Third Saturday in October

I never knew how big of an Alabama football fan I was until I moved to Tennessee. I had always pulled for Alabama as a child, but it wasn’t until I moved from the safe confines of God’s state to the place of Volunteers and shirts and hats that resemble an orange with the stomach flu.

I was born in Sylacauga, Alabama in 1977 and stayed there until my parents drug me kicking and screaming to Springfield, Tennessee in 1984. As a child in the early 80s, I dreamed of having a website called ericfromsylacauga.com, but now I’ll have to settle for ericfromspringfield.com one day. “At least the ‘S’ will stay the same and I can keep the ‘EFS’ logo,” I told my seven year-old self on the 300-mile ride from Sylacauga to Springfield in the backseat of our 1984 Oldsmobile. All I needed was for Al Gore to hurry up and get the Internet to the people. I knew he was working on the global warming thing. I’m hot natured, so keeping the climate as cool as possible is key.

I digress.

The popular story people tell about folk from Alabama is that when you are born you have to choose – Alabama or Auburn. I was smart and chose Alabama. Well, that’s not completely true. When I was four years old, I put my face against a store-front window and saw two cakes. One cake was decorated with the Auburn logo and the other with Alabama’s old script “A” with Big Al just about to bust through the middle of the “A.” I pointed with the hand she wasn’t holding as proud as ever and proclaimed my devotion to the Auburn Tigers. “I like the Auburn cake, mama,” I said. “That’s my favorite.” I would have earned more favor from my mother had I grabbed a cigarette, lit it, took a long drag and blew smoke in her face – as a four year-old child.

“No, no!” my mother exclaimed. “We like Alabama. Not Auburn. Roll Tide.” She wasn’t rude. She didn’t spank me or seem angry, but I could tell that I had momentarily fallen out of favor and would possibly need to find an apartment – as a four year-old child. Right then I knew that Alabama was sent to us from the same Heaven that God resided and Auburn was from the same Hell that Pat Dye was manufactured.

Looking back, I. Would. Have. It. No. Other. Way.

Fast forward to the Fall of 1987. I had lived in Tennessee for three years and thought that maybe Al Gore would be getting close to having the internet ready now that I lived in the state from which he claimed to live once a long time ago. Nope. Nothing. Anyway, it’s the Fall of ’87 and I was finally given an Alabama shirt.

I didn’t have a ‘Bama shirt that would fit and this was a time – again, thanks to Al Gore’s procrastination – before the internet. There were no sporting good stores that carried anything other than Tennessee Vols stuff.

Gross. As if.

We had friends of the family visit from Alabama one weekend and my life changed forever. They brought to me two of the most beautiful Alabama shirts that were ever made. I now knew what Joseph must have felt when he first tried on his multicolored coat.

When I wore the shirt, people magically turned against me. It’s as if I showed up to a Civil War reenactment in a Union soldier uniform, a torch, and a map of Atlanta. Football was no longer football. It was war.

I was no longer in the state of Tennessee. I was now in Big Orange Country.

The first shot across the bow came from a classmate in fifth grade. He was a Tennessee fan that we’ll call Brock Boyter. Oops. That’s his real name. Let’s call him Rock Royter. Brock is a good friend of mine now and the last thing I want to do is put his name in a bad light. Rock, that is.

Our class was walking to the restroom because in elementary school you are given what seemed to be one bathroom break per day whether you needed it or not. No sooner than I step up to the “just-my-height” urinal do I hear, “Alabama sucks!” It was Brock, errrrr, Rock. “We’re going to kill y’all this year,” he said. I thought, that’s a mighty brave thing to say since Alabama plowed Tennessee 56-28 the previous season by running the same play 26 times, but I was willing to listen to his reasoning.

I found out over the years that “reason” and “Tennessee fans” did not mix well. After a few more years, I have noticed that the same rings truer and truer for all football fans in the South- see Harvey Updyke – so I’ll give some of you Tennessee fans a pass. Some.

“Y’all got lucky last year,” Rock continued. “I hate Alabama.” I didn’t understand his hate, but I began to find out that there were others as I grew older that continued to hate Alabama with a passion. Since they couldn’t scream at Ray Perkins, Mike Shula, Bobby Humphrey, Siran Stacy, or Derrick Thomas, they informed me of the hatred they had for Alabama. I’m not sure if I was expected to pass this news on to said players and coaches, but I never made the call down to Tuscaloosa to advise accordingly.

As I entered middle school, it became unbearable. Each year Alabama slapped Tennessee around. First in Knoxville. Then in Birmingham. Then again in Knoxville. Tennessee head coach Johnny Majors had Tennessee teams that could have beaten the 1985 Chicago Bears, but when the Third Saturday in October arrived – like clockwork – Johnny Majors would leave his football brain cells on Cumberland Avenue in Knoxville. His teams could no more beat Springfield High School once the Third Saturday in October rolled in.

Each year, I would listen to one annoying classmate clad in orange sweatpants after another explain to me how this year would be the year. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that from fourth grade (1986) through middle school (1990), Alabama did not lose to Tennessee – or five years after that for that matter, but for this portion of the story, let’s focus on this period of time. In fact, most games were rather lopsided in the Tide’s favor. ‘Bama won 56-28 in 1986, 41-22 in ’87, and 47-30 in ’89. 1988 was a little closer for UT, but they still lost 28-20.

1990 was close, but it should have been a blowout from the beginning – for the Vols. The 1990 edition of the Third Saturday in October is probably the reason that Tennessee hats, jackets, shirts, and small radios float down the Tennessee River. It was this game that defined the series from 1986 to 1995 better than any before or after. Other than 1972 – ask a Vol fan old enough to remember that one – the game in 1990 solidified the fact to many diehard Vol supporters that they would never, ever beat Alabama again. Ever.

That’s not me talking as an Alabama fan. It was from the mouth of Tennessee fan that I heard it most.

Tennessee fans may want to skip to the YouTube video of the “Manning to Kent” play from 1995. I’m actually going to pretend I didn’t embed that video in this article.

There was no way Johnny Majors would mess this one up. Tennessee was the third ranked team in the country and averaging over 40 points per game. Alabama was bland and mediocre – at best.

Gene Stallings was in his first year as head coach and his brand of football nearly put Nyquil out of business. Alabama’s biggest weapon was to hope that the offense put the opposing team to sleep. It wasn’t very successful thus far. The Tide were 2-3 and had lost to Southern Miss, Georgia, and Florida to open the season at 0-3. ‘Bama did have two consecutive wins coming in to the game, but the fact that the wins were against powerhouses Vandy and who is now know as Louisiana-Lafayette didn’t exactly give ‘Bama fans the warm and fuzzies about Stallings and the Tide.

The 1990 game was probably the most exciting boring game in the history of the series up to this point. The game was tied at 6-6 in the fourth quarter. It seemed that Tennessee could still explode for 35 unanswered points at any time, but as the clocked ticked below eight minutes to play, it looked as though the game may end in a tie.

But the game was just getting started.

Tennessee lined up for a 50-yard field goal with just under two minutes to play. John Becksvoort had already hit from 51 yards out to tie the game at 6-6 with ten minutes to play, so this kick was more than makeable. If Tennessee hits the field goal, it’s safe to assume the defense can hold the stagnant ‘Bama offense and end the four-game ‘Bama winning streak.

Snap – Good. Hold – Good. Thump, thump.

The dreaded second thump that is heard immediately after the ball is kicked is the worse sound a kicker can hear.

It’s blocked.

The ball ricochets off Stacy Harrison’s giant paw and Tennessee fans swear the ball rolled 100 yards behind Becksvoort. What seemed to be a field goal to win the game had suddenly turned into great field position for Alabama and every Vol fan’s worst nightmare. The ball had caromed all the way down to the Tennessee 37-yard line and that’s where Bama would begin with 1:35 left in the game. Bama runs three plays for 7 yards and milks the clock to :04 seconds to play before Phillip Doyle is sent out to try the 48-yard game-winner.

I’m at a church get-together with about 20 Tennessee fans. I might as well had been carrying a book containing Satanic verses because I quickly notice the brotherly fellowship subsiding. The best line came from a guy named Chris Williams. He was an avid Vol fan and we loved nothing more than to talk trash to each other between Sunday School and worship service. Chris was not a contemporary. He was a grown man who loved to talk junk to middle school kids like me who supported teams that did not play home games at Neyland Stadium.

But Chris was good people.

“Will they vote us national champions with three ties?” Chris asked. It was as if he were talking himself through a best-case scenario about which he didn’t seem too excited. Tennessee had already played to ties with Colorado and Auburn, but his question quickly became wasted breath.

Snap – Good. Hold – Good. Thump – No second thump. Time expires.

The cheering from the ‘Bama section in Neyland Stadium couldn’t be heard from the deafening silence and disbelief from the 85,000 fans dressed in orange and white. Johnny Majors had grasped defeat from the jaws of victory over Alabama yet again. To make matters worse, this was Tennessee’s third loss in the last 25 games. All three losses coming from Alabama.

If this Tennessee team couldn’t beat this Alabama team, then what Tennessee team could?

The answer to that question would come five years later when a sophomore quarterback that obviously had a secret passion to direct marching bands in his spare time showed up in Birmingham and erased the past in one October night.

His name was Peyton Manning. He was good. Really good.

Life in Tennessee was great from fourth grade through my senior year in high school. Alabama never lost to Tennessee from 1986 through 1994. Even when Alabama and Tennessee played to a 17-17 tie in 1993, it was Vol fans that felt as though they had lost the game.

‘Bama earned a tie. The Vols lost the win. Skip to the 3:24 mark in the video below and tell me which team acts like they just won the Super Bowl.

I’m now 34 years old and as I look back, it was the hate from the Vol fans that made me love Alabama so much. I love nothing more than a Saturday in Tuscaloosa surrounded by my Saban Nation and Bryant-disciple brethren.

However, there’s something symbolic about driving Eastbound on I-40 to Knoxville on the weekend of the Bama-UT game. Sure, I love honking and waving at ‘Bama fans on I-65 South on my way to Tuscaloosa, but I feel most at home driving to Knoxville. A fist shake here. The flip of the middle finger there.

My heart is in Alabama, but my home is in Tennessee.

Being surrounded by the enemy once arriving in Knoxville is therapeutic. It feels like home. Instead of despising the UT fan that yells, “ALABAMA SUCKS!” I’m almost disappointed when Vol fan walks by and says, “Good luck today, guys.” It’s a good teaching moment if a child is nearby taking a class on sportsmanship, but this is THE THIRD SATURDAY IN OCTOBER! Don’t talk to me like that. Give me dirty looks. Give me the finger. Just don’t tell me to have a good game.

Then, just as I hand my ticket to the attendant and walk inside the concourse of Neyland Stadium my faith in humanity is restored. A kid no older than 14 years of age walks by and yells, “This is Big Orange Country! Go to H*** ‘Bama!”

And with those venomous words from the supporter of a team I hate as much or more than Satan’s team in West Georgia, I’m taken back to that day I was chided by own mother for choosing the wrong cake in the window.

I. Would. Have. It. No. Other. Way.