Let's hear it for the loyalty of the fans, from near or far away.
It's amazing how this loyalty manifests itself, occasionally from unexpected places.
Back in the 1990s, there was a young man named Mark Ostermeyer from Akron, Iowa, a small town located on the Iowa-Nebraska border. We had talked on the phone several times, and he talked rhapsodically about Neyland Stadium, a venue he had seen only on television. He specifically mentioned the memorable 1990 Florida game - Tennessee 45, Gators 3 - seen on ESPN.
He recalled liking the uniquely Tennessee orange jerseys and being impressed by the stadium and atmosphere he experienced watching on television.
The trip from Akron to Knoxville is estimated to be 16 hours, 10 minutes, covering 1,045 miles each way, and certainly appears to be a killer. If you think Knoxville, even Nashville, to Memphis is bad, try traversing the maze of highways leading from western Iowa to Knoxville and back again.
Mark once drove to Knoxville, visited the stadium (didn't say how he got in, but he did, somehow), and made a trip to the student center to buy some souvenirs. That's not all. He then turned around and drove back home. When he told me that, I was nothing short of dazzled.
In 1993, he and his brother drove all night to see the Tennessee-LSU game, and drove back home immediately after the game to get to work Sunday night.
I caught up with the Iowa duo the day before the game. As we walked across the connector between Stokely Athletics Center and Gibbs Hall, we ran into the Shuler brothers, Heath and Benjie.
After the appropriate introductions and some brief conversation, the Ostermeyer brothers declared their trip a success even before they saw the game, which ended up Tennessee 42, LSU 20. There was probably some interesting conversation on the way home.
Then there was a fellow named Dave Hagewood, who once recounted how he had driven from his home near Detroit to a hotel in Georgetown, Ky., to see a Tennessee game on television. That was the closest venue he found showing the game.
That was in the stretch run of the magic-laden 1998 season, when the Vols were 8-0 and No. 1 in the nation heading into the Arkansas game Nov. 14. It was, as we have said, a Tennessee classic if ever there was one.
"I had wondered if the Vols were ever going to win a national championship," Dave said. "When the Arkansas game week came up, the stations in my area were showing Notre Dame and Navy."
Hmm. Notre Dame and Navy. That's what Vol fans on the wrong side of Messrs. Mason and Dixon's famous line have to put up with on a weekly basis.
He had Tennessee roots, growing up in Clarksville, and decided he had to see the game one way or the other. So he ended up at a motel in Georgetown. (No one thought to ask why he didn't come all the way to Knoxville and see the game in person.)
During the game, international events in Iraq intervened, with CBS cutting directly to a briefing from the White House, and he missed Peerless Price's first half touchdown reception.
When the game came back on the tube, Dave saw a replay of Price's catch and watched the rest of the game live, including those moments in the final quarter when Al Wilson practically willed the Vol defense to force two turnovers.
Wilson blocked a field goal, and, as every Vol fan knows by heart, Billy Ratliff, urged on by Wilson, found a fumble on a play forever memorialized as the "Stoerner Stumble," named after Clint Stoerner, the Arkansas quarterback that day.
Historians might end up calling that game "The Rally by the River" or "The Miracle in the Gloaming." It was something. It was another magic moment in the history of Shields-Watkins Field/Neyland Stadium. It raises the question whether ghosts actually are found somewhere in or underneath the turf Bob Campbell so carefully tends.
Loyalty to a school is one thing. Loyalty to an athletics team at that school is another. Faraway loyalty, as we have seen, is beyond amazing, beyond rational explanation.
The University of Tennessee athletic community is definitely a special place, one full to the brim with special people.
(We're not talking about the "special people" in Tuscaloosa this past season who had to get off the shuttle bus first, just because they could, even though they were sitting in the back. They got on first and had to get off first. Bless their hearts.)
We're talking about the "really" special people, those who have supported the University of Tennessee from far beyond its borders. Their stories are sometimes so amazing they can't help but be true.
Tom Mattingly is the author of "The Tennessee Football Vault: The Story of the Tennessee Volunteers, 1891-2006" (2006), now available in second edition at fine bookstores everywhere, and "Tennessee Football: The Peyton Manning Years" (1998). Send comments to email@example.com. His News Sentinel blog is called "The Vol Historian."