Let me get a couple of things on the table: I’m not a diehard. I do pull for teams or storylines, but I don’t bleed certain colors, and I don’t feel particularly compelled to attend sporting events. In the era of HD TV and satellite game packages, I feel pretty validated in my choice.
That being said, I do enjoy the occasional sporting event. Much like a fine cigar or bonus McNugget in the 10-piece meal, these are the finer things in life and they are perhaps disorienting if not experienced in moderation.
Knoxville’s Neyland Stadium on game day can have a similar affect.
The streets around campus are flooded with streams of orange and the enthusiasm is evident in the buzz felt outside the stadium.
Once inside, the buzz undergoes a metamorphosis into an ear-splitting assault on your sense of hearing. When the players run through the “T”, this unrelenting noise crescendos until finally easing up until kickoff.
At least that’s what it used to be.
Nowadays things are a little different. The buzz isn’t as palpable. Home losses to the likes of Wyoming have a way of doing that.
But back in 2002, the electricity was still there, and amped up even higher for a early fall clash between uber-rivals Tennessee and Florida. Tennessee was coming off an 11-2 season and had high expectations for their traditional kingmaker matchup with Florida.
I also had high expectations because my best friends and I would be among the 107,000 after I scored four tickets. Four free tickets, that is. Getting free tickets is always cool, but most of the time it comes attached to the Louisiana-Monroe game. Free Florida tickets? Once and a lifetime.
So we woke up Sunday morning ready to head to Knoxville. We decided to forego traditional tailgating for the quiet and indulgent ambiance of Calhoun’s. After all, this was Florida v. Tennessee. We needed to gorge ourselves in an environment of seriousness and respectability so we could talk about the game with things like buttered bread and modern plumbing flowing freely.
But before we ever piled into my car, there was a kink in the plans: Saturday’s forecast called for a downfall of biblical proportions. And upon waking up Saturday morning, we saw that the forecast was right.
To say it rained, though, is a bit simplistic. It was deluging in ways that Forrest Gump never mentioned. My windshield wipers were working triple-time just to keep my visibility poor.
Needless to say, this was a complex development for us. But much in the same way that a blizzard is just an excuse to play football, a monsoon would only make spectating the game that much more memorable.
Undeterred, we purchased some respectably gaudy ponchos and forged ahead to Knoxville. Even in the rain, the electricity outside the stadium was potent. Outside of something cataclysmic happening, it seemed that nothing would cause the home crowd to wilt.
The game was pretty uneventful until Florida punched in a goal line touchdown on fourth down to take the lead in the middle of the second quarter.
No big deal, we thought. It was a wet and muddy day and this would be a low-scoring contest. Our optimism was strong in the midst of intermittent rain showers.
Then Casey Clausen went to work. When I say that, I don’t mean “went to work” in a Joe Montana-like manner. I mean “went to work” in a Jeffrey Dahmer-esque way.
To be fair, I never really liked Clausen. He was inconsistent and had a goofiness emanating from his frosted blond tipped hair and massive Cro-Magnon ridge. When you root for a team with a quarterback who looks like an unfrozen caveman, it’s hard to feel great about things.
To be fair, he was solid, but he had moments of wild inconsistency that were monumentally bad. Little did we know that we were about to be privy to perhaps one of the most monumentally bad moments.
Fresh off Florida’s touchdown, Tennessee got the ball back just beyond their own 20. Ready to run their offense with some adjustments, Clausen stepped under center and proceeded to fumble the snap. Florida recovered and scored three plays later on a Grossman pass.
Some air went out of the stadium, but most fans were resolute. These things happen in the ebb and flow of a game, they probably reasoned with themselves.
Following an exchange of turnovers, Tennessee got the ball back and tried resuming their offensive game plan. Inexplicably, Clausen fumbled the snap again at his one-yard line. He recovered the ball and ran two impotent QB sneaks up the middle for one yard. On third down, he managed to fumble the ball AGAIN!
After getting the ball back following a punt, the Gators scored another touchdown to go up 21-0. Then, just to make sure our game day experience was completely ruined and utterly unsalvageable, Tennessee fumbled again, which allowed Florida to kick a field goal with two seconds left. This put them up 24-0 at the half and it sent us home soaked, grumpy and dumbfounded.
Now, when I look back on that game, I remember it fondly given the absurdity of how it unfolded. Five fumbles in under five minutes? Three by Clausen?
That memory reinforces what makes college football great: the unpredictably of the games given the nature of the players participating. Who can know what to expect when dealing with 18-22 year-old players?
Do I wish that the game had turned out differently? Sure. But it makes for a great memory. Watching an unfrozen caveman ruin your rainy afternoon has a tendency to do that.
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