Now, some 13 years and a few thousand stories later, I still am amazed every time I walk onto the field on Friday night at how fresh every new season feels. There is just something about the beginning of a new football season that holds a strange sense of renewal for me. I’m sure it is the same with the athletes who strap on the pads and race onto the field to the sounds of the band and cheering fans. It’s a feeling that never gets old.
It’s funny how some 42 years after I walked off the field as a player for the last time, I can still recall what it was like to line up against the opposition and listen for the snap count. I can still remember how it felt when a play went well and unfortunately can still feel the disappointment when it didn’t.
I suppose my point is, the guys who will line it up on Fridays this fall will be making memories they will never forget, even though they may not yet realize it. It is my sincere hope they make the most of their time between the lines and make as many good memories as possible so one day they may look back and smile, and wince, and sometimes even try to forget.
In the 13 years I have been stalking the sidelines at Polk County, Walker Valley, Bradley Central and Cleveland I have seen so many things change while they remained the same. While the basics of the game have remained constant, the changes surrounding the game have seemed constant. Coaches have come and gone, players have come and gone, along with fans and countless hours of travel.
In 2001, Walker Valley was in the process of stepping up into a new classification and looking for an identity. Now, the 2014 version of the Mustangs is looking once again to find itself and change what has been a recent culture of struggling on the gridiron. How many times have we heard a coach say, “I think we are headed in the right direction?” And yet that is exactly what Glen Ryan has at Walker Valley, a team heading in the right direction.
There is a different feel in the Mustang camp this time around. Whether that feeling will translate into wins has yet to be determined, and whether this is the year Ryan and the Mustangs push back when they get pushed will be interesting to see.
Derrick Davis at Polk County is looking at things a bit differently this time around. Gone are the running backs the size of Clydesdales who carried entire defenses on their backs. To be sure, someone will step up to fill the giant workhorse shoes for the Wildcats but it will be interesting to see how things pan out as Polk goes for its sixth straight District 5-AA title.
Over in Bear Stadium, Damon Floyd will no doubt have the Bears ready to play. Floyd has lifted the Bears out of a few dismal years but he won’t be satisfied until Bradley returns to Cookeville to play for another state championship.
Down at Benny Monroe Stadium, Ron Crawford’s bunch has some high expectations staring them right in the face. The Blue Raiders have not enjoyed the same success reached during the days of the back-to-back-to-back state championship days, but made an impressive run to the semifinals last year.
At Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, the hope of the Big Orange Nation is on the rise yet again as Butch Jones, in his second year as coach of the Volunteers, leads team 118 onto Shields-Watkins Field, against Utah State Aug. 31.
Expectations are again high for the Volunteers.
Perhaps a bit too high.
Jones also has the Volunteers headed in the right direction, but it may be a bit early to presume a run for the Southeastern Conference championship — or even the Eastern Division title. It could be very likely the Vols will come up against Florida at 2-2 after hopefully winning the opener against Utah State and game two against Arkansas State. Oklahoma and Georgia will provide a large measure of where the team stands before the Gators crawl into town on Oct. 4.
I don’t want to say it is a “must win” for Tennessee but the Florida game has to be close to it. The Big Orange Nation fairly demands it.
But then there is reality.
The Volunteers’ roster includes 51 players in either their first or second year in Knoxville. There are only 11 players with 10 or more career starts. Although the 2014 recruiting class undoubtedly upgraded the roster, many of the 32 newbies will be forced to play right out of the gate out of simple necessity.
The 2014 season will hinge on how fast the new guys mature and learn to play Southeastern Conference football. It’s pretty much that simple. The Volunteers will not challenge for the SEC East title in my opinion, but neither will they be the same team that Volunteers fans have suffered with the last few years.
Once again, 2014 is a new beginning. We can only hope it will finally be the end of the beginning and the beginning of a return to the top.
Richard Roberts is Sports Editor for the Cleveland Daily Banner. Write him at email@example.com.