Case Studies in Vol Mania

Can orange-and-white worship be considered a mental condition? Here are some of the biggest Vol fans in the state—and a psychological analysis of their fandom.

Football fans are nuts.

We've come to this conclusion after many long minutes of consideration, having reviewed nearly a whole paragraph of empirical research. But if football fans in general are nuts, college football fans are certifiably crazy. And if the average college football fan is certifiable, then the typical University of Tennessee Vol fan is completely over the top. Possibly criminally insane.

We've done our own study about this Vol football thing. And we're offering you, the Metro Pulse reader, a preview of this seminal work, in the form of several profiles of actual Vol fans, dossiers which chronicle this condition known as Vol Mania. And we've included some consulting remarks from an actual psychologist, a local mental health professional we'll call Dr. J. If you or your friends exhibit any of the following symptoms, contact the nearest mental health expert at once.

Case File No. 1:

Todd Townsend, aka "Bonehead"

Abstract: Dwarfing his tiny wooden perch on the patio of a local watering hole, Townsend is a wide-eyed, hulking fellow with a peppery van dyke, a backwards baseball cap and a powder-blue Gibbs High School football T-shirt. Today he's all aglow, owing to the fact that last night his son, a senior nose tackle for Gibbs, "took control of the game against Union County. Had the winning touchdown on a fumble recovery," he says between draughts on a longneck beer. "I'm so happy, I don't know what to do with myself."

A native East Tennessean, Townsend reports listening to Vol football broadcasts on the radio with his mother as a child. His fandom led to a job selling soft drinks as an aisle vendor at Neyland Stadium during his teen years; and with Townsend's neurons run amuck on a potent mixture of Kiss records and football, delusion and madness ensued.

"I had gotten into the whole 1970s glitter-rock thing," says Townsend. "Sometimes I would imagine all the fans sitting there in Alice Cooper eye makeup, with ‘Hello, How Are You?' playing over the loudspeaker as the team ran through the T."

In the '80s, as a prominent member of Knoxville's burgeoning punk-rock scene, Townsend started painting his own face for "special occasions"—usually keg parties and on Halloween. Then his rock 'n' roll obsessions finally coalesced with his football fanaticism, and he initiated a face-painting ritual before every Vol home game.

"I got to where I was good at it; I can paint a pretty evil face," he says with a suitably malevolent grin. "I would paint an orange power T on my face, with the top bar across my eyes, the horizontal bar down my nose, and the base on my mouth. It was sort of melancholy, like a Michael Myers mask, and it was pretty disturbing. I also had a black mohawk at the time, so the whole thing had a dramatic effect."

Townsend terrorized visiting football fans like some mutant-Orange slasher-film refugee until 1998, when he traded in his intimidating punk-rock persona for home life, fatherhood, fishing, and hunting. Manifestations of malignant Fandom have persisted, however. Townsend reports that, after the 2007 Arkansas (mascot: a razorback pig) game, he and an accomplice—a man identified only as "Rubber," for reasons that remain ominously secret—stationed themselves in a Cumberland Avenue parking lot next to the hung carcass of an enormous wild boar, slain during a hunting trip earlier that morning. Townsend reports that their positioning resulted in surprisingly cordial interactions with curious Razorback fans, a group likewise given over to pathologically strange behaviors, such as the wearing of souvenir pig hats and mass unison hog squeals. Delusion, debauchery, and even deviant religious celebration ensued.

"A group of monks passed by, I think maybe some campus Hare Krishnas," says Townsend. "We said to one of them, ‘Hey, Father, would you please bless our swine?' They ended up having a friggin' religious ceremony over the pig in the Longbranch parking lot."

Says Dr. J.: "One good thing about Tennessee football is there's lots of bonding that goes on; it's kind of a family event, fathers and sons and daughters, and grandparents too. That's what he seems to be enjoying with his son. As to the face painting—he apparently did that when he was younger; it's a common thing at most schools. It's a way for the younger set to have their day."

Case File No. 2:

Cannonball White, nee Donnie White

Abstract: White is a native Nashvillian who reports that he "can never remember not being a Vol fan; I will be one until I die!" He was a standout high school athlete himself in the 1960s, an offensive guard, middle linebacker, and kicker who played every down but one during his senior year. His name, Cannonball, reportedly derives from a head-on collision during a junior high school football practice. The outmoded leather football helmet White wore to practice every afternoon literally exploded, prompting an onlooker to make the relevant comparison. White would later officially change his first name to Cannonball as an adult.

Despite a distinguished career in the U.S. Navy—White was one of the sailors on the USS Hornet aircraft carrier who pulled Apollo astronauts out of the drink upon splashdown after the first moon landing in 1969—his life has since spiraled downward into a mire of chronic, incurable Vol mania.

"I followed 'em the best I could back in those days—usually in letters from home or the radio, or on TV if I had the chance," says White. "But in the last 25 years, I've only missed eight football games, and that includes bowls."

He ascribes his remarkable attendance record in part to his ownership of a veritable fleet of appropriately decorated Vol vehicles, all four of which are painted orange and white, including orange and white interiors. An upholsterer by trade ("I'll cover anything that will hold still long enough"), White renovated the interiors himself.

One of White's vehicles is a rehabbed and elaborately festooned former prisoner-transport van from the Mississippi Department of Corrections. In addition to all of the expected Big Orange decor—power Ts, orange checkerboards, etc.—the van's car horn plays "Rocky Top" at the push of a button, and the license plate reads CB4UT. Of 270,000 post-correctional miles the van has traveled, White says that 240,000 have been game-related.

Hailing from a clan full of Vol enthusiasts, White has a granddaughter, Jessica, whom he has effectively renamed "Orange Ann" (thus yielding the full moniker Orange Ann White). "It's just a nickname, but everyone in my family calls her that now," he says. "My son referred to her as Jessica once, and I didn't know who he was talking about."

White also reports pervasive psychosomatic symptoms during attendance of Vol home games, especially in the wake of defeats. "I can't walk into Neyland without the hair standing up on the back of my arms," says White. "And when the Vols lose, it's painful. It just plain hurts."

Says Dr. J.: "The root word of fan is ‘fanatic,' and a lot of fandom is centered around the participants' inordinately strong identification with the home squad. Some of them live and die with the team; when they lose, those fans really feel it.

"Again, there are positive signs of sports as a means of familial bonding here. And this man's ownership of vehicles with various team-related accoutrements may seem odd, but it is probably not that uncommon. Many people enjoy the rituals of dressing up in orange or carrying orange pendants or having an orange whatever. Everyone is entitled to their own pleasures. And I think they genuinely enjoy it."

Case File No. 3:

Rick and Betty White, aka "Rick and Betty Rocky Top"

Abstract: The Whites have owned their tri-level home in a West Nashville subdivision for some 36 years. For 30 of those years, the house has effectively served as an ever-more elaborate shrine to Vol football, with the exterior sporting a host of Volunteer flags and pendants, fronted by an orange and white checkerboard mailbox and an orange and white pickup truck. (The mailbox has been conspicuously signed by UT head coach Phil Fulmer.)

Inside, six of eight rooms are wholly given over to Vol memorabilia, including autographed footballs, pictures, trophies, programs, posters, and even some original "Rocky Top" sheet music. "It all started with a picture of Neyland Stadium, signed by John Ward, that my wife gave me for Christmas 30 years ago," says Rick White. "We never planned to make the whole house a shrine; it just happened. Sort of like falling in love."

Notable features of the home include the Tennessee Room, which is covered with plaques and photos on all four walls, ceiling to floor; two orange- and white-themed bathrooms ("That includes the sink and bathtub," says Rick White. "It cost me $150 extra to get the Tennessee Orange porcelain."); and an embroidered wall-hanging with "Go Vols" evidently written in Arabic—a gift from a son formerly stationed in Iraq.

"I've got a [bilingual] neighbor up the street who I've been meaning to have translate it, just to make sure," White chortles. "I'm still a little leery, taking it on faith that that's what it actually says."

The couple say they have not missed a home game since Rick retired from trucking nine years ago, and they attend each pre-game tailgate with a life-sized model of a human skeleton—dubbed "Mr. Bones"—in tow. Mr. Bones is always dressed appropriately in orange and white cap and clothing, holding a UT pom-pom in his knobby digits and with a cigar clenched firmly in his skinless mandibles. Seated in the bed of the Whites' pickup, Bones is popular with passers-by, who often seek to have their picture taken with one of his brittle arms draped across their orange-clad shoulders. "I tell everyone that he was my wife's ex-husband," White laughs. "And that he was an Alabama fan."

Says Dr. J.: "This couple reminds me of a cousin of mine, who has a similar enthusiasm for Clemson football. Everything in his home is Clemson, a celebration of Clemson. It's not my cup of tea, but I get a kick out of it, that kind of enthusiasm and passion he has.

"Tailgating rituals are very common of course, and I think a lot of fans are in it more for the ritual than for the game itself, cooking their hamburgers and drinking a few beers. It's a celebration of sorts. Some fans take it to the extreme, and they get too drunk and too loud at these affairs. But it's my understanding that this particular couple doesn't drink, which is a much healthier approach."

That's just a small taste of the multitudinous psychoses wrapped up in this ritualistic pagan phenomenon known as Vol mania. Given the evidence, many of us on the MP psychiatric team are inclined to believe it's a singularly dangerous condition; full of carcinogens; a violation of the NAFTA free trade agreement; not to mention a potential threat to national security.

Our colleague Dr. J., however, is frighteningly unconcerned. "For most people, I think the tailgating and the ball games are a pretty harmless good time," he says. "There's camaraderie, bonding, and lots of genuine enjoyment. It's a good way for people to get together and share. Vol mania is a nice outlet, in my book."

For our part, we recommend food rationing, police action, and quarantines, and that all of the afflicted be remanded to the care of relevant institutions.