Color: A singular orange tint bouncing off the Smoky Mountain valley below. That is the first thing I’ll remember driving through Tennessee for the first time. It was August of 2015 and I was experiencing life South of the Mason Dixon for the very first time. For some reason that burnt orange glow in Northern Tennessee stuck out to me, as if it was a preamble to the experience I was unknowingly awaiting.
Fast forward 13 months and I am on a plane bound for Hotlanta. I’ve been in living in Florida for a little over a year and have started to understand what it’s like to have major college football around you. And although we could have all taken our talents to the D1 level or at the very least State (Texas Forever), I’m not talking about the pickup football games played in front of Lyons Hall at Canisius College; I’m talking about the Southeastern Conference. The S-E-C. If it was all about the U in the 90’s you better believe that the 2000’s is all about the SEC. The SEC is a whole different ball game. Stickers, license plates, t-shirts, mugs, customizable crocs. You name it, I’ve seen it with an SEC logo down here. I figured it was about time to go see what the hubbub was all about. So with a little help from my dad and his boss (who happens to be a Tennessee grad) we booked a ticket to Knoxville for a seemingly routine conference game between U.T. and Florida. And Boy, was it anything but routine.
First off, in the SEC everybody hates Florida and Florida hates everybody. The University of Florida and its fans like to think they’re in the same league as Bama, much like Colgate likes to think they are an Ivy League School (guys you’re in the Patriot League please give it a fudging rest) but I digress. Long story short Tennessee hates the Swamp and Florida hates Rocky Top. That being said, as my pops and I got closer and closer to Knoxville you could feel the energy of the weekend ramping up. U.T. stickers on every car, U.T. gear everywhere you look, hell the sunset blasted orange colors across the Smoky Mountain sky as if to say the universe understood what was to come on Good Ole Rocky Top. We woke up early Saturday to some coffee and Southern Biscuits, the tailgate was beginning. We donned our fresh new white polos with the orange “T” to fit our criteria for the checkerboard, and pulled down our UT ball caps, we were ready to go. We piled in the car and took off down the backwoods towards downtown Knoxville.
Smell: That’s the first thing that hits you when you step out of the car within a mile radius of Neyland Stadium. The aroma of pulled pork, mac and cheese, baked beans, and gumbo is a warm welcome to an even warmer fan base. Everywhere you looked there was orange and white, white and orange, tailgate after tailgate of rabid Vols fans. One thing that is noticeably different from our Bills tailgates is that there are no folding table to be smashed, no Labatts to be crushed, but rather generations of U.T. fans just hanging out, eating, drinking, much like we did after Bayou Party Bar closed and we had nowhere to go on Thursday nights for all of two weeks. Just football guys and football gals paying close attention to the portable plasma TV’s with the noon games on, biding the time until the Orange and White hit the field. There were no zubaz, no snowsuits, but rather Sperry’s and Sundresses; A somewhat odd combo for a newcomer to comprehend. After about two hours of good ole fashioned southern hospitality, myself and 102,000 of my now closest friends walked through the turnstiles and into Neyland Stadium.
The overwhelmingly staggering size of Neyland is what greets you when you first see the field. It makes the Ralph look absolutely minuscule in comparison. The stadium is built almost straight up out of the ground so you feel like you are right on top of the field even if you are in the upper deck. By the time game time rolls around, everyone is in their seats in almost a classroom like fashion. No one comes in late from the tailgate. When the anthem starts up all 102,000 are in their respective spots forming the checkerboard white and orange seen on TV. But what was more overwhelming than the size of the stadium is the noise of the Orange and White faithful. To describe it in a single word – deafening, To describe it in two words – absolutely deafening. Every play on defense the crowd was roaring, hooting, hollering, and rocking to a level I had never seen. I chatted with the lady sitting next to me and told her this was my first SEC game, and after a third down stand she tried telling me something. After I yelled a few times, “What!?” she finally scrawled four words onto a napkin, “Welcome to the SEC.” Even when the Vols went into the half down 21-3 everyone was raucous with the defense on the field and deadly silent when Josh Dobbs was under center. At halftime there was no doubt a “here we go again feeling.” I’ll be honest it felt like we were watching the Bills vs. Chiefs, just completely dominating but somehow finding ways to lose the game. You knew though if they could get a spark going the tides could turn quickly.
Sometimes watching college football you do forget that these players are 18-24 years old. Shit when I was 18 I was just trying to figure out what the best hangover cure was: Pedialyte or “All You Can Eat” Brunch at the Economou Dining Hall (Go Griffs). That, to me, is one of the things that makes college football so much fun. They are just kids out there. They still get rattled. The game can shift so fast and when you are a young adult playing on the big stage, sometimes when you figure out what happened it is too late. The Vols ended up scoring 38 unanswered points, 35 in the second half, en route to their first win against Florida in 11 years. The stadium rocked with every hit, every sack, every third down stand, the Florida offense growing more and more visibly frustrated. Touchdown after touchdown, the Vols offense kept producing and the defense kept holding. Peering up and down the Florida bench at the start of the fourth quarter, you just knew there was no way these kids were coming back. At a certain point I think a team just cracks, and for the Gators it was in the third quarter at Neyland Stadium. The momentum shift had absolutely gutted their offense and left their defense paralyzed, like Mike Tyson had just come out and hit them with a quick right and a devastating left. “Rocky Top” blared through the stadium, the sea of Orange and White belting out every line, while the steady stream of Blue and Orange headed back towards the Swamp.
Walking out of a stadium after a victory like that was no doubt euphoric, everyone singing, partying, heading towards the bars. I realized that this would be Buffalo if we ever won a Super Bowl, check that if we make the playoffs. A lifetime of Bills frustrations was cured by one Saturday on Rocky Top, a realization of what could be back home, what the scenes could look like in Orchard Park. I’ll be damned if I didn’t say we need a Sunday in Buffalo like the Saturday I had in Knoxville. I almost felt like I was cheating on the Bills celebrating with all my newfound Vols fan friends. After all the heartbreak, disappointment, let-downs, you name it we need a Sunday like that in Buffalo. No one place is more wanting of it than Buffalo, NY. Wait, not wanting, but rather we needing it; For the City, for the Franchise, and for the Lads.