The beat-up old VHS still sits in the faux-wood tape deck at my parents' house, watched so many times and worn out to the point that it wouldn't play even if they still owned a recorder. A white strip of adhesive adorns its face where the words "1985 Sugar Bowl: Tennessee 35, Miami 7" and, underneath, "The Sweet Taste of Sugar," written in red ink in my father's neat scrawl.
Ink smears and food stains have become lifelong residents on that sticky paper, even outlasting the contents on the VHS itself and put there by the grubby paws of a Southern Middle Tennessee kid cutting his teeth on the Big Orange.
It hasn't been watched, I'm sure, since I lived there 15 years ago. I'm also sure it never will again. But if I have anything to say about it, it'll never live anywhere else unless it's in my home after my folks pass away. It's far too special to me to ever go in a garbage can during a spring cleaning or make its way into a box full of yard sale items.
It may just be one of many old VHSs in that tape deck, but it was my introduction to Tennessee football.
I was 5 years old [turning 6 in September] in 1985, so I'd be lying if I told you that I'd anxiously anticipated every game during that fabled 9-1-2 season or that I eagerly watched every play with my dad. As a matter of fact, I'm not sure I remember watching any particular game live. But when I look back on my childhood and my love affair with the Vols, nothing stands out more than that tape. I bet I've watched it 300 times from start to finish.
When I was too young to have the attention span to really watch and understand the games, I'd ask Dad to pull out the tape, and we'd watch "The Sweet Taste of Sugar," a highlight reel to recap the season preceding the '86 Sugar Bowl victory over Jimmy Johnson and the mighty Hurricanes.
They were evil back then, the Canes. "They play and act like thugs," my dad would say, with their glitz and glamor, hot-dogging and swagger, taking on the personality of their brash coach. They were easy to hate, and they were top-ranked and poised for a national championship that year. Then, all of a sudden, the Vols pummeled them into oblivion, scoring 35 unanswered points with backup quarterback Daryl Dickey at the helm. At every turn, Tennessee thrashed Vinnie Testaverde. The Vols neutralized Michael Irvin. They shrugged off the Blades brothers and matched every Miami All-American with the kind of hard-nosed team play that won championships.
It was never supposed to happen that way, and because it did -- and because of how my father narrated the season along with John Ward during the "Sweet Taste of Sugar" program -- the players on that team as well as legendary coach Johnny Majors became almost deities to me. Dale Jones, Tony Robinson, Daryl Dickey, Tim McGee, Joel Clinkscales,Chris White, Jeff Smith, Keith Davis, Harry Galbreath, Kelly Ziegler, Mark Hovanic, Charles Davis, Terry McDaniel, Bruce Wilkerson, Carlos Reveiz -- I'd spend hours in my room with my Trapper-Keeper full of lined pages, drawing pictures of their heroic exploits.
It's funny to me now that they were just 18-22 year-old kids. They've always been -- and remain -- larger than life. The highlight tape included postgame interviews with the players which brought their words to our living room, and I still to this day remember begging my dad to take me to a game so I could meet Dale Jones. When I finally shook his hand as a young sports writer covering a UT-Chattanooga football game against Jones' Appalachian State Mountaineers, it was as if I were still the wide-eyed youth.
The plays and performances that highlighted that season are still etched in my brain. Jones' miraculous, game-saving interception of Mike Shula against Alabama, Bama's missed game-winning kick, the shutting down of Bo, Robinson's huge game against UCLA, Robinson's injury and Dickey's meticulous dissection of defenses as a game manager the rest of the way.
The opposing stars UT faced [and mostly vanquished] that year stand out as well. All that ridiculous Miami talent, Heisman winner Bo Jackson, UCLA running back Gaston Green and wide receiver Willie "Flipper" Anderson, Florida running backs Neal Anderson and John L. Williams, Bama All-Americans running back Bobby Humphrey and Biscuit Bennett, Georgia Tech defensive lineman Pat Swilling -- they all held villainous roles on the main stage.
When you're a football-crazed kid, who needed a movie on a rainy afternoon? I'd pop in the tape and spend 4 hours watching the season highlights and then the game. And, oh, what a game it was. Thirty-five unanswered points to end any question about what kind of season UT had. Sure, the two ties were a bit disappointing, but an SEC Championship -- the Vols' first since 1969 -- and throttling of Miami a year after losing second-team All-American running back Johnnie Jones and overcoming the adversity of the injury to all-world athlete Robinson somehow made that season the most memorable of my life until the '98 championship team.
"The 1985 Vols will live in memory as the team that restored the Tennessee tradition," Russ Bebb wrote.
It also lives in my memory as the team that turned a simple game into a rabid passion and that elevated my love affair with the Tennessee Volunteers from a casual state to an obsession. Even before there was an intense hatred of Alabama or Florida or a worldwide platform called the Internet where games can be perverted into more than a sport, there was a boy's simple love of a football team.
When I think of reasons why I love the Vols, that culmination of the '85 season and the highlight tape of the memorable campaign rise to the top of my list. All those John Ward-narrated afternoons and games watched began with that one VHS tape. Without that, I'm not sure I'd have ever attended the stately walls of old UT. I'm not sure I'd have spent a lifetime in sports, and I'm not sure I'd feel the same way about the Vols as I do today.
Thank goodness for it.