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Blimps: Where would football be without them?
One writer agonizes over the color of his veins
Can you possibly submit to the greater glory of the Vols in an intelligent way? A writer agonizes.
by Jay Hardwig
My blood runs deep orange.
It is a simple statement, commonplace around these parts, loosed from every tongue and hung from every bumper. My blood runs deep orange. It is a badge, an oath, a symbol, a vow, a genuine hillbilly koan. It is dense with meaning. My blood runs deep orange. There is a lot of passion in those five words, a lot of hunger and want and loyalty. It is both direct and demanding. My blood runs deep orange. I shout it from the rooftops every chance I get.
I was not always so vocal in my passion. There was a time when those five fiery words gave me pause. A blasphemy, I know, enough to get my Tennessee papers revoked. Allow me to explain.
I am, in matters of the spirit, a cold and dreary man. Call me what you willa dirty heathen, a simpering rationalist, a bastard child of Darwinbut I have never been comfortable with bald statements of faith. I am a skeptic, then, an agnostic, and as a rule I hem and haw before plunging my feet into the muddy waters of faithreligious, cultural, or otherwise. I fancy myself a free thinker, and have no use for craven idolatries or second-hand creed. Yet there it is, a pure snatch of Smoky Mountain dogma, plastered on my pickup for all the world to see: my blood runs deep orange. It is irrational, impossible, mythic, shrouded in glory, smacking of hyperbole, yet I know it to be right, as right and true as the ground I stand upon. It is my place of greatest faith. I own two lucky hat pins and a pair of bright orange underwear. Challenge my allegiance and we may end up in the parking lot. This is, my friends, a serious thing.
It is not hard to figure out how I got to be this way. I was born and bred in Knoxville, raised on the taut purr of John Ward's voice. I was a Crackerjack urchin from an early age, selling those sweet treats from the rarefied air of Neyland's second deck. When short, soft hairs sprouted on my chin, I graduated to program sales, hawking the game-day rag from the shadow of the north ramp. I never missed a game, even during the losing seasons (there weren't many). I don't sell programs anymoreI don't even live in Knoxville, to tell the sad truthbut the gay parade of orange in my life has been unbroken, from Alatorre to Robinson to Manning, Garden State to Peach to Citrus and beyond. Every year I count the days until kickoff. Tee 'em up, boys. My blood runs deep orange.
It has not always been thus. There was a time when I tried to convince myself that a loss to Alabama didn't have to ruin my whole day. I was 24 years old, in my second year of graduate school, and I wondered if it was time for me to put away such childish things, to remember after all that these were just games, to admit that the importance they had taken in my life was way out of proportion to their actual worth. I was disturbed to realize that I reacted more strongly to the weekly scores than I did to news of war in the Balkans, famine in Somalia, the fact that my grandmother was back in the hospital. It simply would not do. I stopped reading the sports page first, renounced the television, and took up what I imagined to be more suitable concerns. (What they were, I can't now remember.) When the Alabama game rolled around, I still watched itold habits die hardbut I calmly told myself that there were countless rabid fans on countless couches in Tuscaloosa, their passion as unchecked and pure as any in Knoxville. They were, in their fandom, as right as I was. There was nothing inherently good and true about the Big Orange. Had I grown up in Tuscaloosa instead of Knoxville, I knew, my bumper would read Roll Tide Roll. My blood would flow deep crimson. I would idolize Bear Bryant. And I would not be a worse man for it. I was on the road, I now realize, to a meaningless collegial relativism. It was a dangerous time.
The year was 1994, and I sat down to the television with my passions in check. It was an excruciating game, even for as fickle a fan as I. Down and presumably done late in the 4th quarter, Alabama came back to win 17-13, and it felt no better than a punch in the stomach. I stormed out of my house, a cloud on my face, mourning another loss to the hated Crimson Tide. With new resolve, I tried to put the game in perspective. It wasn't easy, but when I finally did it, my features lightened and my walk regained its customary bounce. By the end of the day I had all but forgotten about the game.
It didn't stick, thank God. The next year, when Tennessee thrashed Alabama 41-14 on national television, I was hootin' and hollerin' like a good barn-raised Volunteer. Worried neighbors looked in to see what was the matter; I believe one called a firetruck. What they could not have known is that I had since made peace with my passion. Misplaced or not, there was no point ignoring it. Be it coincidence, circumstance, fate, or an out-and-out act of God, I was Vols fan and not a Tide fan. My blood ran deep orange, and we were kicking the shit out of the hapless Tide. I was never happier.
Nevertheless, my inner anthropologist couldn't sit still. I had come to terms with my faith, but I had to know why. If I was to submit to the greater glory of the Volsand I wasI was determined to do it in an intelligent way.
Anyone whose heart missed more than three beats when Clint Stoerner dropped the ball in last year's Arkansas game will already know that my effort was futile. Damned from the beginning. But let it not be said I didn't try. I hung all sorts of flimsy justifications out on my theoretical clothesline, dangling in the sun for all my friends and neighbors to see. A sampling:
The Theory of Aggression.We are a soft and pasty people, let's admit, but it was not always so. Taking the long view, we spent a lot more years hitting each other over the head with clubs than watching people run post patterns, and though we now find ourselves sunk more and more deeply into an increasingly comfortable succession of couches, some part of us still itches for the fight. There is a deep psychological need for contest, for danger, for adrenaline, for victory against the odds, even for the cleansing grief of defeat. It has always been so, and we should pat our fat civilized asses that we let young men in safely-padded gear do our fighting for us. Go Vols.
The Theory of Genuine Suspense. There are days when life seems predictable. It is an uncommon thing to watch something truly unexpected unfold before your eyes. This is doubly true on the old idiot box. ER, for all of its craft, is canned. It is a fiction, a fabrication, designed to manipulate our emotions. A football game unfolds according to no such design. It is not scripted. The triumphs, defeats, and emotions can be seen as more real and honest than those that are handed to you for simply sitting through 53 minutes of scripted network pabulum. So goes the theory of genuine suspense, anyway.
The Theory of Positive Self-Concept. Psychologists report that rooting for sports teams, when done in a measured and healthy way, can actually boost one's own self-esteem. This may startle the lab assistants, but it's no surprise to Knoxvillians, who walked around with their chests a little bigger, their walk just a bit more cocksure, their world just a touch oranger, when they woke up on January 3. Few days have felt better: we were redeemed, collectively and indeed personally, by the men in orange. Most of us have never met a single one of them and, truth told, might not like them if we did, but we took pride in that victory as surely as if it had been our own sons out on that field, as if Peerless Price's magic fingers were at the end of our very own hands. Good catch, everybody.
The Theory of Community. Sports build community. If you doubt it, walk down to Neyland Stadium next game day and write down what you see: 100,000 folks of all stripes, shapes, and sizes, all transformed into one giant bourbon-fueled footstompin' flagwavin' maniacal mass. "Hit first by Al Wilson," the stadium announcer bellows over crackling loudspeakers, "and then a host of Volunteers." It is always electrifying, and we are part of that host. There's something to that. I don't need to belabor the point here. No one living in East Tennessee for any length of time fails to perceive it. The ball brings us together and gives us a common dream, a common victory, in a world bent and built on difference.
The Theory of Religion. Finally, there is a notion, fashionable among a certain set, of sports as religion itself. Consider: there is ritual, there is worship, there is transcendence. We dress up like our gods and come to the altar every Saturday, and partake in the trials, triumphs, and redemption played out on the field below. For a moment we are elevated, removed from worldly concerns, fulfilling a basic need to participate in something larger than ourselves. We are supplicants, we are believers, and we are at one with the Big Orange. Om and Amen. It's enough to make the heart tremble.
I am pleased to report that I have given up all such reckless thinking. There is something intriguing in the exercise, but in the end it's only so much hoo-ha. Sports don't bear up well under intellectual scrutiny. It's enough just to watch the game, and root, and root, and root, and lose, and win.
I read the sports pages first again these days. I study the depth charts, set aside my game Saturdays, and hate the Florida Gators with a conscience as pure and clean as the driven snow. Should we lose to Alabama this year, it will ruin my day, and quite possibly my week. I will curse Chris Simms, mourn John Ward, and wish Al Wilson well. I will worship Tee Martin, Cosey Coleman, and especially Jamal Lewis. I will sing "Rocky Top" in crowded bars, and I will shout my faith from the rooftops. Go Vols! Go Vols! Go Vols!
I will do this, and revel in it, for no other reason than this:
My blood runs deep orange.