Randy Travis once sang about wanting to go back to 1982, and at the risk of exposing my age, I have to admit that was an influential year for me.
First, it was the year I discovered how quickly girls can break your heart. Her name was Becky Sanford, and as elementary school romances go, this one was even more short-lived than most. She moved away midway through the school year but came back to join our sixth-grade class for our spring field trip to Knoxville for the World's Fair. By then she had a new boyfriend -- a junior high athlete who I pictured as having a really cool mustache and perfectly feathered Leif Garrett hair that only the coolest pre-teen jocks could pull off back then.
My lasting memory of walking through downtown Knoxville for the World's Fair had nothing to do with soaking in the culture from other countries, but rather the excitement of being able to see Neyland Stadium just blocks away and towering above the festival and other buildings.
Little did I realize that months later, on the third Saturday in October, it would be the site of my second lasting memory from that year, and one of the fondest in all of Tennessee football history.
This is the 30-year anniversary of Tennessee snapping the 11-year jinx to Alabama.
Going into that season, the Vols' last win in the series had come in 1970, so they had never beaten Bama in my lifetime. Nothing about the 1982 game indicated the Vols had a shot, although the week before they had rallied for a 24-all tie with 16th-ranked LSU. But UT's record stood a pedestrian 2-2-1 (similar to this season), while Alabama was 4-0, ranked No. 2 nationally and coming off a 21-point thrashing of Penn State.
On one of those perfectly crisp, sunny autumn afternoons, 95,342 fans filled Neyland Stadium and Tennessee came out wearing all orange uniforms. While I wasn't in the stadium, and in those days not every college game was shown on television, I carried my portable radio outside to throw wobbly spirals to my dad in the back yard, counting on legendary UT play-by-plan man John Ward to serve as my eyes for the game.
Alabama built an eight-point lead by halftime and the reality was sinking in that surely it would only get worse. But then lightning struck when Willie Gault got behind the Bama secondary for a 52-yard touchdown catch, and on the next possession Alan Cockrell followed with another long scoring pass, this time to Mike Miller to put Tennessee ahead.
Fuad Reveiz booted a field goal to push Tennessee's lead to 27-21 at the end of the third quarter, adding reason for optimism.
But the memory of having led the eventual national champion Crimson Tide 17-0 at halftime in 1980, only to wind up losing 27-17, still hung in the back of my young mind.
Just then Chuck Coleman, an unheralded 175-pound tailback, accounted for 75 of Tennessee's 80 yards on a nine-play drive, including a 34-yard touchdown run, and the ensuing two-point conversion pushed the lead to 14. Alabama answered with a TD, and by then the Crimson Tide seemed scarier than Jason Vorhees, the hockey-masked killer from the "Friday the 13th" horror movies, always lurking just close enough to reach out and create yet another nightmare ending.
I was certain Bama would find a way to break my heart worse than Becky Sanford ever could, envisioning them scoring in the final seconds and preventing the Vols from ending the jinx with a two-point conversion.
The anxiety of the game had forced my dad and me to move indoors for the fourth quarter; we sat in our den, huddled close to the radio. In stunned silence, not quite sure how to react, I listened as UT defensive back Mike Terry intercepted a Walter Lewis pass in the end zone with 17 seconds remaining, and John Ward excitedly cried out through our radio, "And the crowd goes bee-zerk!"
All that was left was for Cockrell to kneel on the ball. My dad and I inched closer to the radio as Ward made it official, declaring, "The seconds will tick down. Now, ladies and gentlemen, 10 seconds ... seven, six, five, four, three, two, one -- final score Tennessee 35, Alabama 28!"
I counted down along with him and couldn't wait to watch the evening news for video confirmation. I still remember the picture of Vols coach Johnny Majors being carried from the sideline to midfield on his players' shoulders, leaning down to shake hands with Bama coach Bear Bryant. The next morning I ran out to our mailbox and stared at the orange masthead of the Sunday News-Free Press and the headline that declared "Hallelujah! Tennessee 35, Alabama 28."
I tucked that newspaper away and years later had it framed. One glance at the faded front page and even now I'm taken back to that perfect fall afternoon, to John Ward's call and the excitement of a day that helped me forget my first puppy love. And wobbly spirals in the back yard with my dad.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has been with the Times Free Press since its inception and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...