KNOXVILLE — In the years before he arrived at Ooltewah High School and pretty much became a must-see football player from every BCS conference school from Connecticut to California, Jacques Smith insists he wasn't much of a college football fan.
So when he was asked earlier this week to recall the first Tennessee-Florida game he became excited about, his face went blank.
"I didn't watch a lot of football when I was younger," said Smith following Monday's practice. "I'd rather be outside playing or something. But my art teacher made us sing 'Rocky Top' every Friday. We had to know all the words and the music. And I loved it. I must have sung that song a thousand times."
Jerry Eaves wasn't just the Hunter Middle School art teacher, however. He was also the school's football coach. And thanks to the talents of Smith and others, Hunter won the 2005 Hamilton County middle school championship.
"Even then you could see Jacques had the talent to become special," Eaves said. "In those days he was a man among boys. We were an awesome football team that year."
Despite owning a diploma from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the 56-year-old Eaves has been an awestruck fan of the Big Orange for as long as he can remember. His father first bought season tickets when Jerry was a child. He and his wife Karen will get there early on Saturday to soak in ESPN's GameDay production and greet Jacques during the Vol Walk.
"I text him every now and then," Eaves said. "Just to say hi and 'Go Vols.' He's a great young man."
Though he'll be happy to see Eaves, Smith says he probably won't pay much attention to GameDay and such.
"I'll probably just spend the morning focusing on the game plan and reading my Bible," Smith said. "Just try to relax."
Eaves said he never dreamed those Rocky Top singalongs would have had such an impact on Smith.
"I was just a big fan and all my coaches were UT fans," said the 1974 Tyner High grad. "I'd get everybody to wear orange shirts and stuff and then we'd sing. We did that every Friday during football season. Kind of a Spirit Day.
"But I can't tell you how much it means to me that Jacques still remembers that. Maybe I made him want to go to UT just a little bit."
Being an art teacher, Eaves didn't just attempt to make Smith bleed orange. He had his students design UT neckties, "and things of that sort."
And most of the time, they were only too happy to oblige. But one year he had an art student who was a huge Florida fan. While Eaves was teaching class one day, she went outside and placed Gators stickers all over his truck.
"I didn't realize it until I started home and saw one in my rearview mirror," he said. "I thought I was going to have a wreck."
Just this past week, one of his five brothers and sisters posted a picture of himself wearing a Florida Gators sweatshirt on Facebook.
"I told him I'd have to disown him," Eaves laughed. "This is just a huge game. Tennessee's due a good season."
And thanks to Eaves changing jobs a few years ago, "Rocky Top" was apparently due a long vacation.
"I teach art at Lafayette Middle now," said Eaves, who taught 33 years combined at Brown and Hunter (17 years) before moving south. "And I don't play 'Rocky Top' in Georgia."
After an appropriate pause he added, "But I don't play anything else, either."
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...