(Fair warning: as is the case with several of these 100 Days of Vols entries, this one is long and personal)
Ten years ago Tennessee and Alabama played a football game that refused to end. More than any of the other hundreds of games I've seen in my 31 years, this one taught me and is still teaching me how and why these things can matter so much.
I grew up with a kid who shared my first name, so we all took to calling him by his last. Bobbitt was in my grade in Alcoa City Schools, and from the time we met him one thing stood out above all others: he loved Alabama. As elementary school children in East Tennessee, such a thing didn't make sense to us. We kept waiting to see if it was a phase. But it never passed and never left. We were in sixth grade when Alabama won the 1992 National Championship, seventh when I had to remind him the game actually ended in a tie and not an Alabama victory. We were freshmen when Peyton Manning and Joey Kent changed everything on play number one.
We went off to college together; by off I mean both to UT. You'd think being a student on Rocky Top would beat it out of him, but the Tide won the SEC Championship that year in 1999 and fanned the crimson flame. We both flunked out together. And at the young and no-idea-what-to-do-with-your-life age of 21, we both started working as broadcasters for Alcoa High School football, along with one of our other friends.
Of the things I no longer have in my life, doing play-by-play with those guys is near the top of the list of what I miss most. We started in 2002 with an Alcoa team playing all freshmen, including Brandon Warren, that went 3-7. Two years later they won the first of seven straight state championships with juniors like Brandon Warren and freshmen like Randall Cobb.
Between those years, with Alcoa still in 2A classification back then, we spent our Friday nights either in Alcoa's press box, or more often than not standing on the roof of small school stadiums all over East Tennessee. Places like Rockwood, Oliver Springs, Sweetwater, and Tellico Plains. You haven't lived until you've stood on the roof in the rain and called high school football.
So it was one weekend in October 2003, when we called a game from one of those middles of nowhere on Friday night, then jumped in my 1997 purple Neon and headed south for Tuscaloosa in the wee hours. I had been once before, back in 1999 when the Vols stonewalled Shaun Alexander and the eventual SEC Champions. But this was Bobbitt's first trip to see the team he loved play in their home environment. The game had only been back in T-Town since '99. And the year before, Alabama had broken a seven year Tennessee stranglehold with a three touchdown victory in Knoxville. Bobbitt was in Neyland Stadium that night, and we had a rule: we can do pregame together, but sitting together would be certain death for the friendship. But even then, as the 2002 season fell apart around Casey Clausen that night, part of me was happy for my friend. Having grown up knowing nothing but Alabama victory until I was 14, I knew the suffering seven years of losing entailed. I knew how good 2002 felt because I knew how good 1995 felt.
But now, in 2003, all bets were off. Alabama finished strong the year before under Dennis Franchione, but he fled for Texas A&M and a few strippers later, we welcomed Mike Shula and low expectations to the fold. Bama was 3-5 coming into The Third Saturday in October. Tennessee started the year 4-0, beat Florida and looked to put the ghosts of 2002 to bed. But a tough loss at Auburn and then a stunning blowout at home against Georgia knocked the Vols from 7th to 22nd in the polls. In an interview I cannot find but definitely remember reading, Mike Hamilton once described the off week that followed that Georgia loss as the toughest week of his career. I'd imagine his answer has changed.
If you've never been, Alabama and Tuscaloosa do pregame as well as you'd expect. I have never spent a single breath of my life as a fan of the Crimson Tide. But Bobbitt was my friend, and I was so happy for him to finally get to see in person what he'd been cheering for his whole life.
I'm big on history and tradition, and by those standards I have great respect for the University of Alabama. I also have great respect for this rivalry. At this moment in 2003 it probably meant less to both teams than at most points in my life. Since 1985, at least one of Tennessee and Alabama has been ranked in the Top 20 for the Third Saturday in October every year except two: 2000, with the Vols rebuilding and Bama in free fall, and this game in 2003. Ten times we were both ranked in the Top 20. There have certainly been some iconic and nationally relevant Third Saturdays, like 1985, 1989, 1993, 1996, and 1999. But 2003 had less on the line for both teams coming in than almost any other clash between the Vols and Tide in the modern era.
And yet, it mattered. A lot. Because that's what great rivalries do.
We found our way into Bryant-Denny, and then followed our own rule and went our separate ways. I took the seats in the upper deck, an orange-clad refuge among the crimson faithful. Bobbitt stood directly behind the tuba section of The Million Dollar Band the entire game.
And then off we went, but not really. The CBS studio crew deemed the first half, "unwatchable," and they weren't far from the truth. Alabama took a 6-3 lead into the locker room in a field goal kicking war. At this point Tennessee fans are openly calling for the head of Randy Sanders. But Sanders went deep into the playbook on the opening drive of the third quarter, bringing in James Banks in what the kids today call the wildcat. And for the first and possibly only time in the history of Tennessee Football, it worked: Banks ran 25 yards for a touchdown, and the ice was broken.
(This is where I realize I have to type, "Alabama quarterback" before typing "Brodie Croyle", because some of you might be too young to know who that is, and that makes me feel quite old.)
Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle threw an interception en route to a 13-6 Vol lead, but then countered with a 40 yard touchdown pass, and going to the fourth quarter everybody's fingers are in the air and momentum looks like she's going home with both of us. Alabama drove to 4th and goal at the 1.5 yard line, Shula said let's go, and Parys Haralson said let's not. But the surge was short-lived: Tennessee immediately fumbled the ball right back to Alabama, who didn't miss twice and grabbed a 20-13 lead. Then Tennessee was stopped three-and-out, and Phillip Fulmer elected to punt the ball back to the Tide with just three minutes to play. Three plays and one minute later, Alabama had 4th and inches at their own 37. This time Shula elected to punt, pinning the Vols at their own 13 yard line.
Which means it's Casey Clausen time.
We covered the Iceman early in our 100 Days of Vols series. I was eager to write about him because he's one of my favorite Vols and one of the most underrated UT players of all time in my opinion. But even the biggest Clausen hater has to tip the cap to what he did as the sun began to set in Tuscaloosa. Tennessee went 87 yards in seven plays, five of them Clausen completions, four of them for first downs and the fifth from the two for the score in the final seconds of regulation. Ice cold, no mistakes. All in the face of an Alabama crowd cheering madly for their first big win of the season and the first ever Third Saturday win in Tuscaloosa. We're tied 20-20.
A detail few remember is Tyrone Protho's 38 yard kickoff return + 15 yard facemask penalty = 45 yard field goal attempt to win it with four seconds left. I was sitting in the upper deck with my friend Kory, beside ourselves that Tennessee could give it away like this. An Alabama fan sitting in front of us turned around and said, "Don't worry, he'll never make it." He was kicker Brian Bostick. And he didn't.
The year before Tennessee played a six overtime marathon with Arkansas. Before that game, I remember telling people, "If Tennessee ever gets in one of these multi-overtime games, my heart will never take it. I'll die on the spot." So now let's take all the energy and wild emotional swings we experienced from that Arkansas game, and jack it up to Third Saturday in October proportions.
Tennessee got the ball first and scored first, Clausen to Derrick "Anytime you need a big play" Tinsley. Tennessee forced Alabama to 4th and goal at the 6...but Croyle made it work, connecting with Dre Fulgham to force a second overtime. Then Bama scored to open their session, taking a 34-27 lead. Then they sacked Casey Clausen, and Tuscaloosa erupted.
Two incompletions later, Tennessee had 4th and 19 at the Alabama 34 and called timeout. It was one of the longer timeouts I can remember. I tried not to look at my friend behind the Alabama band, but couldn't help steal a glance. He was there, working on his second pack of cigarettes, pacing the way we do when we know victory is one play away and there's a great chance it's going to happen, but you don't want to jinx it. And you start talking to your team like they can hear you, telling them to be smart and don't get caught on pass interference and just finish this play so you can celebrate long into the night and the years ahead.
If things go the way they should, Alabama wins its second straight over Tennessee. The Vols fall out of the Top 25 for the second straight year, and Randy Sanders might be looking for a new job. Perhaps all the wins that came after - specifically the 10-6 upset at Miami, breaking the nation's longest home winning streak - vanish into thin air.
But things don't go the way they should.
In one of the signature plays of Clausen's career, Tennessee simply found a way to extend the game. When you play multiple overtimes there are, by nature, a handful of plays like this, where you kick yourself a decade later if you're on the wrong end of the final outcome. And more often than not in these marathons, Tennessee made sure they were on the right end. So nevermind when Clausen fires one into triple coverage in the end zone after this, it'll just pinball off a defender and right into James Banks' hands. 34-34, and we play on.
Tennessee also has a habit of going for the end zone on the first play of an overtime period, and cashed in to start the third session in Tuscaloosa with Clausen to Banks again. But Alabama denied the two point conversion, then Shaud Williams (40 carries, 167 yards) exploded in from the 15. And now here's another chance for Alabama to win it...but Jabari Greer intercepted the two point conversion. And we play on.
At this point I found Bobbitt again, still in that same spot. He knew where our tickets were and had spotted me in the upper deck. And we just kind of looked at each other and both shrugged our shoulders, as if to say, "...I guess we'll just keep playing." It's one of my favorite memories from any UT game.
Overtime number four was boring by comparison, two field goals making it 43-43 heading to the top of the fifth. And there, Tennessee finally put the heaviest weight on Bama: a touchdown thanks to the fresh legs of Corey Larkins setting up a Clausen sneak, then Clausen to Banks, again for the two point conversion. The at least temporary relief of an eight point lead in college football overtime is like answered prayer. Now everyone wearing orange loosens up because you can't lose for at least a few plays. Here's our chance.
Alabama ran the ball thrice and was left with 4th and 2 at the 17 yard line. Overtime games like this often give no warning when they will or won't end; plenty had happened in this game to make you think Alabama could get two yards. But Shula elected to go for the end zone. Croyle's pass for Dre Fulgham was out of bounds even before Alabama native Jason Allen batted it away. And just like that, it's over.
We've only lost one of these marathons, last year against Missouri. And I think by that point so much had gone wrong for Derek Dooley, we really didn't feel it the way you're supposed to. The loss to Mizzou last year felt like just another blow. But ask Arkansas, Kentucky, or especially Alabama fans what it was like to lose to us in these games. Because I can't imagine investing so much for so long, and knowing what a win would've meant in each of those cases, only to come up short after a thousand chances because the other team finally capitalized on a thousand and one.
I found Bobbitt in the concourse and immediately gave him a hug. Nothing will make non-hugging males change their ways like sports. In victory, without question. But in a rivalry and a game like this, you know exactly what it would've meant to the other side. A game like this will make even rivals shake hands and friends hug it out.
My friend and I went to Neyland Stadium the next Third Saturday, and even sat together to witness Tennessee's win in 2004. And then a few months and a few choices later he passed away, gone way too soon with a lifetime of memories made and a lifetime of memories left to make. I spoke at his funeral wearing a crimson tie.
I think about him a lot these days. Today is his birthday. I'm getting married in two-and-a-half weeks and wish he was here to stand next to me. I thought about him when Cory Anderson inexplicably fumbled out of the end zone the next year in Tuscaloosa. I know how much I've hated these last few years of Alabama championships, and I hate it even more because I know how much he would've loved them. And writing and re-living these long and rambling stories is therapeutic to me, so thanks for reading.
More than anything in the realm of sports, my friendship with him taught me, from childhood on, that the people who cheer for different laundry with equal passion are usually very much the same as you are. Life remains a series of relationships that you get out of what you put into.
This game will always be special for the day Tennessee and Alabama did battle for sixty minutes and five overtimes, and the Vols were the last men standing. To me, it reminds me of the friendships this game can build, and all the ways that we're really not any different at all. Do this long enough and you'll have your heart break and your heart soar. Both will come. I'm thankful for the relationships that have come along with it.