Meet Coy Caldwell, the Perpetual Tailgater Living Every Fan's Dream

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistOctober 6, 2015

Coy Caldwell stands alongside his houseboat that stays docked near Neyland Stadium all through college football season.
Coy Caldwell stands alongside his houseboat that stays docked near Neyland Stadium all through college football season.B/R

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The boats come and go, but Coy Caldwell's "Hawk's Nest" houseboat remains docked just outside the shadow of Neyland Stadium throughout the entire season. 

It's an annual rite of river passage in East Tennessee when dozens of boats travel the Tennessee River, which runs right by where the Volunteers play. They dock, party all weekend, watch UT play on Saturday, then head home the next day.

The phenomenon is known as the "Vol Navy," a college game-day experience unique to Knoxville. For Caldwell, a 64-year-old retired National Guard member, it never ends because he never leaves.

The South Knoxville native lives most of the year on his Lakeview houseboat docked 25 miles down the river in Louisville, Tennessee. But for nearly four months from August through November, he lives a Hail Mary from Neyland, anchored behind Calhoun's restaurant.

It's the ultimate Tennessee fan's dream.

Even on a rainy Saturday such as Oct. 3 when the Vols hosted Arkansas, there are still several boats assembled in Vol Navy.
Even on a rainy Saturday such as Oct. 3 when the Vols hosted Arkansas, there are still several boats assembled in Vol Navy.B/R

"You can't beat it," Caldwell said. "I look forward to coming up here every year. To get to sit up here and watch the boats come and go every weekend, I've met a lot of friends. They all say, 'I want to be just like you.' So, that's the best thing.

"When I retired, I retired."

As the excitement of a Tennessee football Saturday stirs mere feet away, Caldwell sits on the deck of his houseboat, working a crossword with a beer koozie not far from his hand, just as calm as the river water surrounding him.

"Sometimes," Caldwell said, "I just watch the water go by. I just like to sit out here relaxing, thinking about the game, hoping we win."

 

Part of the pageantry

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Caldwell's love affair with Tennessee football started years ago, regularly attending games before becoming a season ticket holder in 1982. 

When the annual Boomsday fireworks show began in Knoxville on Labor Day around 28 years ago, Caldwell would sit on the banks to watch the festivities, stealing gazes at the boats on the river and the endless party that seemed to go on.

"One of these days," he told himself, "I'm going to have me a boat and be right down there in the middle of it."

It didn't take him long after that to make his dream a reality.

"This is my 24th year doing this," he said recently. "I quite like it. There's no better way to spend a game day than this."

Caldwell has been going to Vols games this way for three decades. He got so hooked coming up from Chattanooga with buddies when he worked there that he decided in 1992 to buy a houseboat of his own.

He settled on a 1973 Stardust houseboat, and his pilgrimage to Knoxville was an annual event before and after 2004, when he missed the entire season while deployed in Iraq.

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As a retirement present to himself in 2008, he had a custom-built Lakeview made, converting one of the four bedrooms into an extra closet and creating the ultimate Tennessee fan's rig. He flies a Vol Navy flag, and the interior walls are adorned with UT memorabilia.

So, while all the other boats come and go, Caldwell anchors down for the long haul. He's become a little piece of the pageantry and tradition that surrounds Tennessee football Saturdays.

"It's perfect for him," said Caldwell's girlfriend, Nancy Campbell. "It's the perfect living situation for a single guy. He built it just the way he wanted it.

"I love it. You can't beat the location, and the whole nine yards. It's a short walk to the stadium and a short walk back, and you don't have to battle traffic. It's a unique way to spend a football season."

You may think it gets boring sitting there on his boat all the time, but Caldwell is very active…when he wants to be.

Kicked back on the front of his houseboat with a crossword puzzle is a familiar spot for Coy Caldwell.
Kicked back on the front of his houseboat with a crossword puzzle is a familiar spot for Coy Caldwell.B/R

While he admittedly likes to relax with his Publishers Clearing House TV-themed crossword puzzles, he says he plays golf two or three times a week.

He also rides his Harley-Davidson and spends nights tossing a few frothy beverages back mere steps away at Calhoun's, overlooking the river that doubles as his front yard.

Then, there's his 86-year-old mother, Helen, who lives in South Knoxville. She suffered a heart attack on July 3, and though it made for a rough summer, she has recovered and is doing well.

"It was touch and go there for about eight or 10 days, and we almost lost her that second night," Caldwell said. 

She's back to doing yard work around the house, though, and while Caldwell admittedly isn't much on partaking in manual labor after moving 200 tons of mulch the first summer after he retired, he said he'll help her out some or just pull up a lawn chair and watch. 

Caldwell's days are full, but there's one hobby in which he won't participate.

"Don't like fishing," he said. "For the simple reason of when you catch a fish, you have to set your beer down, and then you've got a fishy smell on your hand, and your beer smells like fish."

 

Tennessee through and through

Caldwell (far right) sometimes entertains friends on his houseboat. (From left) Gary Moffatt, Len Johnson and Edna Johnson chat with Caldwell.
Caldwell (far right) sometimes entertains friends on his houseboat. (From left) Gary Moffatt, Len Johnson and Edna Johnson chat with Caldwell.B/R

Listen closely, and Caldwell will share his opinions on Tennessee football, but he isn't one of these fans who—pardon the pun—jumps off the deep end.

Still, he's not happy with the current 2-3 record.

"I'm still on board with [head coach] Butch [Jones], but I'm letting him know I'm pissed," he said, alluding to the "Power T" flag he's flying upside down on the back of his boat.

Tennessee is 2-3, and Caldwell isn't happy about it.
Tennessee is 2-3, and Caldwell isn't happy about it.B/R

After plenty of years of boat parties, Caldwell takes it easier now. Normally, Nancy will join him for the game, and he may have another couple of friends come by depending on the matchup.

He enjoys the friends he sees every weekend, helping out as a bit of a security guard for the other boat owners. 

One boat he looks after is that of his "neighbor" on the water, Gary Moffatt, who normally comes up with crewmates Len and Edna Johnson.

"He always takes care of things," Moffatt said. "He lives down here, and we know we can count on him to watch the boat, and if something happens, he lets us know. He's the man who knows everything that's going on."

Moffatt's boat stays docked through the season, but he heads home every weekend. Not Caldwell. He remains through thick or thin, win or loss, rain or shine.

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The Hawk's Nest can always be found in the same spot on a fall Saturday, as much of a constant as "Rocky Top," running through the "T" or the Vol Walk. He may not be a household name to most Vols fans, but Caldwell is the true personification of the Vol Navy.

The shadows lengthen. Caldwell folds his crossword puzzle and finishes his beer. As many others have already filed into Neyland to watch the Vols, Caldwell leaves about an hour before the game for his seats in Section JJ.

They aren't going anywhere. Neither is he.

"We don't get in no hurry," he said.

With a life like Caldwell leads, he wouldn't have it any other way.

 

All quotes gathered firsthand.

Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.