By Steve Williams
My earliest memories of attending a University of Tennessee football game are from the era when Neyland Stadium was shaped like a horseshoe, with only bleachers in its open north end.
If I remember correctly, a kid like myself, in the early 1960s, could get a ticket in that bleacher section for $1.
But just being inside the stadium was priceless. In my mind, after all these years, I can still remember how it felt, what it sounded like, what it looked like.
The Vols and their opponents were sometimes right there in front of me when playing on the north end of Shields-Watkins Field. So close. It was such a colorful sight. One that made an impression I’ve never forgotten.
This was an era when you still had the UT emblem on The Hill up behind those bleachers, along with the big game clock that had hands showing minutes and seconds (not digital numbers) left in the quarter and the cannon that was fired when the Vols scored a touchdown.
And with the north end being open, fans inside the stadium could see and hear all of this, plus have a view of stately Ayers Hall atop The Hill.
I must also mention the stadium’s X section from this time in history. It was a shorter concrete stand in the northwest corner of the stadium where blacks were segregated.
I don’t remember knowing why it was called the X Section or what segregation was when I was a young boy. I do remember leaving the bleacher area late in a game and crawling over a short concrete wall that divided the X section from the main part of the stadium on the west side.
Over the years, as I grew up, I learned about the X section and what it was. It’s a part of our history from which we have evolved, just like the integration of players and coaches in sports.
The X Section was replaced by a grandstand in 1966.
Not until 1980 was the north end of the stadium completely enclosed, making Neyland Stadium a “bowl.”
Although I have memories of seeing UT football games from those bleachers in the horseshoe, I can’t recall for sure who the opposing teams were. I’m thinking my first game there might have been when Tennessee played Tampa in 1960, a 62-7 UT win. But then it could have been the Vols’ 52-6 win over Tulsa in 1961.
Team names like Tampa and Tulsa do make an impression in a young boy’s mind, as they did in mine.
I’m pretty sure I attended the 1965 game against Houston when I was a little older. The Vols wore black crosses on their helmets that day, in memory of three assistant coaches who lost their lives after their car had been hit by a train on their way to work the previous Monday morning. Doug Dickey’s Vols, playing with heavy hearts, defeated Houston 17-8.
This coming Saturday afternoon, Tennessee will host Chattanooga, and there will be boys, 8, 9 and 13 years old, seeing their very first UT football game. It’s a modern day type of game that’s comparable to playing a Tampa or Tulsa from my youth.
A lot of $5 tickets should be available, making it very affordable for a boy to go to the game with his dad or uncle or with a friend and his father.
The young boy won’t get to see the big game clock on The Hill, but he’ll enjoy the Jumbotron. He won’t hear the sound of a cannon when the Vols score, but he’ll hear fireworks.
He may not get to sit as close to the action as boys once did in those north end zone bleachers, but he’ll be just as wide-eyed when he first comes through the tunnel and gets a view of the sea of orange.
There’s still a northwest corner of the stadium, but now it’s orange and white, and not just black.
Ayers Hall is still atop The Hill, but he may not be able to see it.
Like most everything else, Neyland Stadium has changed over the years. But it’s no more or less special to a young boy today than it was some 50 years ago.
Fifty years from this Saturday, a man will recall experiences from seeing his first Tennessee football game. He may not remember the exact year it was or even who the Vols played that day.
But he’ll still remember how it felt, what it sounded like and what it looked like.
A $5 ticket. A priceless experience.