with my friend Josh, who I met in first grade.  My friends who comment on this site I've known just as long.

All of that to say...for me, Tennessee Football has been a lifelong experience, and I don't think that will ever change.  There were times several years ago when I felt aimless and completely frustrated with myself and my entire life...but never once did I fail to find joy in that T opening up and the team pouring out.  Because some things simply do not disappoint.

And today, though 185 miles away and forced to sit some of them out, and with a life that I could not be more in love with...that T opening up doesn't give me any less joy.

I started blogging for the same reason most people do:  I moved.  In 2006 I got my pastoral license and was immediately sent to southwest Virginia to serve my first appointment, where I remain today.  I moved on June 21, and started SouthEastern Sports Blog six days later.  I needed to still be able to have those conversations.

That was still really all I was trying to do two years later, when Joel found me and asked me to come aboard here.  And then I blinked, and now my name's in print in a magazine and I'm on the radio every Friday, and the little kid in me still can't believe it.  As great as my own community of friends continues to be, our community here is right there with them - to share things like the Sweet 16 win in the live game thread with you guys is incredibly fun.  And I know I speak for all three of us in saying how much we do appreciate you not just reading here, but commenting and making this place a real community.  We've certainly seen some things together...   

Tennessee Football is like anything else:  you get out of it what you put into it.  If you give yourself to it, then it will hurt you some weeks.  It will ask for your faithfulness when it struggles in transition.  It will ask for your loyalty when it can't get the best of its greatest enemies.  And it will ask for your love always.

But though my heart has been broken by David Palmer, Danny Wuerffel, Jabar Gaffney and the Georgia has also found incredible joy in Touchdown Jesus waving no good, Peyton Manning and Joey Kent on play number one, pandemonium's reign and more overtimes than I can remember. 

Being a fan for the long haul is to embrace the roller coaster.  You put your faith in it, and there will be ups and there will be downs...but she's always moving forward.  And good grief, have I enjoyed the ride.

What's your story?