By Tom Mattingly
When you think about the loyalty of Tennessee football fans, you might consider how this loyalty manifests itself, often from faraway places. These are fans for whom a trip to Knoxville is a major undertaking, requiring a great deal of planning and some major expenditures.
Mark Ostermeyer hailed from Akron, Iowa, a small town located on the Iowa-Nebraska state line. We had talked on the phone several times and talked about the stadium he had only seen on television, specifically in the 1990 Florida game. He was heavily invested in being a Vol fan despite the distance between Akron and Knoxville.
He said something about liking the Tennessee orange jerseys and being impressed by the stadium and the atmosphere he saw and felt.
The trip from Akron to Knoxville is estimated to be 16 hours, 10 minutes, covering 1,045 miles, and appears to be a killer. If you think Knoxville to Memphis and back home is a tough one, try the maze of highways leading from western Iowa to Knoxville and back again.
One summer, Mark had driven to Knoxville, visited Neyland Stadium and the campus area, and made a trip to the student center for some souvenirs. He then turned around and went back home.
A year or so later, he and his brother drove all night to see the 1993 Tennessee-LSU game and drove home immediately after the game to get to work the next night.
I had provided Mark and his brother tickets and caught up with them the day before the game. As we walked across the connecting ramp between Stokely Athletics Center and Gibbs Hall, we ran into Heath and Benjie Shuler.
After the appropriate introductions and some brief conversation, the Ostermeyers declared their trip a success before they saw the game, which ended up Tennessee 42, LSU 20. There must have been some interesting conversation on the way home.
Sometime in early 1999, Dave Hagewood told me how he drove from his home near Detroit to a hotel in Georgetown, Ky., to see the 1998 Tennessee-Arkansas game on television. He recalled that was the closest venue showing the game.
The Vols were 8-0 and freshly ordained as No. 1 in the nation heading into the Nov. 14 game at Neyland Stadium. It was a Tennessee classic if ever there were one, despite a persistent rain that covered the campus area.
“I had wondered if the Vols were ever going to win a national championship,” he said. “When the Arkansas game week came up, the stations in my area were showing Notre Dame and Navy.”
He had Tennessee roots in Clarksville and decided he had to see the game one way or the other. So he ended up in Georgetown. (He never said why he didn’t add three hours to the trip each way and come to Knoxville.)
As he watched the game, international events in Iraq intervened and he missed Peerless Price’s touchdown reception in the first half, as CBS cut to the White House. He did see a replay of that play and the rest of the game live, including those moments in the final quarter when Al Wilson practically willed the Vol defense to force two turnovers and grab a look-what-I-found victory.
Wilson blocked a field goal, and, as every Vol fan knows by heart, Billy Ratliff forced the other, causing and recovering a fumble. It’s a play forever memorialized in Tennessee lore as the “Stoerner Stumble,” named after the Arkansas quarterback that day.
Travis Henry carried five consecutive times for 43 yards and the winning score. The Vol offense looked energized from the sudden turn of events. Neyland Stadium was rocking and rolling as the Vols moved ever goalward. Some fans have called those final moments “The Rally by the River” or “The Miracle in the Gloaming.” It was another magic moment on the Shields-Watkins Field turf.
The same was true outside the stadium. Many of those fans who might have left early ended up watching one of the televisions set up in tailgating areas. They made numerous new friends while watching the Vols rally.
Loyalty to a school is one thing. Loyalty to an athletics team at that school is another. Faraway loyalty is beyond amazing, beyond rational explanation.
The cheer goes, “It’s great to be a Tennessee Vol….” The rain-soaked fans from that November afternoon and early evening can readily attest to that fact. This is a special place, one full of special people, including those who have supported the University of Tennessee from far beyond the state’s borders.