The origins of Smokey X can be traced back to a childhood dog, a male cheerleader and an ACL tear.
Wendy Davis grew up with a Bluetick Hound as her family pet. Her husband was a massive Tennessee fan who wanted a dog shortly after they were married, so getting the most famous breed in the state just made sense.
Finding one in Tennessee was a much more difficult task than wanting one, though, and the two searched tirelessly until they finally located a single hound in Cowan, Tennessee. At 1 a.m., Davis and her husband made the nearly three-hour trek to retrieve their newest family icon.
When her husband passed away in 2003, the spunky schoolteacher bought a 33-acre farm in Shelbyville and searched for a hobby to pass the time. She didn’t know anything about cows, chickens or the other animals that usually accompany her new rustic environment. But she understood the basics of Bluetick Hounds, so with a fluttering idea and a fervent passion for animals, Davis Branch Blueticks was born.
“I got another female and started breeding her. More and more people started calling me and said they couldn’t find one anywhere,” Davis said. “I thought this was really silly, this being a Tennessee dog (and) a UT dog.”
Davis took it upon herself to become a breeder, satiating the high demand for Tennessee Blueticks that were nearly impossible to find. When Smokey IX hit the injured reserved list with a torn ACL in 2011, Davis received a random phone call from a number she didn’t recognize.
“This lady introduces herself as Wendy Hudson and she’s with the family that owns Smokey,” Davis said. “I’m thinking this is the biggest joke anybody’s ever played on me.”
Hudson explained how the injury might be a career-ending one for Tennessee’s ninth Smokey, and the university was in the process of searching for a replacement. Tennessee wanted the new Smokey to come from its home state as the previous ones were bred out of South Carolina.
“I said I agree 100 percent,” Davis said. “It’s kind of sacrilegious if it’s not.”
Davis believes it was a Bluetick she sold to a Tennessee male cheerleader who sparked the idea, when Hudson’s father-in-law saw him walking the dog and stopped to ask where he bought it. That led to the fateful phone conversation which put the wheels in motion for Tennessee’s tenth Smokey.
“I get off the phone and I start jumping up and down. I’m about to pee my britches,” Davis said. “This is just crazy. This doesn’t happen. This is not right. I thought somebody was playing a joke. I shouldn’t be so excited.”
After admitting she didn’t know much about the kennel she was inquiring about, Davis implored Hudson to do more research before settling on her own company. That she would even suggest such a thing impressed the university and Hudson clan so much that, after abiding by her wishes, they hired her to provide the next Smokey.
The newest litter of puppies — four male and four female — were born, and Davis was stressfully tasked with picking the chosen one to inherit the illustrious Smokey throne.
“They all seemed about the same. Little puppies like puppies are. There was one just a little bit bigger than the others, looked a lot like his daddy, Pokey Joe,” Davis said.
She wanted a big, ferocious dog to loom over the sideline on game days inside Neyland Stadium, so she picked the one twice the size of the others in the litter.
“Turns out he’s really not ferocious. He’s the most mild-mannered of the group in the puppies,” Davis said. “He doesn’t mind people being around him. He didn’t mind the attention He had to be Smokey. He was the big one that kind of walked around like look at me, I’m the big man.”
Davis transferred Smokey X to the Hudsons and Tennessee with just one request — she had to be on the field the first time he entered Neyland Stadium. The university obliged. The schoolteacher felt like one of her kids at recess for the first time.
“It was the best,” she said. “I did want to run through the T the first time he came out, but the university said no. That would have been the most ultimate thing. Who knows, there’s Smokey XI. There’s always another chance.”
Watching how excited and cheerful people get around her former dog makes Davis feel complete, like her extensive work in breeding the university’s signature mascot has given her life a renewed purpose. It also serves as a connection to her late husband, who littered the walls in her home with Tennessee paraphernalia as if it were a shrine.
“If he were here to be a part of this, I don’t know how he would handle it, because he was such a huge fan,” Davis said. “I actually had to stop him from putting orange stuff in the living room."
You can hear the passion drip from the gentle twang in her voice. Smokey X has become her liaison between the husband, dog and university she so dearly loves.
“I tear up every time I see him,” Davis said. “Every time I’m at one of the games and I see him come out on the field, I need to be right down there where Smokey is. My husband and I weren’t able to go to many of the games … it was always a special thing with us.”
Now that her kennel has taken off, Davis has sold puppies to former Vol superstar Eric Berry and let NASCAR driver and Knoxville native Trevor Bayne know he isn’t allowed to talk business on game day.
"He had called the morning of the game and I said, ‘Look, I can’t talk here right now. I’m getting ready to go to the ball game," Davis said. "He said, ‘Well, I’m at the game too. I said, ‘Well, then we’re going to have to talk after the game.’”
She understands the symbolism Smokey provides for those who want to feel like a part of something. To a lot of people, he isn’t just a dog — he’s the representation of their fan hood, the tangible link to the university they so adore.
“People can connect and be a part of the university through Smokey. They may only go to one game a year. They may never go to a game, but Smokey allows the average, everyday person to be a part of the team, a part of the university,” she said.
“It’s their connection. Football players come and go, but Smokey is always there.”