The Toomer's tragedy

As a traditionalist, I'm sickened by the recent tragedy that occurred at Toomer's Corner on the Auburn University campus. As a long-time observer of sports fanaticism, though, I'm not surprised.

It's sad that an over-the-edge Alabama fan apparently felt compelled to poison the trees around which Auburn fans gather to celebrate their program's athletic achievements. It's even sadder, though, to know that there are lunatic-fringe fans at every other school, too. Even Tennessee. I know. I've dealt with some of them.

After three years as the secondary beat writer on Vol football for The Knoxville Journal, I was promoted to primary beat writer in 1986. As fate would have it, the day before the '86 opener an investigative reporter for The Journal broke a story that approximately 20 Tennessee players had violated NCAA "pass-list" regulations essentially by selling their complimentary tickets instead of giving them to family members. The Journal did not involve me in the investigation, since this would've ensured that I got no cooperation from coaches and players all season. In fact, I wasn't even informed of the investigation. I wound up suffering consequences, though.

Because I worked for The Journal, Tennessee's players refused to speak with me once the pass-list story broke. With zero access to players, I had to build my stories exclusively around quotes from head coach Johnny Majors and his assistants. After two weeks of this, Majors finally convinced his players I was not the Anti-Christ and got them speaking to me again.

Although the players made my job considerably tougher for those two weeks, I could empathize with their frustration. I could empathize with the frustration of most Tennessee fans, as well. What I could not empathize with was a few overzealous supporters who called The Journal offices and issued death threats. One call, in particular, was so chilling that I haven't forgotten it to this day:

"I'm going to be across the street with my rifle," he said, "and I'm going to pick you (people) off one by one as you leave work."

The Journal took the threats quite seriously. Security was tightened dramatically. All visitors had to sign in and be screened by armed guards. All employees were issued photo badges that had to be displayed in order to gain admittance to the building. No one on the staff ventured near the large plate-glass windows that faced the nearby Knoxville Utility Board building and the low-rent hotel next door. After all, you'd be an easy target for a sniper stationed across the street. Weeks passed before security was relaxed and things returned to normal.

That's the most dramatic example I've encountered of the lunatic-fringe element of Tennessee football but not the only example. You've probably heard of the guy who sent a moving van to head coach Bill Battle's house because the Vols weren't winning enough games to suit him. Maybe you've heard about the guy who threw a stadium seat at Alan Cockrell as he left the field simply because the Vol quarterback had played poorly in a home loss to Ole Miss that evening.

Overzealous fans exist in pro football, as well as college football. A sick-minded Green Bay fan once killed Dan Devine's dogs because the Packers' head coach wasn't winning regularly enough.

It's shameful that a game which can bring so much excitement, entertainment and joy to most folks can push a few folks who lack perspective over the edge.

Reading about the tree-poisoning incident at Toomer's Corner reminds me of the death threats aimed at Knoxville Journal employees in 1986. It also reminds me that the word "fan" is short for "fanatic."

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