When Tennessee-Alabama Became Grandpa's Game
On Oct. 24, Justin Paschall, a 13-year-old eighth grader at Southside Elementary in Lebanon, Tenn., went to his first Alabama-Tennessee football game. He traveled to Tuscaloosa with his grandfather, Ray Todd, as huge of an Alabama fan as there is in the Southland and two cousins, also Alabama fans. Justin says his first question upon being told that his grandfather had tickets for the game, his first ever Tennessee game, was, "Can I wear my orange jacket?"
Grandpa Ray Todd, Alabama born and bred and now residing in Tennessee, said that he could wear his orange, and on Friday the foursome traveled to Tuscaloosa for the game. Come Saturday, Justin woke up and took wearing orange to a whole new level.
Yep, he wore an orange jacket, but he also painted his face white, and spiked his hair with orange highlights. Grandpa Ray Todd, a 68-year-old 'Bama fan, shook his head and smiled. It was the trip of a lifetime, a ballgame at Bryant-Denny with his three grandsons. Even if, you know, one of them had the bad sense to be a Tennessee fan. Ray Todd smiled throughout the cloudy morning chill, grinned as the clouds broke in the early afternoon and poured forth brilliant sunlight into the stadium. He tried to do everything he could to soak up every moment. That's what happens when your grandsons are pushing you in a wheelchair, you have pancreatic cancer, and doctors have given you one football season left to live.
So it came to pass that the 91st rivalry game between Tennessee and Alabama was an awful lot like many of the 90 that had preceded it, close, bitterly close.
"I cheered loud all game," says Justin, "I wanted Tennessee to win so bad. It was my first game and all, and I didn't want to go all that way and see them lose." Sitting beside his grandfather and his two cousins watching his first Tennessee game in person, Justin pronounced it, "The best day of my life."
As the game progressed, Justin had a lot to cheer for; Tennessee, a 16-point underdog, kept the game close against Alabama all afternoon. By late in the fourth quarter, the Vols had the ball near Alabama's goal line, down 12-3. "I cheered so loud then," says Justin, "everyone around me, all the Alabama people, were looking at me like I was crazy."
Tennessee scored a touchdown to cut the lead to 12-10 and Justin went crazy in the stands. "I thought we were going to win, I really did," he says. As Tennessee lined up to attempt the onside kick, Justin stood and prayed that Tennessee would recover. When the Vols came up with the ball and the official signaled Tennessee's possession, pointing straight toward the opposing goal line, Justin came undone.
"I was screaming for Tennessee as loud as I could." Justin kept on screaming as loud as he could, reaching a crescendo of joy when Jonathan Crompton, Justin's favorite player, hit Luke Stocker for a 23-yard gain to the Alabama 27. Tennessee ran the ball on the next play and called timeout to set up the field goal, a kick that would win the game for the Vols, their first road victory over a No. 1 team in the history of the program.
Then Justin looked down at the man he calls Pops, his grandfather Ray Todd. "Pops was all slumped over and his lips were quivering." Just like that, Justin says, "I couldn't keep rooting for my team anymore." Right then and there Justin said a prayer. "I said, Good Lord, could you please let Alabama win?"
As Tennessee lined up for a field goal aimed at the opposite end zone distant from them, white uprights rising into a blue sky across a distant green field, Justin continued to pray. And when Terrence Cody came through the line and blocked the kick, when the entire Alabama stadium including his grandfather, Ray Todd, exploded in joy, Justin says he couldn't help but feel he'd made the right decision.
Kind of. But there was still one person he had to clear it with, his daddy.
That night when he returned home from, he told his dad, Ron, who drives a food truck for a living and is a huge Vol fan, what he'd done. "I hope you ain't mad at me, Dad," Justin said, "but when I looked over at Pops, I couldn't keep rooting for Tennessee to win. I thought it might be the last game he'd ever see."
"I gave him a hug and told him, I couldn't be mad at him," says Ron, "I told him he'd done the right thing."
And just like that, a new story about the Third Saturday in October, the South's most bitter rivalry, did something unbelievable, it made it impossible for fans of both teams to keep their eyes dry.
Clay Travis is the author of three books. His latest, "On Rocky Top: A Front Row Seat to The End of an Era" chronicles the 2008 Tennessee football season and is on sale now.