I have this vivid memory from many years ago of sitting in the south end zone in Neyland Stadium and watching John Henderson make a quarterback disappear. The opponent (I forget who it was) was backed up too close to their own end zone on the other side of the field, and the raucous crowd was working at peak volume, smelling blood. The ball was snapped, and just like that Henderson broke through the offensive line and opened his arms wide.
And then the quarterback was just gone. He wasn't just tackled, he was erased. Totally, utterly, completely removed from the site of everyone watching. Swallowed up whole.
I am only a little ashamed to admit that I gave myself goosebumps on the drive home last night recalling this memory from the ether and entertaining the thought that we could see something like that again this season. I understand that Kahlil McKenzie isn't guaranteed a starting spot. Shoot, the guy hasn't even had his black stripe removed yet. (Surely that's because coaches don't want his head to grow as large as his legs.) I also understand that it's weird, awkward, and unfair to mention his name before Derek Barnett's, who was the first guy to lose his black stripe last year and followed it up with a freshman season for the ages. Or even before Shy Tuttle's, who is also new and has had his stripe removed. And yes, we're not even talking about Kyle Phillips on the other end or Curt Maggitt as the roving wrecker. It's way too early and almost certainly unfair to look at these guys and see Big John Henderson.
But that's not the point. The point is this: Anticipation for this season comes with goosebumps. We have eagerly anticipated each football season on this site since 2006 as if it's our civic duty. But it's one thing to look forward to Christmas sweaters and another thing to look forward to an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle. And it's yet another thing entirely to hope with some degree of belief that this is the Year of the Red Ryder when you've been waiting for it for too many Christmases in a row.
I'm not the only one. It's evident on the face of every customer who comes in to our fan shop in Kingsport these days. During the Dooley years, when we were forced to prostitute ourselves by diversifying our offerings to other teams whose fans were in the buying mood, we'd have to ask customers, "Who's your team?" You knew they were Vols fans before any words arrived because the shoulders would slump and the answer would be delivered through a sigh as if it were a confession. "I'm a Tennessee fan."
Now, customers are entering with a bounce in their step and a gleam in their eye, and all we have to say is, "How do you think the team's going to do this year?" Put that quarter in the juke box, and we're off and sprinting toward the goosebumps.
"Mr. Bucket Hat. My word, his legs are bigger than my waist, and I've been eating pizzas for three decades."
"Don't forget about Barnett and Maggitt and Tuttle, and my goodness how is anyone supposed to get anything done around here?"
"With our d-line, I'm not as concerned about the middle linebacker position. It will work out."
"And if we win first and second down, which we should, passing downs just get better with that pass rush and a skilled and veteran secondary."
"And with a defense like we're dreaming, the offense doesn't need to be perfect. And yet, they're looking like they can be very, very good. Suppose you're a defense, and your pre-snap read is Josh Dobbs (who might hand off, run, or pass), Jalen Hurd (who might go left or right or right into your sternum), and Alvin Kamara (who might go right or left or right through you). Oh, we have some good receivers, too, don't forget."
We may well be ahead of ourselves here, and this is where the Christmas metaphor breaks down. This is likely not the Year of the Red Ryder, and yet we may still get everything we want.
Because what we're really longing for are moments to remember, like Big John swallowing a quarterback whole.
Moments that give you goosebumps on the way home ten years later.
I'm ready. So, so ready.