A sea of orange blankets the hill between Circle Park and Neyland Stadium, as policemen and women frantically try to direct human traffic. "Back up! Back up to the sidewalk, please! Sidewalk. Sir! Ma'am! Back up. Clear the way!" People camped out on the edge of the sidewalks stand up, crowding together as closely as the Neyland Stadium seats are. Shorter folks in the back crane their necks to look around. Kids are lifted onto shoulders. People run to find elevated areas. The police continue to direct people back. They're clearing a path for our football players to walk down the hill on Peyton Manning Pass through thousands of fans, past the Pride of the Southland Pep Band and onto Phillip Fulmer Way toward the stadium to prepare for the day's football game.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Vol Walk.
In the old days, Vols walked down from Gibbs Hall to Gate 21 from dorm rooms to locker rooms. But, according to this UTSports article, that all changed during the 1990 season:
Tennessee team buses were delayed in arriving at Jordan-Hare Stadium because the team bus route had to cross the path of Auburn's Tiger Walk. The delay gave head coach Johnny Majors the idea of formalizing his players' journey from their dorm to Neyland Stadium and three weeks later, the tradition was born.
The Vol Walk tradition has evolved over the years with changes in its path and length. When the Tennessee Lettermen's Wall of Fame was erected outside the Neyland-Thompson Football Complex in 2000, Phillip Fulmer had the walk begin with players running their fingers along the wall's marble surface that bears the name of every Tennessee letterwinner in every sport in the program's history.
The route of the Vol Walk was shortened in 2009, when team buses dropped he players and staff off at the head of Peyton Manning Pass to make the walk through thousands of fans. The route down the street named for the Tennessee legend leads past the Pride of the Southland Pep Band, before turning left on Phillip Way to the cheers of more fans and a right hand turn into Gate 21A for a quiet final journey down the ramp to field level.
In 2010, Derek Dooley added a team gathering around the Torchbearer statue to coincide with his inaugural year as Vol head coach. The famous symbol of the University stands tall at the corner of Volunteer Blvd. and Peyton Manning Pass where the walk still begins. Players and coaches, clad in suits and ties, get off the buses to the cheers of fans all around and greet family, friends and fans as they make the walk.
So, don't ever get into an argument with an Auburn fan about whose walk is older. Theirs is. But, sometimes, great traditions are borrowed. [If you don't believe me, wait until the Rocky Top entry ...] None of that matters. Traditions are molded, reshaped, made your own.
The Vol Walk is OUR tradition, as unique to us as ours is to them.
I've been to Tiger Walks when AU is good. I've been to many, many Vol Walks when we're good. There's simply no comparison in my biased mind. When the Volunteers are the VOLUNTEERS, that small path where throngs of fans gather can get as loud as Neyland Stadium after a touchdown. Most of the time, the Vol Walk begins around 2 hours and 15 minutes before game time. Don't try getting around the masses. If you get stuck around there, you may as well stay and watch the show. And what a show it normally is. Now, the players get to walk right past the brand new statue of the great Gen. Robert Neyland.
It's a stroll for the players and an experience for the fans that is immersed in the traditions of Tennessee. It's one I've experienced many times with my dad and my friends and one I can't wait to experience with Jackson, who'll probably go to his first UT football game next season.
Recently, Tennessee football players and coaches -- decked out in some of the snazziest suits you'll ever see -- march behind the cheerleaders and other pep members, high-fiving fans, listening to music, getting hyped up for game mode. When you see the looks on recruits' faces, you realize just how awesome this is. Sometimes, you'll catch the look on a player's face and realize they're still awed by the experience. Trooper Taylor was one of the greatest Vol Walkers ever, running up and down the street, high-fiving, towel-waving, getting crazy.
Every new coach adds his own tweaks or changes to the Walk. It'll be interesting to see how coach Butch Jones handles it and what alterations -- if any -- are made.
But one thing will remain the same: The Vol Walk will always be a part of Tennessee football, and it is always a must-see for fans and opposing fans alike. Hopefully, one day soon, we'll get to return to the days where we are celebrating a winning team getting ready to prepare for gameday.