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Talking to my priest about the Florida Gators

Justin turns to his priest to help him survive Florida week, featuring Father Aaron Wright of Old North Abbey in Knoxville, TN.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

So here's the deal, Father Aaron: I've been a Vols fan my entire life, but it was in the era where Florida was emerging as the new power in the SEC - all those Spurrier Gator teams. So while I know in my heart that Bama is our first and greatest rival, it's the Gators that consume me. I mean I really, really hate them, so I guess you should consider this to be my confession. I just needed to start our conversation by getting that off my chest.

FA: Justin, I can hear the frustration in your voice.  You know, when I was younger it was the Bama rivalry that haunted me.  I was thinking back to the '98 season, the OT game with Florida, the one that everyone sort of points to as the Florida game.  We were coming off of five straight losses to Florida that year.  Let me say that again.  Five.  This current streak is twice as long plus an extra year for a little touch of salt in the wound.  Yeah.  You’re angry.  But, let’s see if naming your hatred can help you to put the past behind you and give hope for the future.  Good priests should listen more than talk, so take it away…

JP: See that’s just it, Father: I don’t have anything to say that hasn’t been said already. Offensive line regression; uncreative play-calling; Dobbs’ inaccuracy; lackluster wins so far; and now injuries – I’m all out of words. I’m talking to you because I need to know if the apocalypse is near? Are we just days away from some sort of Jalen Tabor-saddled alligator (you know, a Leviathan) with the multiple faces of every former UF backup quarterback emerging from the Tennessee River? I mean, doesn’t that seem plausible at this point?

FA:  It does seem plausible.  Thankfully, however, gators aren’t too happy in our mountain waters.

I think Vol fans, and I am one, are certainly having to rethink this game a little bit.  We are the most depressed 3-0 fanbase in America right now, especially if you consider winning 9 in a row.  This is one of the important things regarding confession.  We have to look at ourselves in the mirror.  Giving an honest assessment of who we are is essential to the process.  You will need good mouth discipline and resiliency.  But, I would actually like to encourage you to dig deeper.  I don’t think picking the team apart is helpful.  Let’s look at us.  See, your hatred for all-things-Gator is really not about Florida.  It’s about Tennessee.  Let me explain.  No one "hates" Kentucky football.  We don’t care.  The same goes for any other SEC school not named Florida, Georgia, or Bama.  The schools we "hate" are the ones we don’t beat. See, Justin, our frustration, our "hatred" is not for Florida. It is for Tennessee. Is that hard to hear? Let me ask you this question. When Tennessee loses to Florida who are you angry with? Are you mad at Florida? No. You’re mad at Tennessee. You’re mad at yourself for believing again, aren’t you?

JP: Okay Father, I get it. Laying it on a little thick, but I suppose that’s your job.

Yes, you’re right: Like Joan Jett, "I hate myself for loving U(T)." I think if I were to itemize the dollars, hours spent, sweat equity, etc., that I’ve put into my fandom I would be unpleasantly shocked. It’s similar to those "how much have you spent in your lifetime on cigarettes?" calculators; it’s like the Vols are smokes: I take a break every few hours to check on Vols news; it’s a communal activity; it negatively affects those around me who do not enjoy the same hobby/habit; it most certainly will kill me. How’s that for self-reflection?

FA: It’s a good start.  However, I think you’re dealing with the external things of fandom.  Dollars, hours, and sweat are one thing.  Tears and laughter are another.  This is a heart thing. See, as Vol fans we place value in these games.  Once again, I’m not talking about valuable things, I’m talking about value.  Our value.  We need Tennessee victories so that we can have value.  Can I take you back to '98?  The missed field goal in OT to seal the victory for our Vols had more to do with our hearts than our money and time.  We felt justified in our fandom.  We were worthy again.  Seventy-year old men ripped off their shirts and stormed the field.  We were better people because our team won.  Or, what about Tennessee vs. Florida in 1994?  We lost that game 31-0.  We felt stupid for believing.  He was a "worse" person because his team had lost.  But, Justin, we didn’t hate Florida.  We hated Tennessee for losing.  We also hated ourselves for putting our faith in Tennessee.  These games are about the heart.  That which we love often becomes a victim of our hatred when it doesn’t live up to what we want it to.  Which, from my priestly perspective is absolutely ridiculous, especially for college football.  Yet, I understand.  Because, every Saturday when my beloved Vols take the field I say really stupid things to a TV like, "Don’t do this to me again!"

So, confronting the fact that your "hatred" is more about your unfettered hopes and dreams crashing than it is about teenagers dressed in plastic who run around a field chasing an inflated pig with "Gators" stuck to the side of their helmets will do you a world of good.  You might actually enjoy the game more.  Can you confess that the problem lies more with you than Jalen Tabor’s twitter account, McElwain’s chiclets, or that awful gator chomp?

JP: Maybe. Probably. I guess if this is a matter of the heart, then Florida just feels different than other games to me. There seems to always be a Jalen Tabor who talks too much; a new coach who inherits Spurrier’s swag simply by being the top guy; a throng of jorts-wearing fans, and for us, what do we have? We have the echo of their voices reminding us that all the talismans we’ve trotted out - the checkerboarding, the Smokey greys, the Lil Jon’s (he’s a rapper, Father) - all of it just begins to look like desperate a decade’s long hype video that always concludes with a sad trombone. I’m sure a lot of this is about me, but it’s also about them - Florida - and I really, really don’t like them.

FA:  We have 11 losses in row, a depressed fan base, and the most annoying fans in the SEC coming to Knoxville this weekend.  That is what we have right now.  It doesn’t feel good.  But, Justin, relax.  You’re a Vol.  I’m a Vol.  We are survivors of football misery.  Prepare your heart for a loss.  It is exactly the normal response for what we have been through.  On Sunday I will see you on the 3rd row from the back on the left side of the sanctuary.  Then after church you will make your way to the exit where I will greet you and say, "So good to have you today."  Then I will follow it up with a smile and a, "Go Vols!", because those despicable, no good, rotten, asinine, flaunting, lucky, trashy, pathetic Gators are going to get a hole punched right through them on Saturday...whew, that felt good.  See you Sunday.  Vols 24-13.

JP: I hope you’re right. Well this has been good for me...I think.

See you Sunday.