KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — There aren’t many moments in your life that you know, without a doubt, that you’ll remember them for the rest of your days. Saturday night in Knoxville will live on in the hearts and memories of 100,000 fans in Neyland Stadium and countless thousands more in Tennessee and beyond. This 52-49 victory, this hard-won triumph over hated Alabama — this will live on forever in the minds of thousands.
But just to be sure, Tennessee fans wanted souvenirs.
The kick wasn’t pretty, not even close
Chase McGrath’s game-winner turned through every point of the compass as it traveled 40 yards — and not a whole lot more — through the goalposts at the south end of Neyland. Before the ball had even landed in the hands of some lucky Vols fan, to vanish into memory forever, Tennessee fans were streaming over the brick walls and onto the field.
This was release and relief, pure and simple. Tennessee had vanquished Alabama for the first time in 15 years, had come through huge on the national stage for the first time in a generation. The Vols had pushed around Alabama in the first half, then withstood the relentless march of the Tide. Tennessee had watched its 18-point lead turn into a seven-point deficit, had sweated out what could have been Alabama’s game-winning 50-yard field goal with 15 seconds on the clock.
This was the exultation of staring oblivion in the face and surviving to tell the tale. On the packed field, fans and players alike lit up victory cigars, the sweet thick haze of smoke mixing with sweat and grass. Parents held their children on their shoulders. Couples and families posed for shots that will end up on 2022 Christmas cards all over East Tennessee. Chants, some profane, some joyous, all at throat-searing volume, filled the air. And, in an extra twist of the knife, the Neyland Stadium public address system blasted “Dixieland Delight,” the Tennessee-based song that Alabama has co-opted as its own.
“I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you,” one fan said, pointing to everyone in his field of vision. Another, so overcome with the moment, sprawled headlong on the grass, his phone flying like the fumble that could have — but didn’t — cost Tennessee the game. Fans took a glance at the coolers still filled with water bottles alongside both benches, then hustled along as security growled at them.
And then the fans went to work on the goalposts.
This game could have gone south for Tennessee so many different times. There was the blown 18-point lead, a crusher that silenced the “Rocky Top”-singing crowd. There was McGrath’s missed extra point early in the third quarter. There was the interception thrown by Tennessee's Hendon Hooker late in the third, with Alabama leading for the first time all game. There was Hooker’s disastrous fumble that Dallas Turner scooped and scooted in for a touchdown to put Alabama up 7. And then there were those final field goals — one miss, one make, heartbreak and exultation mere feet apart.
Every time, Tennessee found a way through. Every problem had a solution.
Your average goal post weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of 900 pounds, impossible for most to lift alone but an easy task for a motivated, dedicated crowd. The delirious Vols fans first brought down the south goalpost — the one through which McGrath had kicked the game-winner — pulling the center post up out of the ground and detaching the two uprights. At the other end of the stadium, fans ripped the crossbar right off the post.
The posts disappeared into the crowd, resurfacing every so often like a swimmer in a rough tide. They presented a unique problem: how exactly do you get 30-foot-high, 18-foot-wide goalposts out of a stadium?
Somehow, the uprights on the south goalpost separated from the crossbar. It’s much easier to move a single upright than an entire goalpost array, so those quickly disappeared into the night. The intact U-shaped north goalpost circled the field, and even journeyed up through the stands, unable to fit through any of the exits.
The south crossbar, though, that was just wide enough to get out the northeast exit … as long as Tennessee fans could work together for the greater good.
This could be one of those gateway wins, a single victory that unlocks so much more. Hooker should leap to the top of the Heisman conversation, and the Volunteers will loom large in the rear-view mirrors of Georgia and Ohio State. SEC championship, playoff berth, national championship … it’s all in the picture now.
Hooker finished with 385 yards on 21-of-30 passing, with five touchdowns and that one, ultimately inconsequential, interception. Jalin Hyatt caught six passes, five of them for touchdowns. Any time you can hang half a century on an Alabama team, you’ve done a fine day’s work.
The fans working the south crossbar out the northeast entrance demonstrated some impressive common sense, working the bar up and over an eight-foot fence and negotiating it through the steel girders that held up the northeast stands. Several Vols fans rode atop the crossbar, attempting to guide it like Santa leading his sleigh. The crossbar-carrying crew reached the outer gate of the stadium, and, working as one, negotiated the two ends of the crossbar out a gate far too narrow for it to go through head-on.
Alas, not every Tennessee drive ended in victory. Right as the crossbar reached Middle Drive outside the stadium, local law enforcement put an end to the fun, forcing the crew to drop the crossbar and disperse. One of the crossbar riders, a student covered in end-zone orange paint who gave his name as both “Alexander” and “Joseph” — “I don’t want to get arrested” — summed up the chaos. When asked what he’d wanted to do with the crossbar, he said, simply, “I don’t know.”
Back inside the stadium, as carts blew the trash of thousands into the center of the field, the north goalposts sat in the southeast corner of the stadium. Fans posed by them like hunters with a trophy. At the other end of the stadium, others wrote their names and other messages (“F— Bama!”) on the still-standing orange upright. A few enterprising fans tore up some chunks of checkerboard turf before getting run off by security.
The south crossbar’s uprights fared better. They made their way to The Strip, circulating up and down Cumberland Avenue for an hour or so before the crowd guided them toward the Tennessee River.
The hollow upright bobbed on the water as the crowd cheered. Soon enough, it’ll be fished out and almost surely cut up into souvenirs, a tangible memory of one of the truly great victories in Tennessee football history.
One way or another, every Vols fan in Tennessee will carry a piece of this night for the rest of their lives.
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.