In 1998 Tennessee won a national championship. Good, yes, but not why I'm remembering it at this moment. It's because it was also John Ward's last year announcing the games. Since before I was born - and especially in the days before cable - your only option on most Saturdays was to listen to John Ward announce the game on the radio.
He was one of the all-time best. And you eventually learned, after listening to the radio and then later seeing a replay on TV during the news that night, that he was quite good at extending the drama and increasing the suspense. To hear it on the radio it would be "Tennessee has the ball and it's down to the 20... the 15... he's still on his feet at the 10... scrambling to the 5... 4.... 3... 2... 1... Give... Him.... Six.... Touchdown Tennessee!" Of course, in real time, had you been watching it live on TV, we scored back when John said we were on the 15. But we didn't care.
Early in 1998 John Ward announced that he would retire at the end of the season. Most of my family attended the last home game. We knew there would be some acknowledgement and ceremony to honor Ward's last home game, but we didn't know what it would be. It turned out that instead of the marching band, the halftime entertainment was Kenny Chesney performing a song he'd written for the occasion. And, while my lack of love for Mr. Chesney is no secret, it was a heartfelt tribute. At the end of the song he looked up toward the press box and pointed to John Ward. John stood and waved at the crowd and spontaneously the 100,000 or so fans sitting in the stadium waved back.
Super-cheesy? Perhaps. But in my big coffee table book about the history and traditions of Tennessee football (What? You mean you don't have one in your living room?) I usually can't get past the chapter about John Ward. I can never not read that section and yet when I get to the end and the description of his last game I am always too choked up to continue and just function under the assumption that the rest of the book is good as well.
I tried to find an audio or video clip of John Ward that would embed but no luck. I did of course find the Kenny Chesney song. Here it is. Never doubt the lengths I will go to or the suffering I will endure for the love of my Vols.