My American journey to ol’ Rocky Top

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There are so many major issues going on in our country and across the globe, but this day I am seriously taking a break from it all. Today is a special day for me and I’d like to share my reflections with you — a simple American journey.

Thirty-five years ago during late summer-early fall, we all loaded up in Dad’s — Buck West’s — 1976 silver and gray Lincoln Continental town car and headed north on I-75. We were on the road to “Rocky Top,” Knoxville, Tennessee — home of the University of Tennessee.

Growing up in Atlanta, Saturday SEC football and basketball were staples in our home. I learned SEC school fight songs just as I did Sunday hymns. Of course I was a big-time Georgia Bulldog fan and ol’ Coach Vince Dooley was an icon.

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However, to the north, there was something about this Tennessee Volunteer school. I remember the days of the first black SEC football quarterback, Condredge Halloway. And we all were enthralled with the “Ernie/Bernie” show of Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King. I somehow found myself being attracted to that Tennessee orange.

And being a history nut, the story of the Tennessee Volunteers and Davy Crockett captured my imagination. I will never forget the epic movie, “The Alamo” with John Wayne and Richard Widmark and the famous statement by Crockett after losing his congressional reelection, “You all can go to hell, I’m going to Texas” — a sure-fire confession of the indomitable individual rugged American spirti in the fight for freedom.

And then my mom Snooks’ sister, my Aunt Brendalyn, along wth her husband who was an FBI agent, moved from St. Louis to Knoxville due to reassignment. And so I got to visit Aunt Bren, and will never forget the first time I saw Neyland Stadium on the banks of the Tennessee River.

Then as a senior at Henry Grady High School in Atlanta, my homeroom and physics teacher, Ms. Carolyn Payne, was a big-time Tennessee alumni. And when she gave my parents and me the information on the exceptional UT Army ROTC program — well, the dye was cast — and it was orange and white for my college.

So in 1979 we took the trip to Knoxville. This time it wasn’t to visit Aunt Bren, but to start my life. I was assigned to Hess Hall, 7th floor, and it was truly a barracks-type living condition, two students to a room. My folks dropped me off after some tears from Mom. Now, these were the days before personal computers, iPads, iPhones, you know all that fancy tech stuff — no mini TV. Dad had gotten me a clock radio and doggone I thought I was in high cotton. Then all of a sudden the door knob turned and in walked the fella who would be my roommate. Keith was from up there in the Cumberland Gap and by the look on his face, he probably hadn’t seen too many black kids. There was complete silence except for my introduction, and two days later I saw his room transfer request.

Right in front of his face, I tore it up and told him we were roommates and he needed to get to know me and I him. Well, it came to pass that Keith was a solid basketball player and in those days I was pretty good myself. That was our bond, and as a matter of fact, our intramural team ended up winning the dorm league championship. I lost track of ol’ Keith but perhaps one day we will reunite.

My days at Tennessee Army ROTC were fantastic — of course you can learn more in my book, Guardian of the Republic. I remain close friends with two of my ROTC buddies, Logan Hickman (with whom I served in Desert Storm) and Gary Potts.

The saddest part about my time on Rocky Top was losing my best friend, Bill Scarborough. I met Bill when I landed a part time job at a music store called Record Bar– minimum wage folks and it was an entry position to learn responsibility, not to be my career.

Bill and I would go back down to Atlanta because he was a big Atlanta Braves baseball fan. My folks loved Bill. He was a witty and charming fella with a sharp intellect. On graduation day, there was Bill taking pictures with my folks and me — we had adopted him.

Unfortunately Bill did have an issue, it was a cocaine addiction, and we often talked about it and I implored him to stop. Right before graduation Bill confided in me about his job offer and that it was time to turn a new page — however, just a couple days after our graduation Bill, my best friend in college, died from a drug overdose. I was crushed.

Thirty-five years ago I first stepped onto Rocky Top and today I have returned. As I did my morning run all the great memories came back, Stokely Athletic Center is gone but I will never forget the Army ROTC department and the basketball games I watched there. Neyland Stadium still stands as grand as ever, but much larger. As a matter of fact, it was in my sophomore year that they closed in the lower north section making the capacity some 98,000. At the same time Knoxville hosted the World’s Fair, and God’s golf ball still stands.

I’m here in Knoxville for the Alabama-Tennessee football game. I remember my last “Buck Fama” week at UT when I was a senior in 1982. Bama came in highly ranked — as always — and we hadn’t beaten the Crimson Tide in some 12 years. It was one of the most incredible games one could ever see — a true SEC classic — and I had gotten a ticket for my younger brother Arlan to attend with me. The Vols took the lead late in the 4th quarter with a 35 yard TD run which put us up 34 to 29. However, in typical Bama, fashion they drove the field as time was running down. The Tide was rolling and was inside the 10-yard line with seconds remaining. And the miracle happened: the Bama QB threw an interception IN THE END ZONE to my buddy from Atlanta’s Northside High School, reserve linebacker, Mike Terry. We went nuts and stormed the field — however, the crowd parted like for Moses at the Red Sea when Alabama Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant walked off the field. Little did we know then, but it would be the Bear’s last season coaching and within a year he would pass away.

One thing I will never forget about that game in October 1982 was the tradition of pre-game prayer when the pastor beseeched the Lord God to help us beat Alabama! I will never forget that resounding roar from the crowd — and God answered that preacher’s prayer! Folks, that’s why the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation needs to go somewhere else to intimidate. We love the Judeo-Christian faith heritage down South, right along with our SEC football.

I come back to Rocky Top 35 years later holding many memories, but mostly I return the man this great institution set on a path to success. I return a Tennessee Volunteer, another in that lineage of men who stood for freedom and were willing to give their lives for that fundamental American value.

So all you folks out in Texas, remember, there is only one UT — the one who sent its Volunteers to ensure you could become the great state you are today.

Go Big Orange!

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