Finding Football Americana at a North Knoxville Gibbs-Carter Game

Scene & Heard: Slices of Life From Knoxville's Neighborhoods

Sure, there's a buzz-cut, gangly teen cradling his slick-haired infant in one elbow as he exits the rest room, catching up the baby's receiving blanket with an oversize Air Jordan foot when it trails into the hard-packed dirt behind the cinderblock room that serves as a skybox. One of the couples in the homecoming court is biracial. And there are some cell phones out, moms yelling at daughters to text them when they reach the snow cone stand, a few Hollister sweat shirts, an impossible number of little girls trudging around in sequined, metallic flip flops.

But it stops there: The rest of the Gibbs-Carter game at home for Gibbs could be happening in the '60s, '50s even.

All ages are here; you get the feeling most have been here a long time. Like the three who've staked out a prime spot outside the field proper, tailgate open, comfortable in folding chairs, the woman reading a paperback between glances at the game; it's a romance novel.

Inside the fence, there's a press of people waiting to buy sizzling burgers from a charcoal grill first stoked hours ago, and chili for hot dogs and nachos ladled from giant urns slow heated on single eyes.

The stands are packed, both sides; the crowd roars when #6 for Gibbs sashays over the goal line running backward—touchdown!

But the stands aren't the prime seats. Those would be on the crabgrassy hill on the home side, where families sprawl on handmade quilts and hand-me-down comforters. Some of the men, perhaps alumni, perhaps team dads, perhaps with no personal connection at all, stand throughout. One in particular makes it his job to amuse the crowd, rebutt the announcer.

"You've gotta be shittin' me," he mutters as Carter's #2 runs an interception 90 yards back for a score. "You've put 'em right back in the game!"

Some stand right up at the fence to watch: a teen with a fishing logo T-shirt and half-calf height boots you can tell he wears for work, not fashion; a girl with a blazing Florida logo shirt; a man with a flat-top haircut who hollers up the slope, "Mom, I'm heading over to the truck. Seen Dad?" A blonde with a bright yellow shirt that boasts "Gibbs Powder Puff"—as in football—scoots around an older woman with a cane who is propped on the fence in the end zone. The woman ends up standing for hours, eventually watching Gibbs win by almost 20 points. "Ooh, this is not a good game for me, I'm from Carter," she says, never taking her eyes off the field.

On the far edge of the stadium, behind the end zone, there is another game entirely.

It's one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three and "Hut, hut." The QB takes the snap, feints back, lets one rip. It sails 10 yards, lands with a satisfying plop in the hands of a receiver. He's off, no, he's staggering, he's being hemmed into a chain-link fence. Play over. Everybody up, back to the scrimmage line, start again. No, hold on, gotta let this lady and her kid pass.

There are at least six such games being played by eight, nine, or 10 boys, most all of them wearing jerseys and jeans. They never seem to tire. If inactivity and video games and obesity are the norm for today's preteens, the message has missed this group. If they pause, it's to go over and run up and down a dirt mound on the sidelines. No one throws a clod, but they shove and push. King of the Hill.

***

At halftime, the bands play, Gibbs with a medley of patriotic songs in honor of the 9/11 anniversary. The crowd drinks in every note; no one seems to budge from the overcrowded stands or the comforter zone. A composed young woman in T-shirt and jeans carefully lights two batons, with fire, for majorettes in spangled outfits.

"Oooh," says the crowd.

"I can't look," says a girl with braided hair to her sister, both eating blue shaved ice concoctions with tiny spoons. But she does anyway.

***

And because it is homecoming, there is another brief injection of the modern day. The aspiring homecoming queens are gorgeous, with names like Destiny, Sierra, and Haley. Like old times, they and their escorts pass beneath the crossed swords of the ROTC to be presented.

"And now, the moment you've all been waiting for..." intones the loudspeaker.

"Indeed," quips the Hillside Heckler.

But the drama is not so dramatic, even for those on the field, because they already know who won. It wasn't judged on popularity, or at least not the Never Been Kissed type: instead, each young woman aspiring to be queen has a sponsoring organization, and the winner, Alissa Keener, wins because she and her sponsor raised the most money for charity: $9,335. There is a smattering of applause, and then the game resumes.

***

The pick-up games had never stopped, and they keep on going, though it's dark outside the stadium lights now being dive-bombed by bats.

There's been a slight altercation on the game nearest the dirt paths leading back to the stands proper. Three boys are leaving, taking the football. A larger boy is being left behind. "Why can't we be friends?" he warbles in his best War imitation. A few minutes later, he's playing center in a game a few degrees further around this oval of activity.

Ringing the outside track are majestic trees, swaying maples, older than the wisecracker in the crabgrass seats. Beyond them is a two-thirds moon in a distinctly midnight blue sky of velvet, stars twinkling. Some of the fans are trickling out; the lady with the romance novel has packed up the truck and gone home.

Inside, the Carter band plays the opening notes to "Take a Little Trip Up to Heaven."