(Editor's Note: A warm welcome to friend of the blog and the once and future King of Zachland, Zach Marx, as one of our newest staff writers.)
I couldn't have been further—mentally, if not physically—from the safe confines of Neyland Stadium if I had tried. I was relaxing at an outdoor café, locally brewed beer in hand, after a long walk along the northern German seaside with my Danish fiancée. The sun was making a welcome appearance, but failed to bear down with the same summer intensity as in East Tennessee. And the air, despite its close proximity to the ocean, failed to create the same stifling humidity that was a hallmark of a July day back home. Summers just didn't feel like summers here. Still, I've learned to enjoy the finer points of the generally unpredictable Northern European summers, largely due to the aforementioned readily available refreshments. Just as I was enjoying the scene, I heard a voice cut through all the German chatter around me, "What's a Tennessean doing here?"
Ah yes. I remembered that I had worn my blue and orange Tennessee ball cap that day, which had apparently drawn the attention of some other American passerby. I responded in the only way I knew how, raising my glass and saying, "Go Vols!"
I'm pretty sure the guy was from somewhere in the Midwest and not a Tennessean, although this is perhaps an unfair assessment to make considering I would have a small fortune if I had a dollar for every time someone told me, "You don't sound like you're from Tennessee." Regardless, he continued on past my table without another word, and it gave me pause to think about the special place our university holds in American culture.
The color, the Power T, and "Rocky Top" are all instantly recognizable to most American sports fans. This recognition was on full display recently, with the unfortunate and far-too-soon passing of Pat Summitt. From Madison Square Garden to the White House, and countless places beyond, Summitt, and by association all of Tennessee, was recognized for transforming sports and sports culture.
I first joined Rocky Top Talk on October 25th, 2009, one day after the Vols fell to ‘Bama 10-12 under the short-lived regime of Lane Kiffin. I was living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where precisely zero people cared about the color orange. Although I probably couldn't express my feelings into actual words and sentences at the time, something happened to me that day that made me realize a hugely important and wholly overlooked part of fandom: community.
This was my first venture into the wide world of sports blogs, and what a wonderful start it was! Before joining, I was a tiny orange outpost, living on the frontier, but now I was connected to Big Orange Country. Suddenly I could share the joys of winning, and (all too often) the crushing disappointment of defeat.
To some, sports is just a meaningless distraction. People—for good reason—consider sports a costly endeavor, beyond the supposed purview of the institutions of higher education. To others, it is a lifelong obsession, one worthy of an inordinate amount of time and money. Like with most things, the truth is somewhere in between. Sports are trivial and have no real impact on the world. But on the other hand, they can be something to cling on to, to enjoy, for a couple of hours when life hurls its numerous slings and arrows in your direction.
This was the case for me in the fall of 2009. Like many in America, I was struggling to just to survive in the harsh economic environment left in the wake of the housing market collapse. I won't go into much detail, but I know we all remember those times. In Tennessee football and within the comment section of Rocky Top Talk, I found a place to escape. I couldn't control the greater economic catastrophe, but I could root for the Big Orange. And perhaps I could help them to victory if I wore my lucky shirt.
Many struggled—and continue to struggle—after The Great Recession. After two years of trying and failing to secure a steady paycheck, I fled the country, and found one in Seoul, Korea. It was new and exotic (and above all, financially stable), but it took me even further afield from my home on Rocky Top. And the 13 or 14 hour time difference meant that I was often watching games in the middle of the night. Once again, Rocky Top Talk was there to help me connect to my fellow Vols.
In the six years since, I've continued moving around, now settling in Europe with the aforementioned Danish dynamite. They generally love the metric form of football, but you'd be surprised how often I'm asked about the American variety. I've even met a few lads who have played for the Danish National Team, if you can believe that's a thing that actually exists. When I tell them about Big Orange Country, and proudly show them video of Running Through The T on my phone, they're always impressed. We come from a special place, a fact that I appreciate more the longer I'm away.
No matter where I go in the world, Rocky Top will always be home sweet home to me. And you can take the boy out of Tennessee, but you can't get him to stop wearing orange.