(Editor's Note: A warm welcome to Justin Phillips, one of the newest members of our writing staff)
My wife is an Army brat, which means that she essentially grew up nowhere, unencumbered by the typical trappings of a particular place or culture. No southern accent. No preference of how barbecue must be prepared. No concept of the religion that is SEC football.
My wife is not in a unique spot in this respect. Several spouses I am sure experience this bewildering displacement by moving to Tennessee, best put into words on a friend’s sweatshirt "I Married into This" with the Power T right in the middle. My friend, a lifelong Kansan (a place also my wife has lived a time or two) showed up to our Outback Bowl watch-party in the midst of lifelong Tennesseans, and my wife felt someone finally understand her slight.
What you have to understand is that we were married on the home opener of Derek Dooley’s second year. As if marriage is not difficult enough, introducing your wife to UT football during that particular era is kind of like promising a romantic dinner at a Myrtle Beach amusement park.
If you have, like most of us, already blocked the 2011 season from memory through whatever therapeutic means available to you, let me recap it for you through my eyes:
We were married on the afternoon of September 3, an act of mercy on my part for my friends, since the Montana opener – a 42-16 laugher – had an evening start time. The following week, our future coach brought his Cincinnati team to Neyland for the first time and got flattened like his now-beloved haircut, a loss that momentarily fueled the tiny "Fahr Butch" crowd early in his UT tenure. The next week’s showdown in the Swamp carried on the annual tradition of disappointment with Justin Hunter blowing out his ACL and a team rushing total of -9 yards that raised the question: Could Rudy Huxtable’s Sweet Feet squad have gained more yards against a Division-1 team than we could against the Gators?
A win over Buffalo followed by a loss to Georgia and an injury to Tyler Bray lead to Matt Simms’ second short-lived opportunity as QB1 and a two-game losing streak to ranked LSU (# 1) and Alabama (# 2). Vol fans will also remember this as the stretch where Justin Worley’s redshirt was inexplicably incinerated for meaningless snaps against Alabama, followed by two starts against # 13 South Carolina and then homecoming opponent MTSU. A 49-7 beat-down at the hands of Bobby Petrino’s # 8 Arkansas team was punctuated by our special teams making Joe Adams an all-time ESPY contender for this punt return.
Bray returned for the Vanderbilt game, a win in overtime when Eric Gordon intercepted Bachelorette contender and Aaron Rodgers’ brother for a pick-six, meaning a bowl bid rested on beating Kentucky for the 27th time in a row. Of course, we know how this story ends: The all-too hackneyed premise where a backup wide receiver-playing-quarterback beats a superior team and ends a historic losing streak. Happens all the time.
I remember staring at the television for a length of time that diagnostically would have suggested some degree of brain failure. I ignored calls and texts from friends. Finally, I peeled myself off of the couch and fulfilled my promise to go to Bed, Bath and Beyond with my wife to return wedding gifts.
Marriage exposes who we are by providing an outsider’s perspective into all the habits we’ve unconsciously formed throughout our life, and let me be clear: I did not like what I learned about myself in those first few months of married life. A quick example: During this debacle of a season the Vols managed to hold a 6-6 halftime tie against Bama. I missed the first half and arrived home to an unlikely score. My wife had asked me earlier if we could have a conversation (about something minor, I recall), and I asked if it would keep until the game was final. She said, "sure" and I’m positive now that I did not realize the reluctance in her answer.
Pro-tip here, guys: If your team is terrible, which we were in 2011, consider the cost of having even semi-important conversations after a 31-0 second-half stomping. Consider the odds of your team riding Matt Simms into victory.
I don’t want to blame every problem Tennessee has ever had on Derek Dooley, but maybe I should lay a few of those early marital screw-ups at the foot of Dooley’s orange dog. Maybe his Rommel mentions convinced me subconsciously that in Pat Benatar-fashion love was indeed a battlefield and I needed to win. While I wouldn’t wish the Dooley years upon any young couple, marriage, like being a fan, includes some rough patches: tacky antiques find their way into your space; really expensive, ugly trousers; the inevitability of hip surgeries and canes; nonsensical comments made about any number of subjects (bamboo!); money problems; even being compared to a parent (especially Vince). These are realities some of us face.
You never really know who you are marrying, which is the point of making promises in public to stick it out for life from the very beginning. So, if you have a spouse or significant other that isn’t from around here and does not yet quite get your obsession with the Vols, practice these words over and over:
"I’m sorry…you married into this."