An Unlikely Vols Fan Knows the Score

So here we are again in the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness that Keats wrote about, the long, languid autumn that redeems the brutal summer. The light has begun to soften, filtering through leaves whose green is deeper now, edged with red and brown. The days are drawing in. The air is scented with the high-hung purple blossoms of kudzu.

And as if all that weren't enough to stir the blood, there's more.

It's football time in Tennessee.

The first 20-something years that I lived in Knoxville, football passed me by in an orange blur. I spent my Saturdays enjoying the empty streets and echoing stores and planning my activities around game-day traffic.

That was then. Now, a chance twist of fate finds me perched high in the stadium at every home game, the world's most unlikely football fan.

It's not that I've been living in a cave somewhere. I grew up with two brothers, both athletes, both ardent followers of the New York Giants. I married a former all-county tailback. I've been to my share of college and pro games, cheering the Cavaliers in Charlottesville, freezing at Soldier Field in Chicago, huddling under an umbrella at West Point one October Saturday while Army took on a Pitt team coached by a gentleman named Johnny Majors.

Despite these impressive credentials, my knowledge of the game remains rudimentary. The all-county tailback gave up explaining the finer points to me long ago. We have reached a compromise. I cheer when he cheers. I groan when he groans. He has come to accept the fact that what I am watching is not necessarily what he is watching. His eyes are on the field. Mine are often elsewhere.

There's a whole world of drama playing out in those high, windy spaces and on the edges of the action down below. I'm not about to miss it.

I'm riveted to the cast of regulars I have come to know by sight: the hyperkinetic lady 10 rows down, who balances nachos and hot dogs and popcorn boxes like a veteran juggler as she nips back and forth from the concession stands without spilling a crumb or missing a play; the ruana-wrapped fashion plate a few rows over, whose ever-changing wardrobe of orange garments must qualify for some kind of Project Runway award; Whistle Guy, back and to the left, whose ear-splitting endorsements leave me partially deaf through Sunday evening; the constantly shifting roster of couples on dates, couples on the outs, singles on the prowl.

Through my binoculars, I scan the sidelines. Here, too, stories are unfolding. The band never fails to inspire me, those earnest young faces focused on the implacable task at hand: stay in tune, stay in step, stay vertical despite the sweltering September temperatures. When they execute the circle drill with measured skill, I feel like doing a little celebratory dance right there in the stands.

I watch kids toiling up and down the steep steps, peddling Cokes from the heavy trays strapped to their shoulders. My middle son earned his high school spending money at that job, arriving home triumphant each Saturday with a tidy sum. I found his red apron in a box the other day, a worn canvas scrap of nostalgia.

And then there's Smokey. When I tire of people watching, I keep my binoculars trained on him. In another life, I might actually like to be Smokey, sleek and well cared for, neat in his tailored cape, bounding up and down the end zone. His body language, I've discovered, is a fairly accurate predictor of the final outcome. Smokey perky and attentive is a good sign. When Smokey lies down on the sidelines, it could be trouble.

For a football ignoramus, I manage to have a pretty good time. I may not know a quarterback sneak from the Statue of Liberty play, but I know how to keep my eyes open, and I know the score. On and off the gridiron, the stories win every time.