Leaving College Station on Saturday night, hours after the instant two-overtime classic was complete, it began to set in on how special of an event I had witnessed. The game had everything a fan could want with plays that grabbed the excitement of even the most casual of fan, but off the field is where many Tennessee fans left most impressed with the gameday experience.
The game itself was similar to the classic box office hit, Rocky IV. With a roster that was already depleted due to injuries to key players, things went from bad to worse for the Volunteers. Four more starters were lost throughout the course of the game with Cortez McDowell, Dylan Wiesman, Jashon Robertson and Danny O'Brien. Malek Foreman and Evan Berry missed key parts of the game.
The injuries were a punch to the gut and it appeared the Vols were on the verge of being knocked out in front of the highly partisan crowd, falling behind 28-7 in the second half. The Volunteers, like Balboa, kept fighting and something special started to the happen. Perhaps it was that second half improbable comeback that led to the admiration shown for the Vols by the home crowd afterward, but it was a scene not often witnessed after a SEC game.
As Tennessee players walked off of Kyle Field I saw the Tennessee fanbase cheer with pride and also saw thousands of A&M fans cheer their foe in admiration.
It was not until after the game that I began to hear the same narrative over and over again from Tennessee fans about the experience of College Station. They spoke highly of the sportsmanship both before and after the game. Social media and message boards were full of high praise for the Aggie fans.
Here are a few posts from Volchat:
"I think at least 50 people walked up and introduced themselves to us. Asked questions about UT and Knoxville, asked personal questions, and a few thanked us for inviting them into SEC. 10 seconds after the int they were thinking us for coming to the game and wishing us safe travels. It was refreshingly strange."
"Fantastic trip. Their fans are every bit as great as Oregon and Notre Dame fans, who are the ones that I have set up at the top for years. All three groups have never said a bad word and they are most welcoming to come to their places and enjoy yourself. Share food and drink like none other. A&M fans easily the class of the SEC and I have been to them all. Stadium was fantastic. Really enjoyed this entire trip."
"Best road experience I have had. Fantastic fans. If you paused for too long outside a tailgate, they just invited you in to enjoy some food and drink. As we were walking back to our car, we got several hand shakes and well wishes for the rest of the season, especially next week."
These comments are a far contrast from many of the stories from other SEC games. Just last week I saw a middle-aged Georgia fan tell a Tennessee fan he was going to "Kill you if you don't stop cheering" after the Hail Mary. I have seen parking cost double for any Tennessee fan in Gainesville and I have heard Tennessee fans tell Alabama fans to "hit I-75 south and get the #%*@ out of our city."
Needless to say the hospitality shown in College Station is the exception, not the rule. Far too many times these passionate sporting events are becoming a nightmare for parents to bring their young children. This Tennessee-Texas A&M game proved an atmosphere and game can have it all, including sportsmanship from players and fans alike. Even the Aggie players noticed with Christian Kirk saying, "All the respect out to Tennessee. How they came out and battled, they had all those injuries but they fought until the end." It doesn't have to have nastiness between fans or players in order for games to be full of passion.
In Rocky IV, after Balboa knocked out the Russian in from of the crowd in Moscow, he issued a moving message that the entire SEC could learn from. The Aggies have shown the rest of the SEC it can be done.
"If I can change, you can change, the entire world can change"