Well, in a circuitous way. A gentleman on the search committee assigned to vet me nine years ago played baseball at Vandy, and thought it curious I listed on my resume, under “Interests,” Vanderbilt athletics. I find that curious too looking back now.
But it’s true. One of the few things men get to take into adulthood from their boyhood is their team allegiances. I’ve really had only one: Vanderbilt. I didn’t go to college there; my paternal family heritage is centered in Nashville. My grandparents actually honeymooned in October of 1931 in Columbus, Ohio, to take in the Vanderbilt v. Ohio State game. The football program was great then but waned into misery by later decades.
I don’t know when my prayer-warrior grandmother began praying regularly for her “Vandy boys”—SEC people will understand this passion—but she did on game days. And probably did during the week too. And yet, year after year after year Vandy seemed to be a team almost divinely cursed, like the Chicago Cubs. If we are, I blame the institution’s ultra-liberal divinity school for making God mad and He’s taking it out on the team. But my grandfather finally dropped his season tickets sometime in the 1970s, disgusted that Vanderbilt could lose at home to Furman. FUR-MAN!
You can’t be a Vanderbilt football fan if you have no stomach for losing. Nor can you be a Vanderbilt football fan if you can’t take the annual autumn reproaches of higher and mightier SEC brethren. I’ve seen every other SEC team’s bubbas outnumber Vandy fans at 41,000-seat Dudley Field. They come in the gates scorning our stadium’s size and age and—horrors!—lack of a gargantuan jumbotron. They pencil “W” on their schedules beside the Vandy date before they even play us. Then the ones that fall to us make ridiculous excuses like—I’m looking at you, Ole Miss—we have to play Vandy early, in September, before they’re all banged up! Hotty Toddy, gosh you’re whiny!
Alas, for it is written! “The reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me” (Psalm 69:9).
In my lifetime—42 years—Vandy has posted four winning seasons in football. They can make it five this Saturday if they win the Liberty Bowl, which is why I’m writing this post. My beloved Commodores are in Memphis this week and I’ve been reflecting on why I love them; on why as a grown man I was so giddy to get to breakfast with two of the players Wednesday morning at the FCA Liberty Bowl Prayer Breakfast in the hotel just down the street from my church. I couldn’t wait to call my wife and oldest son and tell them, and email my dad about it.
And I grew up in Alabama! Mostly in a town about an hour-and-a-half north of Tuscaloosa, the absolute ground zero of football fan frenzy. My Boy Scout troop for years ushered one or two Alabama football games a season. I remember the Bear leaning against the goal post in one of the end zones as his team warmed up. Every boy in the stadium would congregate at the chain-link fence behind him, hoping Coach would speak to us. And he often did.
Roll Tide! never stirred me, though, even as I watched them routinely drub Vandy back in those days by margins like 63-3. I even watched Bear Bryant’s TV show, sponsored by Golden Flake, on Sunday afternoons—and you haven’t really lived unless you heard Bear Bryant thank “Golll-den Fl-aaake” in his low gravely voice. If I wanted to pull for a winner, the Tide would have been the logical choice.
But I just loved that star with the V. “Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands…” (Isaiah 49:16).
Some readers will remember the “Leonard’s Losers” radio broadcast. I liked it even though Leonard always picked Vanderbilt to lose. Leonard nicknamed all the SEC teams, calling Vanderbilt the “Cumberland Cruiser” (the Cumberland River runs through Nashville). With his thick Southern brogue, Leonard would usually preview a game, Vandy v. Alabama for instance, like this:
“Vandy v. Alabama. The Cumberland Cruiser sets sail for Tuscaloosa this week. Comin’ off a vic’try over ‘dem Blue Pitchforks of Duke, the men in black-and-gold are sailin’ high. But they’ll encounter a pack of angry crimson pachyderms and have to row back to Nashville on the wreckage. Leonard’s Loser: Vandy!”
Vanderbilt football has vastly improved since my childhood, even giving the mighty Tide some jolts of fear over the last ten to fifteen years. I noticed on the redone 2012 SEC football schedules released this week, that in order to accommodate Missouri’s and Texas A&M’s entrance into the league, Alabama dropped Vanderbilt. At least that’s how I’ll construe it. Because as Warren St. John observed in Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Journey Into the Heart of Fan Mania (the author followed Alabama football for a year): “Playing Vanderbilt is like riding a roller-coaster—not in the sense of highs and lows, but in that we can experience the free falls and g-forces of a close game all with the knowledge that at the end, we’ll pull safely into the station.”
Not just Alabama fans feel this way. The rest of the conference does too, including the Arkansas fans who sat behind me in the stands at this year’s contest in Nashville, bemoaning the whole time how their seventh-ranked Hogs could possibly be getting beaten by Vanderbilt. Vandy committed some costly turnovers down the stretch and missed a chip-shot field goal for overtime (“How long, O Lord?”, Psalm 6:3), granting Arkansas an eked out victory. I’ve seen this happen many times—rescuing defeat from the jaws of victory, we Vandy old timers call it. But the couple behind me whooped and cheered at the end as if they could now return unashamed to Arkadelphia for a feast of pickled chitterlings. At least we don’t eat our mascot.
I don’t know why I love Vanderbilt football. I’ve tried not to love it. I don’t get upset anymore by the losses as I did when I was younger—well, okay, I did experience mild upset by the way we lost to Tennessee this year. But I haven’t thrown anything in years because I am nowhere near a rabid fan. I don’t follow Vandy’s recruiting or avidly listen to sports talk or send Tweets to their players. I would have years ago but my allegiance is well in check now.
And it’s fine with me that none of my kids like Vandy. After the third or fourth game he attended (all losses) my now 15-year-old asked me a few seasons back, sincerely, “Why do you like this team again, Dad?” I’m taking my 11-year-old daughter and a friend of hers to the bowl game Saturday. She has recently proclaimed her affections for—(sigh)—Ole Miss. I count my blessings though: UT would be worse.
I suppose I’m still interested in Vanderbilt football because of the memories. Yes, a lot of forgettable football. But when I walk into Vanderbilt Stadium I meet myself again as a boy, a teenager, a young adult. I’m not trying to sentimentalize or enshrine it, but Vanderbilt Stadium is perhaps the one specific locality I can say I’ve been going to consistently for most of my life. And it hasn’t changed that much since my grandparents’ time, which actually comforts me.
I inevitably think of them when I go to Vandy home games, as I miss them, and as well an uncle who took me to some games. I remember my dad taking me to games when we’d visit my grandparents in Nashville, and how we’d stay to the end to gather up plastic cups for our cupboard. (I first learned what a flask was collecting cups.) Back home in Alabama, we’d tune in to the powerful WLAC 1510 AM station out of Nashville to hear Commodore broadcasts on Saturday nights. When Lynn and I lived in Nashville after seminary, Dad got season tickets for my brother-in-law and me and him to attend home games together. We’d joke that we were there to see the other SEC teams play—my brother-in-law is an Alabama fan with Vandy sympathies. But what kept us going back was the hope that the next game, the next season Vandy’s fortunes would turn and we’d be there to see it. “Hope springs eternal on West End,” as the Nashville locals say.
Following Vanderbilt football has probably taught me some things about hope. But more so about loyalty. I think that’s why I put it as an “Interest” of mine on my resume ten years ago. I was trying to indicate that I’ve learned the qualities of loyalty and resilience and tenacity, and to some measure I have to credit Vanderbilt football with that.
There’s a lot about fandom I despise and reject. It brings out the silliness and boorishness in people, and too many hang too much vicariously on the shoulders and legs of 18-year-olds. In Alabama college football has crossed over into idolatry.
But I think being a Vanderbilt fan has in its own way made me a better pastor. You can’t be a pastor if you have no stomach for setbacks and disappointments. And like some of Vandy’s teams, the church has seemed to me at times incapable of winning, hopelessly outmatched, and even unworthy of my loyalty. I’ve tried not to love her. But I can’t. She’s part of my heritage. And I thank God often for this now.
I had hoped sometime during my tenure in Memphis that Vandy would get a Liberty Bowl bid. Kind people in my church made sure I was given tickets. Vandy’s opponent is a very good Cincinnati team. I thought of dressing up for the game like John the Baptist and carrying a large placard with “DEFEAT CIN!” on it. Clever, yes? But then my 11-year-old and her friend would be mortified, I’m sure. So I’ll just wear my hat with the star and the V. And I’ll wear my heart on my sleeves.