Riding the rails with the Vols

By Tom Mattingly

When Tennessee played at Georgia on Nov. 4, 1972, many Vol fans rode to the game on a special Southern Railways train from Atlanta, disembarking near the stadium’s east end zone.

Tennessee won, 14-0, and the trip back in the late afternoon and early evening was truly enjoyable. Those Georgians who lived adjacent to the tracks seemed to enjoy seeing a train pass by. What would it be like, many on the train wondered, to ride a train to other road games?

The trip engendered memories of the days the Tennessee team and fans alike traveled by train to nearly every venue. There must have been a certain mystique, something special, about a train trip anywhere, but especially to a football game.

History tells us that trains have also been involved in several significant moments in Tennessee football.

The start of the 1925 Tennessee-Georgia game was delayed nearly an hour because the train carrying the officials was late. The game actually started with volunteer officials being recruited from the stands. The officials arrived later on, leaving the train near the south end of Shields-Watkins Field. The Vols won 12-7, and the game ended in virtual darkness.

In 1957, No. 7 Tennessee took the train to Memphis to play No. 8 Ole Miss at Crump Stadium. The route of choice was Knoxville to Chattanooga, then across northern Alabama and Mississippi, back to Middleton, Tenn., and on to Memphis.

“Coach Wyatt had a phobia about flying,” Bill Johnson, a co-captain and All-American selection, said. “The train went to Chattanooga, and then started west. At about 2 or 3 a.m., we were somewhere in West Tennessee, and there was an accident. It stopped the train for 7 or 8 hours. We did not get to Memphis until noon for a 1 p.m. kickoff.”

The Vols lost 14-7.

Then there was the hush-hush way Bob Woodruff brought Doug Dickey to Knoxville from Fayetteville, Ark., for his first media conference as head football coach on Dec. 2, 1963.

Woodruff wanted to keep a proper veil of secrecy over his arrival, telling Dickey to fly from Fayetteville to Memphis the night before. He then had Dickey board a train to Knoxville that would be in town by 6 a.m., early enough, he reasoned, to keep him away from all those pesky sport-writers.

However, the News Sentinel’s Marvin West was at the train station when Dickey arrived and garnered the first picture of the young coach arriving in Knoxville. The picture made it into that afternoon’s newspaper.

In one of the saddest chapters in Tennessee gridiron history, three assistant coaches died in an early morning car-train accident at Cessna at Westland Drives in West Knoxville. It occurred two days after the 1965 Alabama game, a 7-7 tie Vol fans perceived as a victory.

John Majors’ brother, Bill, and Bob Jones were killed instantly, while Charley Rash died the next Thursday.

In 1977, the Tennessee team buses came perilously close to being sideswiped by a train as the team journeyed from Silver Springs to Gainesville for the Florida game. The team buses were on State Route 315, when they approached an unguarded Seaboard Coast Line crossing.

John Majors, seated at the front of the first bus, remembered it well.

“I was reading at the time and glanced up and saw this train coming lickety-split,” he told the Knoxville Journal’s Russ Bebb. “We probably didn’t miss getting hit by more than two seconds. I remember thinking the No. 2 bus had been destroyed. There was no doubt in my mind.”

Bebb reported that buses 2 and 3 were able to skid to a stop just a few feet away from the crossing.

John Majors let the trooper leading the convoy have it when the team arrived at the stadium. “I was absolutely astounded that he would do such a thing, and I let him know it.”

If you don’t remember the days passenger trains came into and out of Knoxville on a regular basis, either from the L&N Station in the Lower Second Creek Valley or the Southern Railway Station on Depot Ave., you’re not alone. Knoxville passenger train service ended on Aug. 12, 1970.

Given the history of the Vols and trains over the years, the question remains. Would Vol fans ride a train to a game today?

No one knows for sure, but one thing seems certain.

The trip home, regardless of the mode of transportation, would be more fun after a win.

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