Tennessee tops Bama, fans claim goal posts as souvenirs
KNOXVILLE – There aren’t many moments in your life that you know, without a doubt, you’ll remember for the rest of your days. Saturday night in Knoxville will forever be etched in the hearts and memories of 100,000 Neyland Stadium fans and countless thousands more across Tennessee and beyond. That 52-49 win, that hard-earned triumph over hated Alabama – it will live forever in the minds of thousands.
But just to be sure, Tennessee fans wanted memorabilia.
The kick wasn’t pretty, not even close
Chase McGrath’s match winner crossed all the cardinal points as he ran 40 yards – and not much more – through the goal posts at the south end of Neyland. Before the ball even landed in the hands of one lucky Vols fan, to fade forever into memory, Tennessee fans were flocking to the brick walls and onto the field.
It was a release and a relief, pure and simple. Tennessee had defeated Alabama for the first time in 15 years, had won 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 seen their 18-point lead turn into a seven-point deficit, transpired what could have been Alabama’s game-winning 50-yard field goal with 15 seconds on the clock.
It was the exultation of staring oblivion in the face and surviving to tell the tale. On the crowded pitch, fans and players lit victory cigars, the sweet thick haze of smoke mingling with sweat and grass. Parents held their children on their shoulders. Couples and families posed for photos that will be on Christmas 2022 cars throughout East Tennessee. Chants, some secular, some joyful, all at throat-searing volume, filled the air. And, in an additional twist of the knife, the Neyland Stadium PA system blasted “Dixieland Delight,” the Tennessee-based song that Alabama co-opted as its own.
“I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you,” one fan said, gesturing to everyone in his line of sight. Another, so overwhelmed by the moment, sprawled face down on the grass, his phone flying like the fumbling that could have — but didn’t — cost Tennessee the game. Fans peeked at coolers still filled with water bottles along the two benches, then rushed as security grunted at them.
And then the fans went to work on the goal posts.
This game could have gone south for Tennessee so many different times. There was the blown 18-point lead, a crusher that silenced the crowd chanting “Rocky Top.” 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 recovered and threw for a touchdown to put Alabama up 7. And then there were those final field goals – a miss, a hit, a heartbreak and an exultation a few feet apart.
Each time, Tennessee found a way through. Every problem had a solution.
Your average goal post weighs around 900 lbs., impossible for most to lift alone but an easy task for a motivated and dedicated crowd. Delirious Vols fans first knocked down the south goal post – the one through which McGrath had kicked the match winner – by pulling the center post out of the ground and detaching the two uprights. At the other end of the stadium, fans ripped the crossbar off the post.
The poles disappeared into the crowd, resurfacing from time to time like a swimmer in a choppy tide. They presented a unique problem: how exactly do you get goal posts 30 feet high and 18 feet wide in a stadium?
Somehow the south post uprights separated from the crossbar. It’s much easier to move a single post than a whole array of goal posts, so those quickly disappeared into the night. The intact U-shaped north goal post circled the pitch, unable to fit through either exit.
The south crossbar, however, was just wide enough to exit through the northeast exit…as long as Tennessee fans could work together for the greater good.
This could be one of those winning gateways, a single victory that unlocks much more. Hooker is expected to jump to the top of the Heisman conversation, and the volunteers will be prominent in the rearview mirrors at 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 passes, with five touchdowns and that ultimately inconsequential interception. Jalin Hyatt caught six passes, five of which were for touchdowns. Anytime you can last half a century on an Alabama team, you’ve had a great day’s work.
The fans working the south crossbar at the northeast entrance showed impressive common sense, raising the bar over an eight-foot fence and negotiating it through the steel beams that held up the northeast bleachers. Several Vols fans climbed onto the crossbar, trying to guide her like Santa leading his sleigh. The crossbar-carrying crew reached the stadium’s outer gate and, working as one, negotiated both ends of the crossbar through a gate far too narrow for them to pass abreast.
Alas, not all of Tennessee’s drives ended in victory. Just as the crossbar reached Middle Drive outside the stadium, local law enforcement broke up the party, forcing the team to drop the crossbar and disperse. One of the crossbar runners, a student covered in end zone orange paint who gave his name as both “Alexander” and “Joseph” – “I don’t want to be stopped” – summed up the chaos. When asked what he wanted to do with the crossbar, he simply replied, “I don’t know.”
Back inside the stadium, as the carts blew the rubbish of thousands down the center of the pitch, the north goal posts were in the southeast corner of the stadium. Fans posed by them as hunters with a trophy. At the other end of the stadium, others were writing their names and other messages (“F—Bama!”) on the orange post still standing. A few enterprising fans tore up pieces of turf in a checkerboard pattern before being chased away by security.
The uprights of the south crosspiece held up better. They headed for the Strip, cruising along Cumberland Avenue for about an hour before the crowd guided them to the Tennessee River.
The hollow upright danced on the water to the cheers of the crowd. Soon he will be fished up and almost surely carved into keepsakes, a tangible memento of one of the greatest wins in Tennessee football history.
One way or another, every Tennessee Vols fan will wear a piece of this night for the rest of their life.