Tusk to Tail: It was Rocky, but the Hogs came out on Top

From the Plains of Auburn to the swamps of Gainesville, the merry band of Arkansas Razorbacks fanatics collectively known as Tusk To Tail have pre-gamed in the finest and most hospitable venues the American South has to offer. And now we can say we’ve tailgated a Tennessee parking garage, too.

It wasn’t ideal. After all nothing compares to being on a sunny college campus as rows of tents and SUV’s line up like colorful dominos on a field of kelly green grass. But this weekend Mother Nature was casting a Frank Broyles-size shadow over Rocky Top, Tennessee, threatening to drop as much as 2-inches of rain on college football fans. So with the Hogs and the Vols seemingly caught between a hurricane and a hard place, Tusk to Tail sought shelter.

Frankly, we’d all come too far to let a few (million) raindrops get us down. The central Arkansas team, piloted by Craig May, piled into a rented mini-van Friday morning armed only with their wits and an eight-hour Phish compilation disc (“Two songs,” according to Mark Wagner.), while the Northwest Arkansas crew driven by Dale Cullins trekked more than 700 miles for the rare Arkansas visit to Neyland Stadium. They brought along with them a tailgater’s playground: tents, a flat-screen TV, a generator, chairs and tables.

The only questions were where would they go? And how wet would they get? As the team met up at 8 am on game day the decision was made. Knoxville’s Main Street Garage would be our staging ground. And it turned out to be the perfect choice.

Located at the intersection of Locust Street and West Hill Avenue in downtown Knoxville, it offered spectacular views of  both the Tennessee River to the south and the Sunsphere to the west, plus easy access to the stadium less than a mile away. We set up shop in a corner of the garage leading from the 5th level to the roof, which allowed us direct access to an open area between rainstorms. As the kids tossed a football there, the adults went to work setting up a fully stocked bar, dialing in the satellite to SEC Game Day, organizing chairs and food tables, and of course hanging the colors of both Tusk To Tail and

Remember how your dingy high school gym was transformed into a visual paradise for the senior prom? A group of 40-something tailgaters from Arkansas recaptured that magic in an unlikely spot in Knoxville.

Hope and Jeff Laman drove in from Atlanta and showed up with incredible barbeque from a Knoxville favorite called Dead End BBQ. Their slogan is “The Search Is Over,” and in this case there is truth in advertising. Succulent pork, mouth watering chicken, smoky sausage. It was the real deal. And what’s more the owner told Jeff he was catering the Razorbacks’ post-game meal. On a gloomy day, that news seemed a good omen.

The showers came and went, steady for a few hours at a time, but they never put a damper on the party.

Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey was given a prominent spot on the bar given the circumstances. But it did little to undercut the popularity of the ever-present Firefly Sweet Tea vodka or our impressive mash-up of domestic and imported beers. (Where else but in Dale Cullin’s cooler do Stella Artois’ and Heineken Light’s co-exist so casually with Michelob Ultras?)

As our group grew to 30-or-so-strong we drank away the day and consumed much college football, reveling in Kliff Kingsbury’s own “ass kicking” at the hands of Baylor and marveling at Alabama’s thrashing of Georgia in Athens. But we knew those games were just a warm up for the main event down the street. A grudge match to decide whose season would go belly up the first weekend in October, and who would live to fight another day in the SEC.

While no one gave the order, we all seemed to realize the time had come to change into full rain suits and go. We checked ourselves and our children, and after an obligatory group shot of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky the party wrapped up and into the streets of Vol Nation we went.

Neyland Stadium is truly a wonder. A beautiful facility with a rich heritage in college football. The Checkerboard end zones, the sea of orange, the singing of Rocky Top – it’s what the SEC is all about. Other than a college-age concessionaire who threatened to withhold my french fry order because I wasn’t wearing orange (she eventually relented) the Vol fans were welcoming and gracious. The Tennessee Band even played (a slightly under-tempo version of) “Arkansas Fight” on the field during pre-game festivities. And when the Vols ran through their “T” the stadium exploded.

I don’t have to tell you what happened next. The 95-yard kick return. The 14-0 deficit. It started off bad and got worse for the Razorbacks. It appeared we were in for another dreary performance on the field to match the dreary conditions in the skies.

But then Drew Morgan happened.

And Alex Collins happened.

And Rawleigh Williams happened.

And for the first time in a long time things started to go right for the Razorbacks. And the 5,000 or so Hog fans in Neyland could feel it.

Sure the defense was shaky at times. Yes, a few passes sailed high and wide into the fifth row of the end zone. A few decisions by the head coach didn’t work out, and many would trade poor, young Cole Hedlund for Max Headroom if it would improve the kicking game (Son, don’t aim for the back of the center’s head.)

But despite it all there we were in the end. Wet, tired, hoarse, and singing “Oh Lord, It’s Hard To Be Humble” with the Razorbacks players and band, Bret Bielema’s first SEC road win in our back pocket.

For me, the win was extra special. As I told you in last week’s preview this was the first Razorback game for Owen, my 10-year old son. The two of us flew into Knoxville together Friday night from Philadelphia. He shed a few tears leaving his mom at the airport, but by the time we made it to the gate he was ready to go. He hopped out of bed at 7 am for the tailgate and had a great time meeting my friends and playing with his young cousin, running through the rain and laughing at stories of football games past. He probably heard a few words I hope he won’t repeat, and he stayed up well past his bedtime. But the experience he had at this tailgate and this game, the experience we had, is something neither he nor I will ever forget.

In the 3rd quarter when Alex Collins scored a touchdown he turned to me with his face beaming and shouted “WE’RE WINNING! YEAHHHHHH!” And for the first time since late in the Houston Nutt-era, I had tears in my eyes at a Razorback football game.

And that’s what this is all about. Our state. Our family. Our friends. The times we share and the memories we make.

We’ll be doing it all again next week in Tuscaloosa. And I can’t wait.