Playing University of Tennessee – Reflections on David and Goliath

November 9, 1996 seems like a lifetime ago, but what happened on that chilly fall day in Memphis, Tennessee was magical and ranks as the best college football game I have ever seen. My husband had been working for the team for a little over a year, and I was still in college in Virginia; I traveled a couple of times each fall to support him and the team, and of course, I wasn’t going to miss the UT game. Memphis had stunk for decades before we got there, and I have to say it was primarily because we couldn’t recruit – if you were any good and lived in the area, you went to Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Arkansas, UT, Alabama or Auburn, not the University of Memphis. Because of that, it was damn near impossible to create a winning culture, even though Coach Scherer and his staff put everything they had into coaching the team. 1996 was no different than years past, and we were 3-6 going into the UT game at home, having lost our last four games. UT was coming off a home loss against Florida (yes, I am aware this is virtually the same setup for UMass and UT) and literally EVERYONE was against us, with good reason. It was Peyton Manning’s fourth year as their quarterback, Coach Phil Fulmer was a living legend in Knoxville and they were nationally ranked. How much more could the deck have been stacked against us? The media point blank asked the defense if they’d be too dazzled by Manning to do their job and the offense if they would freeze up when confronted with UT’s massive defensive line. The athletic director actually told the team to just play well enough to not embarrass the school. Seriously? Really? There was even a “Memphis is Volunteer Country” billboard right next to the Liberty Bowl, our home field (*sigh*). The only people who had any faith in the team whatsoever were the “oldtimers”, many of whom were former players who just wanted to see us beat UT once before they died (yes, they really were that old, and a couple did pass away after our victory). On the trip down, I flew from Richmond to Atlanta and Atlanta to Memphis, wearing a pair of white jogging suit pants and a white sweatshirt with Memphis emblazoned across it in royal blue. I guess I set myself up for all the ribbing I took, but it was annoying when complete strangers felt the need to say things like “you’re a Memphis fan? I’m so sorry!”, like support for the Tigers was the equivalent of having a terminal illness. I ignored the trash talk as best I could and the next day, I was completely unprepared for what happened: in a sold-out Liberty Bowl that was about 3/4 filled with Vols fans, we beat UT 21 to 17. I remember the feeling well: it was the exhausted elation of the 12th Man combined with the stunned sense of wanting to be sure that what I had witnessed had actually happened.  As fans stormed the field and the Midshipmen tore down the goalpost, I found myself crying, cheering and celebrating with complete strangers. We have piece number eight of 250 of the goalpost on the wall in our apartment today. As time has passed and my knowledge of football has increased, I have become even more emotionally invested in my team than I was even then. The most important thing I learned from the UT win is a lesson that I’ve  always carried with me, especially during the difficult times. Nothing is ever certain when it comes to 60 minutes on the gridiron. Sure there are many lopsided games where the teams are so physically different as to be completely unmatched, but that’s no reason to assume you’ll lose. Your opponent still has to play the game down for down, inch for inch like you do. King David slew Goliath with just a slingshot, eschewing the sword and armor his people gave him because he considered them distractions. We have to do the same thing this weekend – we have to shut out all the negativity, especially that from our own fans, and focus on the goal. Are they bigger than we are? Yes. Do they have more resources and fan support than we do? Yes. Of course these are factors we’ll have to adapt to and we’ll have to improvise to overcome what we can’t control, but we can’t get distracted, either. UT isn’t invincible. Nobody is. They are human beings and just as capable of losing as we are of winning. It’s going to take a massive amount of focus, heart, passion and determination but we CAN bring home a victory. In a game where anything can happen, I choose to believe. FIRE THE MUSKET! GO MINUTEMEN!

 

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