While reading this blog, some of you may have realized that I am a fan of the University of Tennessee. However, I am not just a fan. I am a fanatic. As a certified fanatic, I have been lucky enough to attend numerous football games throughout the country. I don’t know how many games I have attended. The best way to describe it is to say that if there has been a game played over the past 38 years, then chances are good that I was there.
Bunches of games have been forgotten, but a few, both wins and losses, stand out. One of those is the 1991 game against Notre Dame. It has gone down in Tennessee history as the Miracle at South Bend. Tennessee fans throughout the nation remember that game and have a story that goes along with it. However, my story is a little more supernatural.
My brother and I took an RV with some people that we did business with. The trip northward was filled with food, drink, laughter and anticipation. Notre Dame, coached by Lou Holtz, came into the game with an 8-1 record, while Tennessee stood at 5-2. It was the 300th game to be played in storied Notre Dame Stadium and was Senior Day for players like Jerome Bettis.
We arrived in South Bend to find temperatures in the single digits and snow spitting from the sky. Most of our group, including my brother, wanted to hang around the RV and tailgate. I remember one of our crew wearing a short-sleeve shirt, thin khakis, loafers without socks and a windbreaker. He should have been cold, but I’m sure that he wasn’t.
I didn’t want to tailgate. I had never been to Notre Dame and wanted to walk around the historic campus. There was Touchdown Jesus.
After the last field goal attempt, he was crossing his arms.
There was the grotto.
It’s a beautiful place.
Of course, there was the stadium.
It was filled with people when I was there.
I walked into the stadium as soon as the gates opened and found my seat in the end zone. There was an old man sitting in the seat next to mind, but I was too busy taking in the scene to say anything to him. Finally, he spoke and said:
“What part of Tennessee are you from?”
“I live close to Nashville. Do you live close by?”
“You could say that. How do you feel about the game?”
“I don’t feel very good about it.”
He smiled slightly and said:
“Don’t worry. Your team is going to win 35-34.”
That’s the last thing we said to each other. As game time approached, more people filled the seats, and my brother showed up. Then, the game began. At least, it began for Notre Dame. They ran and ran and ran. Up and down the field they went. With the first half coming to a close, Notre Dame was up 31-7 and was lining up for a field goal. My brother said that if something dramatic didn’t happen, then he was going back to the RV.
Something dramatic happened. Craig Hentrich, who would later punt for the Tennessee Titans, had his field goal blocked and Tennessee returned it for a touchdown. Everybody went crazy, but the man next to me never moved. Throughout the game, he never stood. He never talked. He never did anything but watch.
At the half, Notre Dame led 31-14, and my brother did not go back to the RV. It’s a goog thing because the second half belonged to Tennessee. They gradually cut into the lead, and, for some reason, Holtz abandoned the run and started throwing. Tennessee crept closer and closer. Coming toward our end zone, Tennessee scored to go up 35-34. I remembered what the man had said and turn to tell him that he was a genius, but he never looked at me.
Notre Dame got the ball and went back to the run. They should have been doing it all day because they drove straight down the field. With a few seconds left, they lined up for a short field goal to win. However, Notre Dame had a problem. Hentrich had been injured on the earlier field goal, and the backup kicker had to come in.
The snap. The hold. The kick. One of our guys flew in, and the ball hit him in the hip. The ball kept going but was wide left. Tennessee fans went crazy. We were jumping, hugging, giving out high fives. Tennessee won 35-34, just like the man said we would. I turned to hug him, but he was gone. The man had vanished into thin air.
Then, my brother was pulling at me. As the Notre Dame band played, Tennessee fans were storming the field. We had to go with them. We hugged players, coaches and other players wearing orange. We mingled with the band and Notre Dame players. We grabbed grass to keep as a souvenir.
It was the greatest ever comeback against Notre Dame. It was one of the greatest wins in Tennessee history. It was a game that made me wonder. Who was that guy? How did he know what the score would be? How did he suddenly disappear? I have always heard that there are ghosts in the stadium at Notre Dame, and I am convinced that I met one of them.