These goddamn rednecks. They were carrying the goalposts on their shoulders down the street, drunk off a hundred thousand Bud Lights in coozies and an ample layer of Dickel on top of it, wearing khakis soiled with nervous sweat and shirts in varying arrangements of squeaky white and a particular shade of orange not quite the shade of a hunter’s safety vest, but also not too far off.
It could be found under a coincidentally tipsy Pantone code: PMS 151.
A warning: This gets confusing.
By “this,” I mean Tennessee, the University of Tennessee, their branding, and where it all fits together. It seems confusing to me, and I grew up there. To someone who did not grow up there, it has to seem incoherent, like a misbegotten thing that now has to hop along with mismatched limbs and body parts. It would seem like a patchwork of remainders combined into a botched shape and sold dishonestly as one living thing.
That’s accurate. The state is three fiefdoms smashed into a single, unevenly cut parallelogram. Look at it on the map. It really does look like a woodcutter started the job sober but started drinking during the work. They cut the southern border of the state straight as latitude, and then had a few drinks. The northern line came out with a slight hiccup when they bumped against the table saw. The western border with Arkansas is a drunkard’s idea of a diagonal line. The eastern border with the Carolinas comes from falling to the floor mid-cut with the wood in hand.
The first state is piney, hot, deep-South flatlands running down to Memphis. The middle is where I was from: gorgeous old farmland topped by an affluent meringue of vicious churchy bastards in golf spikes. The eastern part is dark, beautiful hilljack territory where people either work in a couple of factories, scrape by on retail jobs, or juggle plutonium for the Feds in Oak Ridge.
Broadly drawn: these three parts hate each other. The western part and Memphis hate Nashville’s cold snobbery and money and hate east Tennessee for being the wrong variety of country racist. The middle part hates the west for being so loud and obvious about their dysfunction and corruption; they hate the east’s embarrassing poverty and country-assedness.
The eastern part hates both parts for the most honest reason: they hate everyone equally, especially if you want to tell them to do anything. Part of east Tennessee even existed as its own state for a while. Davy Crockett came from there and helped found one of the state’s most enduring traditions: running into a fight at the drop of a hat without asking a single question because someone said “go.”
That’s where the University of Tennessee sits.
These goddamn rednecks were moving. They’d come from Neyland, where the Tennessee Volunteers had just beaten rival Florida 20-17 to break a bitter, five-game losing streak. Points-giddy Florida gunned away on offense for serious passing yardage, but spat turnovers into the waiting teeth of the Tennessee defense. The Vols only had 235 yards but didn’t give a shit. They cared much less about looking pretty. They cared much more about planting anyone in a Florida jersey into their own personal impact crater.
Al Wilson alone forced three fumbles. Justice in the universe would look something like taking down every Confederate statue in the state of Tennessee and replacing them each with one of Al Wilson in a Tennessee jersey. They wouldn’t, because they were goddamn rednecks, but the point stands just the same.
1998 Al Wilson was a greater patriot than Nathan Bedford Forrest ever could be.
The University of Tennessee’s mascot exists like the state does: in three parts.
The nickname “Volunteers” is a historical one. In 1814, when Andrew Jackson called for volunteers, a group of around 1,500 Tennesseans showed up and half-ran to New Orleans to kill people they’d never met. Then over 30,000 Tennesseans showed up to kill more people they’d never met in the Mexican-American War.
More than anyone else, apparently, Tennesseans wanted an excuse to get out of the house, stretch their legs, and kill strangers. The nickname stuck.
The University of Tennessee officially has two mascots. There is a human dressed up as The Volunteer. He hauls a gigantic flag bearing the Power T out of the tunnel on gamedays and wears a coonskin cap and tasseled mountaineer’s costume. They look a little bit like the West Virginia Mountaineer, but with a more Disneyfied suit — less like the person inside the costume recently killed, cleaned, tanned, and sewed the costume themselves. The Tennessee version is the one Fess Parker wore.
No one really cares about The Volunteer. That is not the Volunteer’s fault. They usually stand pretty close to the dog. The dog will always be the superior attraction, because it is a very, very, very, very, very, very, very good dog.
Smokey is a bluetick hound. Please do not tell anyone that the breed is not only originally from Louisiana and not Tennessee, but is closely related to a French breed called the Blue Gascon. The Louisananess is too flatland and with the wrong accent, and the Frenchness is repellent to mountain values.
Neither spoils the inherent perfection of a bluetick hound. The breed was made for hunting bears, raccoons, anything that moves across hills and through thick brush. It has the pendulous ears of a hunting dog, but a slighter build than the bloodhound or black and tan coonhound. Its feet are almost hilariously delicate-looking, but can dot and sprint over mean slopes with ease. It is built for long, brutal hunting over uneven earth after clever prey.
The bluetick can, for lack of a more accurate word, go. When it trees its prey, it calls back to other hounds and the hunter with a yowling voice I swear has its own grammar. There are inflections and code indelicate human ears can’t fully parse. There is an alert bark — THING! HERE RIGHT NOW, A THING! There is a treeing bark — WE WERE RUNNING, BUT NOW WE’RE NOT, BECAUSE IT’S UP THERE! KINDA TO THE RIGHT! There is one of curiosity, of surprise, even one of affection.
The official story of how the original Smokey won the competition for the role of Tennessee mascot claims the crowd was asked to applaud for each candidate. The bluetick, introduced last and hearing thousands of people hollering at it, bayed back. It kept baying — the dog thought they wanted a conversation — and won the job. If every nerve in a dog’s brain is wired to the nose, then the bluetick has a coax cable running direct to the vocal cords.
There is a costumed hound mascot, too, but they’re strictly for kids’ birthday parties and plush toy sales. Smokey is the real mascot.
The meanest one was Smokey IX. He had a habit of biting players: an Alabama player during warmups in 2006, Tennessee’s longsnapper in 2012, and Kentucky’s kicker in a separate 2012 incident. He saved his teeth mostly for the opposition, though, and was thus remembered fondly.
The greatest of all of them — and maybe the greatest Tennessean ever, human or otherwise — was the second Smokey.
Smokey II was the ideal Tennessean adventure story in dog form. Like a backroom Memphis gambler late on his tab, was kidnapped and taken to Kentucky once, but got away. (Taken by Kentucky students during rivalry week, and returned without incident.) Like an East Tennessee woodsman, he once got into a fight with a bear and lived. (The Baylor mascot, during the prep for the 1957 Sugar Bowl. Neither was harmed.)
Like a lot of people in Tennessee, his blood was full of running after the next chaseable thing in a rocky, wooded, and harsh wilderness. Like a lot of them, the dog didn’t die in a hunting blind on their last trip, but instead from too much civilization. Smokey II passed away after eating too much dessert — in his case, reportedly a chocolate pie snagged when no one was looking.
I love Smokey.
I love it when he runs out of the tunnel and barks frantically in all directions like a wrestler who thinks the crowd is booing him even when they’re cheering. I love the way he sits on the sideline like a respected and well-coddled head of state. I love the way he cannot control the flopping of his ears. I love the dog’s eyes for the same reason I love all hound eyes: they give the impression that they only refused to listen to the command because they were sensing the pain in your soul. They understand it fully with all their hearts.
I even love it when he freaks out and bites someone because my first question is always: well, what did you do to him?
I love him because growing up in Tennessee meant growing up around dogs everywhere with everyone, in the car, in the house, sometimes in the bed, always underfoot and running for the next scrap to fall off the table. It meant understanding that a grown man who was the hardest dad anyone knew took a black and tan coonhound with him everywhere, sitting in the front seat like a trusted business associate because ... well, because that was his trusted business associate. When that dog died, the hardest dude anyone knew would mourn it more than he’d mourned anyone in his life. After you’d seen it drive down the road on a cold February morning with the profile of just a single human head in the back window of the truck, you’d mourn it, too.
It meant what my mom still does today, if there is a dog in the car and that car just happens to pull up to Sonic at 3:30 in the afternoon, Central Time. She gets a cherry limeade and tater tots. The dog — of any size, stature, or quality — gets its own hamburger, bun and all. It would be rude to do anything else.
One cold night they covered Smokey up with a blanket and put a coonskin cap on his head. He looked like a sleepy sentry drunk on watch, and I almost died from the pain-inducing cuteness. Smokey is a living totem for all the dogs anyone in Tennessee has ever loved, pulled out of a fight with a raccoon, or toted to the vet after it got loose and did some “Hey y’all watch this shit” business in the neighborhood with a car, another dog, or god knows what else.
Dogs might be the third thing Tennesseans can agree on besides tomatoes and football — and Smokey, as established, is very, very, very, very, very, very, very good dog.
The goalposts kindly allowed Tennessee kicker Jeff Hall’s kick in OT to pass through, giving Tennessee a 20-17 lead.
The goalposts then politely let a possible game-tying field goal attempt in overtime by Florida kicker Collins Cooper dive wide left, giving Tennessee the win. They stood for a few moments as people scrambled up onto them, wobbling over a hooting crowd enraged with joy in belted khaki shorts with golf shirts tucked viciously into them, somehow maintaining balance in boat shoes.
Enraged with joy, as in happy, but also capable of causing massive property damage in minutes. The mob was so violently happy that they thanked the goalposts by ripping them out of the ground. The swarm tore them to more manageable pieces, shouldering the tubes of white aluminum towards the stadium exits, past the police and state troopers, who had no ability or desire to stop any of them, and out into the streets of Knoxville.
I love Smokey. I love him despite growing up hating everything else about the University of Tennessee and about everything in Tennessee in general.
I hated their inability to act right, their inevitable descent into some of the most butt-backward idiocy when they won, their occasional tendency to shoot people over football, the fighting, the instant slip into the worst Idiot Southerner Shit. The best Tennessee fans on the planet might do entire Jackass episodes in their front yard to celebrate a win. The worst Tennessee fans on the planet wanted to fight, puke in the street, and say it confidentially to you with a hard “r” at the end and wake up the next morning like you’d forgotten it.
I hated that Dr. Jekyll and Mister Bass Pro Shops Hyde act. I hated their grumbling misery after losses, their insistence that Alabama was cheating (even though everyone including Tennessee was cheating like crazy). I hated how the kids in Vols jackets were inevitably the ones who sat by the door spitting chewing tobacco on the floor on rainy days to see if anyone would slip on it. I hated how I was supposed to sing the damn song in assemblies like I meant any of it.
I hated how all of them went to vast, strange churches on Sunday and came back to school on Mondays inviting me to go to church because ... well, because I was Catholic, and Catholics had never been to church. I hated how they hated smart kids, or even half-smart kids like me. I hated how they had a playbook I did not have: things that were good, things that were bad, and anything off by so much as a degree from those things — these things were worse than strange. They were unclean, to be beaten or shunned into a dark nothing.
Growing up, Vols fans were the people who worshipped a General and recited his maxims like droning cult members. The teams were good but never great, just enough to get them excited before the collapse. But they never stopped, because there was this confidence, this unbudgeable ownership of it.
It was so suffocating and loud and dull, emblematic of everything I hated about growing up where I did. I could not escape the suspicion from a young age: that where I was from was both deeply embarrassing and deeply embarrassed of people like me. And nothing was closer to the heart of all those tangled concentric circles of identity than Tennessee football and the people who loved it.
Even worse, it seemed like no one noticed or was proud of it.
How could they not? Tennessee was the state where someone once hanged a panicked circus elephant for trampling a little girl. Tennessee was the state where the encyclopedias in my classroom — in one of the wealthiest counties in the nation — had a line under “SPACE EXPLORATION” that read “one day man may even travel to the moon.” It was the place where the Scopes Monkey Trial happened, and there was a Confederate soldier on the pillar downtown, and half the accidental deaths listed in the newspaper involved driving drunk into something less forgiving than the human skull. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed on one side of it; the guy who murdered him was kept in a cell on a mountain on the other side.
That all had to land somewhere. It was too much to hang on a football team, but I couldn’t blame the dog. (Again: See dogs, Tennesseean notions of canine personhood.) So every bit of the state’s backwardness and stupidity and stubbornness and churchy know-nothingism wore two colors for me: new-money white like an imminently repossessed Cadillac, and a tangerine-ish orange I could never exactly place on the spectrum.
The call I remember was to my dad. He’s telling me about this later, remembering a voice on the end of the line trying to yell through the din of a thousand overserved customers crammed ass-to-biscuits inside an O’Charley’s.
They were coming. Who? These goddamn rednecks, man. They just beat Florida and they have the goalposts.
So? So they’re trying to bring the fucking things into the goddamn restaurant. What the hell am I supposed to do?
They were hammered and gleeful and refused to understand order. The Tennessee fans had no plan that did not appear three nanoseconds before becoming priority, but the instant hivemind of a hundred oxygen-starved drunk brains all got the message at once. The goalposts had to go into the restaurant. It was the only way. Why do they have to THERE’S NO TIME TO EXPLAIN JUST DO IT.
That’s how it works. They just take it and go without asking.
-THE COPS AREN’T COMING TONIGHT, OKAY.
That hatred floated for a long while.
Florida beating the hell out of Tennessee for the better part of 20 years helped. Watching Peyton Manning play in four games against Florida really put it into high orbit. It wasn’t just that the game really mattered or that Florida singlehandedly ruined four of the more talented teams Tennessee would ever produce.
It wasn’t even Manning hating the Florida losses that made it so satisfying. It’s that he could not hide how much he hated losing to Florida. He made such delightful faces when it happened — huge, hangdog expressions of sheer misery, pouting phone calls to his offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe up in the booth, slump-shouldered walks back to the sideline after a perfect pass was tipped for a game-destroying interception.
Every Florida game was the worst confirmation of what Manning seemed to suspect all along, that he was trapped with co-workers who could never match his mastery. He could do everything right and drill until his cleats smoked, and nothing would matter. His wide receivers would drop professional-grade passes with college-grade hands. His linemen would miss blitzes he told them were coming. Manning had to slog it out until the NFL, where finally someone could appreciate his brilliance, where he could finally feel secure in knowing that everyone at last was serious about this.
Peyton was every temperamental, gifted child who ever had to endure a B+ on a group project because someone forgot to do their part. Peyton is looking so hard at the poor wide receiver who didn’t appreciate the genius of Manning audibling to a route the receiver didn’t remember. Why could so many others could not be as good, as brilliant as he was?
It makes every bit of sense that the year after Manning left, Tennessee had their most perfect of perfect years, and that they did it with Tee Martin, a quarterback who was the opposite of Manning. He could run, which Peyton loathed doing. Martin was an accurate passer, but lacked Manning’s full galaxy brain connection with the passing game.
Both were from the Gulf Coast, but very different Gulf Coasts. Manning came from football royalty and an upper middle class, private school upbringing in New Orleans, while Martin was raised in Mobile, Alabama. Martin moved 22 times as a child. The housing and the schools were public. His father wasn’t around much. By his own count, before he turned 20, Martin buried 12 of his friends from childhood.
Manning had every gift in the world and lost to Florida four times. He was easy to dislike, a brat, a football aristocrat slumming it with peasants for a few years before taking his rightful spot in the NFL’s court. Martin, who finished college with a sliver of Peyton’s stats and none of his individual awards, was none of that. He wasn’t going to do much in the NFL. He did not have the arm, field vision, or years of coaching piled into him by, among others, a father who was also one of the greatest SEC quarterbacks of all time.
Tee Martin didn’t have shit. And with a relative heap of nothing on the resume, Tee Martin and his deeply unglamorous self beat Florida on his first try. As much as it burned, it was impossible to hate.
That was the problem, one it took me about 10 years to admit. At the core of every Tennessee team, there was something I had no choice but to love. There were gifted athletes who could have gone anywhere, but also people there because they had to be there.
Given the choice between staying where they were from or going to whatever might get them out, they took the option of leaving and playing football in a weird town hung up at the edge of the Smokies between a river and a nuke plant a few hills over.
They’d reversed it, but even in reverse, that was the story I knew, and with people who might also order a hamburger for the dog at the drive-thru.
The word volunteers is all about context. My great-great grandfather might have volunteered for the Confederacy, but who the hell knows what that meant. He might not have had a choice, maybe he was bored, or maybe he looked around at the malarial squalor of a riverside town with zero hope of escape and thought getting shot at made more sense than waiting to die from pellagra.
He did choose how he left. He deserted because the food sucked and his clothes were dirty. It would be really cool to think about him making a moral choice and leaving a crap cause like the Confederacy because of his convictions. I’ve read the letters, and that is not what happened. You lose a cause at the mess hall first.
Both of my grandfathers volunteered for World War II, but that was probably inevitable. Without obvious handicaps or political benefactors, they would have been drafted anyway — especially my father’s father, who grew up in the Tennessee Boys’ Home after his mom gave him up, too broke to take care of him. He ended up with the Seabees, pushing jungle down with a bulldozer. A guy at his funeral told me the last time he saw him my grandfather was taking a bath in a river somewhere on an island in the South Pacific, naked as the day he was born and waving at him.
My other grandfather nearly earned a court martial for napping beneath the wing of a plane on the USS Kitty Hawk. His superiors decided the sunburn was enough punishment and let him slide. He brought back a coconut husk for my grandmother from somewhere in the Pacific.
There is a part of me that thinks a lot about guys from Tennessee being shipped in boxes to the war. First they get to California and feel a place without humidity for the first time in their lives, smelling the eucalyptus in the air and looking out on an ocean colder and wider than the Gulf of Mexico could ever be. They get on ships. They cross the equator, sleep in dark metal boxes heavy with the scent of fresh industrial paint and government-issue fabrics, and wake beneath a brilliant, scorching sun.
They go on leave in Hawaii and can’t fully understand the mistakes or circumstances that led them to be anywhere else. They get mad about it. They come home with strange memories they can’t fit into any other part of their lives and leave them with the photos of skinnier, tanner, younger selves posing beneath palm trees and in front of nuke-blue lagoons.
They leave again when the money changes. Their kids do the same. My uncle’s truck was blown into the air in Vietnam. My great-aunt lived in Detroit, where they’d gone to take jobs building cars for the Big Three. (Dolly Parton’s dad was one of the ones who tried it, but got too homesick and came back after a few months.) My grandfather moved with the racing circuit — Arkansas, Miami, Detroit, Baltimore, Louisville — never getting completely comfortable with sitting in one place for too long.
There are people who get to stay put, and there are people who can’t. There are places that alternately hang on to people and then push them out, based on the movements of a tide no one can see, but everyone can feel. Tennessee is one of those places where one out of 10 get to stay, be doctors and lawyers, live in nice places, send their children to good schools, and take pictures wearing white on the beach.
Everyone else is up for grabs, and either moves with the tides or drowns. The idea of a whole state where the team is named after thousands of lunatics who ran hundreds of miles overnight to shoot at people they didn’t know or hate only makes sense if you know someone with a gun running toward something is also running away from something.
They’ll also inevitably try to run back to it.
The managers and bouncers and the sheer mass of the crowd inside rejected the goalpost crew at the door of the restaurant. The crowd then paused and turned downhill toward the wavy reflections of light on the Tennessee river.
If the idea of a sport and a team defines a belonging, it also implies a not-belonging. And if a mascot is to mean something, it is a cartoon face drawn on the full, half-ugly, half-beautiful face of a particular history.
That’s where I was with Tennessee for a long time. They were my not-belonging, the other. I ended up at Florida, where there was at least a kind of honesty in nothing belonging. Some things belonged in Tennessee, but the logic of existing in Florida was complete. Nothing belonged in Florida, and everything was an invasive species. Florida makes sense for a lot of people that way because nothing is supposed to be part of a larger fabric. If there are places vulnerable to history’s tide, then Florida is the drainpipe that catches the stuff that washes off.
And I don’t feel that about other places I lived, or about their teams, because people in those places are still my people. I grew up terrified of contagion without realizing they were me all along, coping with the naked vulnerability to everything by being twice as tough and half as smart, leaving and coming back and leaving again without ever quite leaving. That you probably could or should not stay, but would want to even if the things you remembered and loved were dead.
That’s right there in the last verse of the fight song — sorrow, the longing for something and some place that can’t ever come back, dislocation. There are odd lines in fight songs, but “Rocky Top’s” last verse has what have to be the saddest lines ever sung over a bouncing line of bass drums and tubas in a stadium.
I’ve had years of cramped-up city life
Trapped like a duck in a pen
All I know is it’s a pity life
Can’t be simple again
I can’t hide from it. There is a 1989 forever in my head, where the radio is on somewhere and I’m trying not to listen, or a television is on and I’m only watching out of the corner of my eye. Because I’m not here, but I am. I am sitting as far as I can away from everyone in every photo because I’m not in this. I will some day be as far away as I can be from all this, a different person.
I will be someone who does not remember the sound of John Ward on the radio yelling “IT’S FOOTBALL TIME IN TENNESSEE.” I will be someone with a body not built out of fast-food biscuit sandwiches, fresh corn from a roadside stand, and an Icee from the convenience store.
I will be somewhere else where the air doesn’t hang like a wet paper towel on your shoulders, and where people don’t use their basketball goals as cleaning stands for freshly slaughtered deer, and where even the nicest principals pull out paddles to beat children for anything at all.
I will be someone who doesn’t have to move to a state with jobs when the recession hits, or join the military to get out, or hustle endlessly just to keep the farm or the house or even the trailer. I will be somewhere and something else, somewhere neater, less fraught, and less loving. I will be at the edge of the photo, looking like I am seconds from leaving but still quietly wondering what the score on the game is.
I will try to do all of this and I will fail. Volunteer can mean a lot of things. It would be easier to not love something that could never love you back or keep you, but that’s now how love works. You will keep writing checks to pay rent to a memory that will never give you a key. Sometimes volunteer is just the kindest word you have for someone with no choice in the matter.
Anyone could find the goalposts the next morning. Knoxville was strewn with the specific garbage of joy — upended trash cans, beer bottles, cans, cigarettes, and random pieces of cardboard packaging — but the goalposts stuck out. They ended their night in the Tennessee River, half-submerged and sticking out like the discarded toothpick of an ornery hilljack Goliath.
The mob had spun out into spots on level ground somewhere. They slept it off like satisfied dogs fresh off a run through the henhouse, leaving a huge mess behind them for someone else to fix. Like they were toddlers, throwing away things without even thinking about it. Like their mothers were going to sweep it all up behind them, or as my mother would say: like they didn’t know how to act, and never would or could.
These goddamn rednecks. These beautiful goddamn rednecks.