Tough. That is the word safety Vinnie Sunseri used over a dozen times to describe Tennessee week. Not because of the rivalry with Alabama, but because this is the week he'll see his father, Sal, on the opposing sideline.
Sal Sunseri, the Crimson Tide's former outside linebackers coach, became UT's defensive coordinator before this season and Saturday's game has been one Vinnie has been dreading ever since.
As Vinnie squeezed into the center of a reporters' huddle Monday morning, he was bombarded with questions about how this week is for him knowing that his dad will have an orange agenda Saturday.
"Very, very tough. A lot of mixed emotions," he said. "Hard. Hard, hard, hard. I'm getting a lot of calls from the family saying good luck to me, but I know they're just giving the same exact advice to my dad. It's tough. It's really tough. But I'm excited to see my dad."
Vinnie said it hit him that he was going to play against his dad this week about 10 minutes after Alabama beat Missouri 42-10 last weekend.
"It wasn't until that moment when coach Saban brought us in and said, ‘This is Tennessee week. This is a rivalry that's gone back before I was even born probably,'" he said. "I was sitting there and I was like, Wow. I've got to play against my dad this week. This is tough."
Two weeks ago, Alabama and Tennessee both had bye weeks and Vinnie was able to go visit his family in Knoxville. He joked his dad tried to get him fat saying, "I gained about 8 pounds up there."
Kidding aside, this week really is difficult for the Sunseri family. As he spoke about his father and the game, Vinnie's words trembled. He was visibly emotional.
He said it's extra difficult on his mom, Roxann, who can't even go to the game because she's so anxious about it.
During his open week visit, Vinnie and Sal were watching his brother Tino, who plays for Pitt, go against Syracuse and he got a taste of what his mom is like during games.
"I had never witnessed it before, but she becomes a wreck," Vinnie said. "She's emotional. Oh my gosh. She just wishes the best for us at all times. She's so passionate and loves us all so much.
"Especially when one of us gets hurt, it just kills her inside. She is a fan favorite of all of us and is honestly our biggest fan."
Vinnie said his mom is going to stay home and watch the game, but the rest of his family—cousins, aunts, uncles, godparents—will be in the stands at Neyland Stadium, split up wearing orange and crimson.
Vinnie's sister Ashlyn, a freshman on the Tennessee volleyball team, told her brother she wants it to be a defensive game.
"She said she hopes it's a 0-0 game and I pick one off and take it to the house…Naw, she didn't say that," he said, smiling.
Vinnie is extremely close with his father and said despite it being rivalry week, he will talk to him. In fact the two spoke Sunday night.
"I just told him I love him," he said. "We try to stay away from football talk. We just try to talk about how he's doing, how mom's doing, how the family's doing. It is just tough. I mean, I never thought I'd have to go against my father. And I never realized how tough it'd be until this point right now."
The two do talk football on non-Alabama-Tennessee weeks, as Vinnie said his father always gives him pointers of how to get better.
"He still coaches me," Vinnie said. "He can't help it."
There won't be any father-son trash talk this week and neither will rub a win in the other's face afterwards.
"This is just a football game," Vinnie said. "It's competition, but at the end of the day, we're family. That's the strongest thing."
There's a lot of familiarity between the Alabama and Tennessee teams. When Sal left Tuscaloosa for Knoxville, the Crimson Tide replaced him with the Vols' outside linebackers coach, Lance Thompson. Not to mention Nick Saban coached with Derek Dooley for seven years. But despite the coaching swaps and close-knit relationships, Saban doesn't think they create any sort of advantages or disadvantages.
"I think they kind of know what we do," Saban said. "We kind of conceived that they're doing a lot of the stuff we do, especially on defense. The advantages are created by the players and their execution…You never know what the other team is going to do, even if you know what they do, you don't know when they're going to do it."
Despite it being a hard week on the Sunseri family, Vinnie's teammates are trying to get him riled up.
"We bug him as much as we possibly can," said defensive end Damion Square, smiling. "[Strength and Conditioning Coach Scott Cochran] messes with him about it. He's just like, ‘Vinnie, where your dad at? What school your dad coach for?'
"And Vinnie is just like whatever."
And that's how Vinnie will be all week, as he tries to brush off the fact that Saturday will indeed be one of the toughest games he's ever played.
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