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Tennessee Football: A Family Affair

Neyland Stadium

I don’t think the nighttime nurse liked us very much. Not that I blame her. Generally speaking, mixing liquor martinis in a hospital is a no-no. But we didn’t care. Not because we’re raging alcoholics, but simply because that’s what the Osbornes do. We cocktail before dinner, and we had suspended that ritual long enough. Plus the end was nigh. So that night, we cocktailed. Right there in the sterile confines of the nondescript room that overlooked the Strip.

Those were difficult days, indeed. A slow demise at the hands of a foe like cancer presents its fair share of ignoble moments. And by that night, he’d already been claimed by death’s cold clutch. It was all but a formality. He’d die the very next day, in fact, but we carried on as if it weren’t even a possibility.

He carried on that way, too, you know. Like earlier that week when the nurse asked him what year it was.

“1969,” he said confidently and without hesitation.

“Not quite. Want to try again?”

“Look, lady,” he began, his voice just on the cordial side of angry, “I may not know what year it is, but I sure as hell know this — the Vols play Miami this weekend.”

Damn straight, Dad. You tell her.

My dad’s conversation with the nurse whose name I never knew has stuck with me through all these years. I’ve analyzed it every way to Sunday, and have come up with many theories.

The 1969 part is easy. He was just entering the prime of his life then. And when you’re dying, you have to live every single moment as if it were the prime of your life. Because once you’re no longer able to do that, you die. That’s the deal. Or so it seemed to me from the ring-side seat where I witnessed the last and most valiant of my father’s many fights.

But the UT football reference wasn’t as easy. The explanation I’ve settled on is this — my dad was embarrassed. How could he not have been? His youngest son bearing witness to the fact that he didn’t even know what year it was? So he handled that awkward impasse in a similar manner to which a lot of men handle awkward impasses.

With the help of sports. In our case UT Football.

Can’t find a way to say I love you in a conversation that calls for just that? Having trouble negotiating the emotion that comes with telling someone how proud you are of them? Or perhaps you’re embarrassed by your own mortality? Simple. Turn to sports.

Countless men express more emotion through that medium than any other, one of the reasons why I love sports so much. It helps us connect. Aids us in finding intimacy with our y-chromosomed peers without coming off soft. And that day, Dad leaned on the Vols to help him tiptoe around an embarrassing situation.

What’s more, he crushed it (as he was prone to do). Proof positive that in his dying days, he knew more about UT Football than he did the rest of the world.

Even though it was my dad who introduced me to the Vols, my first Neyland experience didn’t come with him. He always took Mom to the games and they only had two tickets, right there in section E under the overhang, which left me SOL.

No, my first game was with a childhood friend whose parents had four tickets. I remember watching in shocked disbelief from their end-zone seats as Herschel Walker ran over Bill Bates before rumbling across the goal line for six points. You could actually hear the individual voices of their touchdown celebration, so quiet had the crowd become. Georgia had spotted UT 15 points, but with that play and the ensuing extra point, they escaped Knoxville with a 16-15 victory, their first in a season that would end with a National Championship.

There was no way I could have possibly realized at the time that I had just witnessed an iconic SEC moment, featuring two iconic SEC players who would both be forever linked with their respective SEC schools. All I realized was that the Vols had lost a game they could have won. Should have won. And that the pain from that loss hurt far more than seemed normal.

Or healthy even.

As the 80s would unfold, I’d eventually get the nod over Mom upon occasion, the most notable of which came on the third Saturday in October of 1982. I watched from those covered seats in E as Lee Jenkins and Bill Bates converged upon an Alabama wide receiver in the end zone, Jenkins deflecting the pass into the waiting arms of Mike Terry. The interception preserved a 35-28 win that snapped Tennessee’s 11-game losing streak to Alabama in what would be Bear Bryant’s last ever trip to Knoxville.

I’ll never forget the celebration that followed that game-winning play. The one in the stands. A spontaneous and heartfelt embrace delivered in broad daylight before thousands and thousands of people without even so much as a single ounce of self consciousness by a man whose love and approval meant more to me than anything else in the entire world. A man who wasn’t exactly the most emotive human being, to boot.

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