I remember how tense the atmosphere was as kickoff time approached. I remember how deafening it was hearing 57,000 Vol fans cheer in unison during a good play … and how strange it was hearing those same 57,000 groan in unison during a bad play. I remember how Ron Widby's punts seemed to soar higher than the stadium's top row before finally returning to Earth.
I'll never forget that first Tennessee football game. I'll never forget my Uncle Wade, either. He died last night from congestive heart failure.
If you'll permit me to share a little about him, you may never forget my Uncle Wade, either.
Wade loved football. He watched every televised college game on fall Saturdays, then watched every pro game on Sundays. He tuned in every Monday night, too, no matter which teams were playing. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays were tough on him. And, as he told me many times, the off-season was pure misery.
Wade attended Tennessee home games every chance he got, taking me along whenever he could. Later in life, as his health went from bad to worse, he still managed to watch every game on TV or listen on radio. No one loved the Vols more than Wade.
A few years ago, he noticed that Tennessee's best performances occurred on the Saturdays when he ate barbecue pork for dinner. One Saturday Wade forgot and ate something else. With Tennessee trailing after two quarters, Wade made himself a barbecue sandwich and forced it down at halftime. When the Vols rallied to win, he joked that he deserved credit for the comeback. At least, I think he was joking.
With his body devastated by an assortment of health problems, Wade spent his final years in an assisted-living facility. It was a mighty struggle just hobbling from the bed to the living room chair to watch his beloved Vols play. Still, he wouldn't miss a Tennessee football telecast … or a Lady Vol basketball game. He considered Pat Summitt the female equivalent of Bob Neyland, and he admired them both tremendously.
I tried to visit Wade a couple of times each week at the assisted-living center. On weekends we'd watch football games together. Sometimes Wade would fall asleep in the middle of the action but I didn't care. He was good company when he was awake. Besides, I owed him big-time. If he hadn't taken me to that first UT football game back in 1966, I'm sure I wouldn't have spent the past 30 years covering the Vols.
I don't think anyone was happier than Wade when Tennessee won the national championship in 1998. I don't think anyone was sadder than Wade when Tennessee went 5-6 in 2005. He never had a wife or children, so I suspect Vol football was the single greatest passion of his life.
Thousands of fans cherish the Big Orange, and my Uncle Wade was just one of them. But none of them took me to my first game. And none of them ate barbecue they didn't want just so Tennessee would win.
I'll never forget him.