Who says it’s just a game?

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FANATICS – The crowd of UT fans, crazed with joy after the Vols defeat of Alabama last Saturday, brought down the goalposts in a raucous post-game celebration. WRJB’s Dylan Powley was there to see it all.
IT’S A BROTHERHOOD – Brothers Crispin and Dylan Powley (right) celebrate together after the Vols big win.

By Dylan Powley

College football fandom is a fascinating subject. Sometimes it doesn’t make a lot of sense. If I tried to list all the different reasons that people spend their time and money cheering on teams comprised of 18-22 (or in Hendon Hooker’s case, 24) year-old men, I would run out of space pretty quickly. 

As I stood in Neyland Stadium this past Saturday, fireworks exploding overhead as a sea of orange rushed the field moments after Chase McGrath’s knuckleball of a kick gave Tennessee its first win over Alabama since 2006, I observed that fandom in its purest form. I saw grown men crying. I saw strangers hugging. A cloud of cigar smoke drifted into the Knoxville sky, along with 15 years of frustration and heartbreak. 

Tennessee is back! Finally. 

I’ve seen some people express disbelief at how people could care so much about a game when there’s so much more to worry about in the world. That’s a fair criticism. It’s also a narrow-minded criticism. Life without passion, whatever that passion may be, doesn’t seem like much of a life at all. Everybody’s got their reason for caring. For me, it goes back a long way. 

My father Gary Powley was a huge UT fan. He passed that fandom on to me. Some of my earliest memories center around Vols football. I remember the disgust we shared when Peyton Manning didn’t win the Heisman. The joy we shared watching Tee Martin connect with Peerless Price for a 79-yard touchdown pass in the 1998 National Championship game against Florida State. The heartbreak we shared after the 2001 SEC championship, in which an inferior LSU squad led by backup quarterback Matt Mauck and Coach Nick Saban upset our Vols, spoiling another National Championship opportunity. 

That 2001 game has always felt like the last time the Vols were contenders in the national picture. The next few years were solid, if unspectacular. Things quickly went downhill in Phillip Fulmer’s last year, and then the bottom fell out. A once-proud program was a shell of itself. Yet, the fans never stopped caring. We clung to any bit of success the program found while still yearning for the days of old. 

The goalposts didn’t come down simply because Tennessee beat Alabama in an all-time classic. They came down because Vols fans knew that this program had finally emerged from the wilderness. In that moment, none of the past 15 years mattered. That span of time became history. All that mattered was the present. And it mattered a lot.

I guess that brings us back to the question of why it matters so much to so many people. That question can be answered with another question: Who cares WHY it matters?

Life is tough. We all walk different paths. We all have different opinions, values, and perspectives. In an age in which society seems to be as divided as ever, the fact that this game with a funny-shaped ball can bring so many people together is a testament to its true value. 

The last game I watched with my dad was the 2005 Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day. I sat beside his hospice bed as Rick Clausen and the Volunteer defense powered Tennessee to a 38-7 win over Texas A&M. I’ll never forget the smile on his face that morning. The last UT game he got to see was a win. He passed away a few days later on Jan. 14. 

This past Saturday night, after I was able to stop hollering and jumping around, I took a moment to take it all in. Dixieland Delight blaring, students tearing the goalposts down, and the crowd around me all embracing, many in tears.

I choked up too, then made my way down to the field and found my brother Crispin Powley in the chaos. We embraced in a hug, and in that moment, I felt closer to my father than I had since the day he passed. 

Don’t tell me it’s just a game. 

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