Tennessee: Planet Football

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FRANK MURTAUGH
  • Frank Murtaugh
Football is alive and well in the state of Tennessee. As though this needed verification, I gave myself to America’s favorite spectator sport last week, soaking up the experience at three distinct levels — high school, college, and the NFL — in four days. Following are the lingering impressions, the sounds of whistles and colliding shoulder pads still echoing in my ears.

• Last Thursday, along with more than 45,000 fans (almost all of them wearing blue), I watched from the Liberty Bowl press box as the Memphis Tigers won a game that may prove to be the most significant in the program’s history. Surely you know the details by now: Memphis 53, Cincinnati 46. Eleven lead changes, 12 touchdowns, more than 1,300 yards of combined offense from the teams picked to win their divisions of the American Athletic Conference. All in front of a national TV audience thanks to 12 ESPN cameras.

FRANK MURTAUGH
  • Frank Murtaugh

The most significant win in Tiger history? If the University of Memphis aspires to be a member in one of college football’s Power Five leagues, it must develop a national impression as a “football school.” Define this however you will, it’s a far cry from any impression the U of M has made on the country . . . until Thursday night. The Tigers are 4-0 and have won a school-record 11 consecutive games. Should they beat USF this Friday (and they’ll be favored), they’ll host mighty Ole Miss on October 17th in what could be a battle of undefeated Mid-South teams, each eyeing a New Year’s Six bowl game. It just keeps getting better under fourth-year coach Justin Fuente (now 21-20 on the Tiger sideline). Memphis a football school? We’re getting there.

• Friday night, I went to the Fairgrounds to take in the White Station-Bartlett game. (Disclosure: My daughter is a junior outfielder for the Spartan softball team. I had rooting interest.) There’s a corny charm about high school football under the lights, even in a city the size of Memphis. Fans (read: families) of one team sit on one side of the field, fans of the opponent occupying bleachers on the other side. Cheerleaders do their thing in front of the student section, right next to the school band, every member counting the minutes till halftime and their turn in the spotlight. The p.a. announcer takes time to inform the crowd a car in the parking lot has its lights on.

As for the football, it’s charmingly small. Many linemen barely clear 200 pounds. The kicking games are a shallow imitation of what you see in college stadiums. (Every punt is in danger of being blocked, and a 35-yard field-goal attempt is a stretch.) There are no names on the back of uniforms. (“Number 9 for the Panthers is shifty once he gets through the line of scrimmage.”) A week after scoring six touchdowns, Spartan star receiver Dillon Mitchell didn’t play, apparently nursing a minor injury suffered in practice. (Another charm: No one seemed to know exactly why the star player was sidelined.) White Station won, 17-0, to improve to 4-2 on the season. As the crowd left around 9:30 (12-minute quarters are glorious), the win seemed to mean everything. Come Saturday, life’s distractions would return.

• I grew up a Dallas Cowboys fan, and did not attend a single “Tennessee Oilers” game during the one-season layover (1997) the NFL had in Memphis. My interest in the Tennessee Titans over the years has been that of a native and resident of the state, and little more. Sunday’s tilt with Indianapolis at Nissan Stadium in Nashville was my first NFL game since a trip to Dallas in 2007. (This completed a bucket-list achievement of sorts for me, as this is the first calendar year I’ve attended games in the NBA, NHL, MLB, and NFL.) And the experience left me with two distinct impressions.

First of all, the women. If the crowd — more than 65,000 — wasn’t half female, at least 40 percent of the fans at Nissan stadium were missing a Y chromosome. (One of them was new Nashville mayor Megan Barry, sworn in just two days earlier.) For a sport overstuffed with testosterone and traumatic injuries, there is a tremendous segment of “the fairer sex” passionately devoted to the enterprise. Sitting right next to me was a woman at least 50 years old . . . and her mother. Not a man in the mix. I find this compelling because of all we here about dads and particularly moms unwilling to subject their sons to football’s violence. If so, these moms seem perfectly willing to cheer on someone else’s son.

Then there were the video boards. Behind each end zone at Nissan Stadium is what amounts to a television that runs the entire width of the field. The screens are so big, and the images so clear, that it felt at times like the watch party of the century . . . just with 22 men down on the field occupying themselves with something or other. Football, we know, is made for television. Even at NFL stadiums on Sunday.

The game? It was memorable. Making his home debut, Tennessee’s rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota led the Titans to 27 unanswered points after the Colts took an early 14-0 lead. But the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner tossed a fourth-quarter interception that allowed Andrew Luck and friends to retake the lead. Mariota led another comeback, but rookie fullback Jalston Fowler was stuffed on a two-point conversion attempt with 47 seconds left, giving Indianapolis a 35-33 win.

I’m told there was something called a Blood Moon Sunday night. It must have been in the shape of a football.

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