When Michael Palardy's game-winning field goal went through the uprights yesterday, I, like Will, just stood there with my arms in the air and a smile on my face. It wasn't the national championship or even the SEC championship. It was just a win over South Carolina.
But it was a significant moment, one for which we fans had waited four years and 19 tries. And it wasn't just a win over a ranked opponent by an unranked Tennessee team fighting to become relevant again in a league filled with national championship contenders. It really was something more.
My two oldest daughters were with me Saturday for our first game of the Butch Jones era, and they said that one of the most enjoyable things for them the entire afternoon was watching my facial expressions change. I'm sure that's true. They've been living with me their whole lives, which unfortunately includes the past eight football seasons, and my expression has pretty much been the same for all of them.
So just as I was vicariously enjoying the win through the players, my kids were gawking at this strange person who was actually happy after a football game rather than putting on the happy mask and using the opportunity to educate the children on the values of humility, perseverance, and hope.
On the drive home, I thought a lot about my kids' comments about my changing countenance during the game, and it reminded me of one of the most subtly remarkable things I've ever seen at a football game. And it's why Butch Jones is the man.
Let me explain. I was extremely happy at the half when the Vols led 17-7, but it was an exceedingly cautious optimism. All I said to the kids was, "We need to hold on. South Carolina can score almost at will if they just quit making mistakes." Things were going well, but I was watching for the other hobnail boot to drop.
And when the Gamecocks scored twice in the third quarter to take a 21-17 lead while we struggled to move the ball on two drives and missed a field goal on a third, I braced for the expected result. And then the old "here we go agains" really kicked in.
You'd think that the field goal on the first drive of the fourth quarter would have instilled confidence and hope, but because it left South Carolina with a one point lead, it really only made me feel like we were set up for yet another near miss. Don't hate. I've been reading your comments, and I know I'm not alone here. I felt like we couldn't move the ball, even with excellent field position, and I felt like the only reason South Carolina wasn't scoring was because they kept dropping passes and making mistakes. I expected that at any moment they would throw another 80-yard bomb and put the game away. I just knew that something bad was going to happen and that I'd be talking about life lessons through gritted teeth in the car on the way home again.
I distinctly remember looking over at the Tennessee sideline about this time. It was literally hopping -- the players were bouncing up and down. The thoughts I had at that moment were . . . incongruous. Boiled down, I think that mostly I just envied them for their reckless hope because although I've always kept hope alive, mine was not exactly making me jump up and down at the moment. My hope was fragile, and I was protecting it against what I was beginning to believe would be still more deferment on this day.
We had South Carolina backed up on their own 11, and wonder of wonders, the defense forced them to go three and out and then shank a punt. In yet another moment of sheer manic-depressive behavior that confused my kids, I celebrated that like crazy and told the girls that we were practically already in field goal range. And then I remembered that there were still eight minutes left. Then Tiny Richardson was called for hands to the face, and the penalty moved us right out of field goal range. We punted, and I sat back down and started shaking my head and protecting my fragile hope again. Lost opportunities. We knew them well.
But I looked over at the sideline again, and the players there were back up and hopping. There was some guy who I thought I recognized but couldn't place -- the former-player celebrity DJ, maybe? -- going absolutely berserk. He was dancing and bouncing and waving his arms, and because he'd captured the attention of the Jumbotron, the entire Tennessee crowd at Neyland, including Mopey Me, followed suit.
The defense again forced a three and out, and Tennessee got the ball back at midfield. We just needed 20 yards or so.
But . . . we went three and out. And punted. Down by one, with three and a half minutes left. At this point, I was torn. I started to revert, to shake my head in preemptive disappointment, but instead looked to the sideline and found the guys all bouncing again. I looked back at the field, asked myself whether the defense could really force Steve Spurrier's offense into a third consecutive three and out. I shook my head no. And looked back to the sideline.
And all the players said yes.
And then they did it.
You know how this ends. The Tennessee defense did not get caught in a punt return formation when Spurrier rolled his offense out twice after consecutive time outs. The Gamecocks eventually punted, and Tennessee got the ball back on their own 35. After two incompletions, Justin Worley threw a fantastic pass to Marquez North, who made an astounding one-handed catch, and just like that, we were back in field goal range. The Vols rushed it closer, managed the clock perfectly, and hit the game-winning field goal just as the clock expired.
They'd done it. As I stood there with my arms in the air and a goofy smile on my face, I just watched the players going crazy on the field, and my kids stared at a dad happy after a football game.
I wasn't just happy that the Vols had finally beaten a ranked team for the first time in 19 tries. I was marveling at something much more impressive and meaningful than that.
They'd continued to believe even as it continued to grow more difficult to do so. And now, finally, they had their reward. And so I just stood there, arms in the air, smile on my face, enjoying watching them enjoy it. And embracing my own transition from hope to belief, one that they'd helped me find.