Clay Travis' “On Rocky Top”: Beautiful Agony
After living through the unmitigated disaster that was the 2008 football season for the Tennessee Volunteers, I was not so sure I was prepared to take a stroll with Clay Travis down memory lane via his new book “On Rocky Top.” The 2008 season was the most gut-wrenching experience of my sports-watching life, one which Travis himself likened to having your arm amputated without laudanum. It was truly painful and not merely because the Vols lost seven games. Losing comes with competition, I can handle losing. Watching an entire program, an entire fanbase, an entire state devolve into a constant state of turmoil, however, was the part that made it an experience that I was more than ready to forget. Even assuming that, after nine months of good vibrations—buoyed up by the hopes and energy of new Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin and his band of invincibles—I was prepared to join Travis’ on his retrospective journey through the 2008 season I wasn’t really sure I wanted to make that trip into the past.
I suppose, I was just ready to move on.
When first I saw that Clay Travis had written a book on the Vols 2008 football campaign, my reaction was that he picked one hell of a bad year to write about Tennessee. I knew Clay was a fine writer, having read his work for CBS Sports.com, Fanhouse, and his book Dixieland Delight. Still, I remember thinking to myself “Man, that really stinks for Clay—all that work to write a book about a 5-7 season.” After all, who wants to read about a team that loses, and loses a lot?
Clay Travis’ new book “On Rocky Top” is one of the best sports books I have ever read in a long time.
Obviously, “On Rocky Top” focuses on my beloved Vols, which makes me naturally predisposed to read it, I suppose. It does not, however, make me predisposed to actually like the book. In fact, to date, I do not believe I have ever managed to finish a book written exclusively about the Vols—which is a bit ironic coming from a person who publishes a sports blog dedicated to the team—yet, it is the truth. In my experience most single team memoirs are either so objective that they read more like a surgical note from a neurologist, are so “rah-rah” that the writer is blinded by his or her passion for their team that they refuse to acknowledge reality, lack any semblance of an understanding of the English language, or are so mind-numbingly focused minutiae that reading them is like eating sawdust without butter. Sometimes they are all of the above.
Then there is “On Rocky Top”…
Clay Travis does not try to draft the authoritative history of one of the worst football seasons ever for my alma mater, he does not attempt to give the clichéd insiders look at what goes on behind closed doors at Tennessee, he does not simply re-visit and re-hash the events of the 2008 football season for Tennessee. No, in “On Rocky Top” Clay Travis describes every season for every fan of every college football program, and he does it beautifully.
Tennessee is but the lens through which Travis explores not only the comings and goings of life in a big-time college football program, but more importantly takes an honest look at sports and fandom from a perspective that is, at times, as poignant as it is personal. He explores a side of the world of sports so often relegated to the back of our minds and that small voice of reason drowned by the noise of a screaming crowd in a raucous stadium.
I want my team to win more that I want anything on earth right now—even though I know how irrational my desire is, how insignificant this game is in the grand scheme of life. All of us, we fans, always say that we realize there are things more important than sports. Yet, even still, why do we feel the need to make this claim if we don’t, at some times, doubt whether this actually true?
Deep down in all of our hearts, we’re all a bit ashamed, frightened even, by how much we care.
Most examinations of fandom tend to focus on the outward evidence of the passion that fills the heart of the fan. There are a bevy of books that show the all encompassing mania that some fans exhibit: children named after players their parents never met, cars and houses bedecked in gaudy school colors, logos shaved onto heads and mascots tattooed on bodies, and so forth. Travis avoids these trite expressions of what it means to be a fan—short for “fanatic”—and looks more at the bonds that hold disparate and far-flung groups of individuals with little or nothing in common together as a “family” of fans. He takes a journey into his own experiences as a fan and as a writer granted access to the inner sanctum of college football.
In the process, Travis does, in fact, chronicle the exploits of the 2008 Vols, and chronicle them well. Yet he does so through the eyes of a fan, rather than from the dispassionate roost of the pressbox. In so doing, he explores the reality that fans judge players and coaches—people they’ve never met—by a set of rules that is irrational, erratic, and wholly unfair. Travis takes you inside not only the Vols locker room but inside the lives of the players and coaches—humanizing them is ways that are uncommon in the world of “superstar” athletics and modern sports media.
In particular, he looks at the effects of fan anger and outrage on Tennessee center Josh McNeil, former Vol running back Arian Foster, quarterback Jonathan Crompton, and former coach Phillip Fulmer, among others. Travis shows how morally unfair the actions of anonymous fans can be when launching faceless attacks. Talking with Josh McNeil, Travis writes:
In the wake of games, fan anger now mixes with player frustration. Junior center Josh McNeil confesses, “I listen to the radio shows on my way home too. I listen to the fans. Sometimes I want to call in and talk with them.. I want to say, ‘Oh, yeah, well, you think I suck? Well, why don’t you come tell me that to my face? Here’s my address, come meet me here and we’ll talk about it. Just you and me.’ I wouldn’t ever do it, but I want to. Sometimes I want to real bad.
Travis’ concludes that oftentimes fans bask in the comfortable anonymity of the stands—noting that no one ever says anything negative to the team on the Vol Walk when they are face-to-face, saving those barbs for the internet and call-in shows.
Finally, Travis takes a long look at the end of the Phillip Fulmer era in a way that, again, lifts the objective veil and shows that the players and coaches involved are real people—human beings—and not merely pawns on a chessboard. He chronicles the measured implosion of Fulmer’s final season, the back-room conversations leading to his ouster, and Fulmer’s own post-hoc perspectives on his firing. Travis’ also details Mike Hamilton’s James Bond-esque “operation” to find the Vols new Head Coach Lane Kiffin. An excerpt of this is available on FanHouse.
Travis book is a joy to read and beautifully covers the gamut of the sports-fan emotional spectrum. His insights into college football and fans are sometimes laughably hilarious:
I don’t care how Tennessee wins. … If Jonathan Crompton gets under center, steps back from the line of scrimmage, removes his mouthpiece, and subsequently shoots Auburn defensive tackle Sen’Derrick Marks with a poison blow dart, I’m all for it. Anything to win.
Arian Foster, seated on the bench, is approached by a UT fan. … The fan who is wearing orange from head to foot and appears to be in his thirties, dog-cusses Foster to his back. … Foster does not bat an eyelash, pretending not to notice the fan, and eventually a member of the Georgia security staff leads him away from the fence behind the bench. It’s come to this—Georgia security guards protecting Tennessee players from their own fans.
and sometimes moving:
My dad came to my house and sat next to me on the couch where I was feeding my 5-month-old son a bottle. … Finally, he turned to me and said, “You know, I read an article in the newspaper the other day about a dad’s funeral. The son said, ‘We never really talked unless it was about sports.’ That’s really sad, isn’t it?”
My dad put his hand on my shoulder. I continued to feed Fox. “Yes,” I said, “that really is.”
We were both silent for a long time. While Fox drank his bottle my dad smiled at him and occasionally made faces. Finally my dad spoke again.
“I’m not as optimistic about this year’s team as you are,” he said.
He reached out and grabbed Fox’s bare foot. “One day we’re going to get this little guy to a game too,” he said.
It occurred to me then that fathers and sons talk about a lot more than sports when we’re talking about sports. And maybe in the end that’s why most of us are sports fans.
Clay Travis paints a vivid picture of the game and team that I love and follow as a fan. In a broader sense, without pretension he provides a wonderful image of, what I like to describe as the beautiful agony of college football.
In the end, Clay Travis’ “On Rocky Top” is a truly enjoyable book, one which fans of SEC and college football—and definitely all Tennessee fans—should definitely read.
Trust me, you will enjoy the ride.
Image(s) Courtesy of: Clay Nation
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