By Tom Mattingly
There are times in a lifetime of watching and commenting about sports and assessing its impact on otherwise sane and sensible people that the time comes to sit down and rationally consider what the fuss is all about.
One dominant recollection from across the years was the team’s Friday afternoon walk-through at an opposing stadium. On those days, everything was quiet at the stadium, but the storm was building as kickoff approached the next day.
If you paid attention, however, the echoes of Saturday afternoons and evenings past could be carefully discerned. There was enough history in the air to satisfy the most hardened observer.
If you happened to be standing on Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., there would always be a visit to the west side, north end, 31-yard line, to the spot where Albert Dorsey picked off a Ken Stabler pass, one of three he grabbed in the fourth quarter, to seal the deal in the 1967 game, Tennessee 24, Alabama 13.
You could also go to the east side, south end, 34-yard line, and see Alan Cockrell checking off and sending Johnnie Jones around left end on a play known as “49 Option,” 66 yards for the game winning score. The memory is fresh of Jones emerging from the press box shadows, into the bright sunshine at the northeast corner where the Tennessee fans were sitting.
At Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala. you could go to the near corner at the north end and see where Jason Allen, an Alabamian playing for Tennessee, knocked down a final toss that finally ended a 5-overtime game. There was also the first play of the 1995 game, when Peyton Manning connected with Joey Kent for an 80-yard score that set the tone for a 41-14 victory, first since 1985.
If you were at LSU; you could go to the south end and see where Steve Delong and pals made the stop in the 1964 game that ended 3-3. That was also the end zone where LSU ran two pass plays in four seconds to defeat Ole Miss 17-16 in 1972. Billy Cannon started his famous Halloween night punt return from that end, 89 yards up the east side, to vanquish Ole Miss 7-3 in 1959.
If the game were at Notre Dame, it was fascinating to be in the players’ entrance where Miami and Notre Dame slugged it out before the famous ‘’Catholics versus Convicts” game. There was also a TV camera in the visitors’ dressing room that also proved disconcerting.
The memories still linger from the 1991 game, the contest in which the Vols rallied from 31-7 down to win 35-34. No Tennessee fan, wherever they were, could forget that frantic moment when Jeremy Lincoln blocked the final Notre Dame field goal attempt.
Then there was the 2001 game when the Vols won 28-18. With the game on the line, Casey Clausen led the way, scoring the clinching touchdown in front of the imposing shadow of “Touchdown Jesus.”
If the game were being played at Florida Field, you could stand on either 1-yard line and visualize a 99-yard touchdown drive, one that happened quickly from south to north in 1977, the famed Kelsey Finch touchdown run. The other was a more workmanlike drive in 1971, north to south, capped by a TD pass from Phil Pierce to Stan Trott.
You could also go to the northeast comer, where officials adjudged a Florida punt going out of bounds inside the Tennessee 1, with Bill Battle earning one of the shortest unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in the history of the Vol program for protesting the spot.
If you were at Jordan -Hare Stadium Auburn, Ala., you could go to the south 33-yard line and recall a 67-yard TD run by Jamal Lewis in 1998 that was a thing of beauty, happening shortly before he injured a knee and was lost for the season. Victories at Auburn are hard to come by, and this one was special.
You could also go to the north 1-yard line, the spot at which Vol defenders stopped Auburn after a turnover had put the Vols in serious jeopardy. Auburn had four tries at the end zone, but all the Tigers earned was grass stain. Raynoch Thompson led the defensive charge in a memorable moment of that national championship season.
Mention any game and a flood of remembrances of the good times following players wearing orange and white comes quickly. That’s the beauty of it all, that the memory banks really don’t have to work overtime. That’s the power of history, the power of watching and listening intently.