Love for the Dawgs goes beyond football, y’all
Third down. Up by eight. But Alabama was almost in…
Five days before the Alabama/Tennessee game, Justin Peach bought an orange suit on Amazon.com for $25.
“Aw man,” I said as I spoke with him on the phone. “I’d be terrified I was jinxing it!”
He chuckled. “I didn’t open it. I had it sitting in the closet. I didn’t say a word about it.”
Then, as he watched Chase McGrath make a last-second field goal to lift his beloved Tennessee Volunteers to their first victory over the Crimson Tide in 15 years, he had a sudden thought: “I sure hope that suit fits.”
Peach, student minister for the Homewood Church of Christ in Birmingham, Ala., stood before the 750-member congregation in his orange suit to make Sunday morning announcements.
“It’s a good morning, isn’t it, Homewood?” he asked. That was all he needed to say.
Yes, I realize I’m a little late getting to this story — much like the offense of my Georgia Bulldogs in that game at Mizzou, who waited until there were four minutes left in the game to take the lead.
Honestly, more than a few Georgia fans cheered for the Vols as they overcame Bama on Oct 15. I wasn’t among them. As a grad student at UGA in the mid-90s, I remember watching in Sanford Stadium as a quarterback named Peyton Manning tore through our defense. We lived under the ghoulish specter of Tennessee dominance for years.
Then came Nick Saban.
Peach, a native of Lebanon, Tenn., has served the Homewood congregation for 10 years.
“We have people at our church who played for Bear Bryant,” he said, referring to the legendary coach who led Alabama to six national championships during his 25-year tenure. Since Saban began coaching at Alabama in 2007, the Tide has accumulated six more.
For a Vols fan, it hasn’t been all that bad living in a sea of Crimson, Peach said.
Why? Because until recently Bama fans have treated Tennessee fans much the same way that all of us in the Southeastern Conference treat Vanderbilt fans, he said. “Aw, bless their hearts.”
“We’ve experienced a worldwide pandemic,” since the last time Tennessee was even competitive with Bama, Peach said. Most of the students he serves at Homewood can’t even remember a time when Bama last lost to the Vols.
I went looking for any church members who were at the game.
At least one member of the Christian Student Center, a ministry of the Laurel Church of Christ in Knoxville, helped to carry the torn-down goal posts from Neyland Stadium to the Tennessee River, I was told.
I also was sent a photo of students from the campus ministry celebrating on the field.
You’d think they had just won a national championship.
(I should point out here that Bama’s previous loss was for a national championship, when the Tide fell 33-18 to the Georgia Bulldogs. The capstone of that victory was Kelee Ringo’s pick six in the fourth quarter. Let’s have another look at that play.)
Back in Knoxville, Rachel Peden and her family savored the Vols’ long-awaited victory. Her family has held seats in Neyland Stadium since the 1950s.
“My grandmother would take the bus and train to watch them play on Saturdays, which turned into my dad going in the 70s and on, then me in the 80s and on and now my kids!” said Peden, who worships with the Hendersonville Church of Christ in Middle Tennessee. She’s a 2002 graduate of Tennessee and was part of the Christian Student Center.
This season her family’s seats were moved after significant renovations at Neyland.
She found the change of scenery refreshing.
“I’ve been waiting 15 years for the Vols to be good again!” she said. “The Bama game was the most exciting game I’ve ever witnessed, and I’ve seen close to 100 games in person. It was just so sweet after enduring so many mediocre seasons, and the victory coming on the last-second kick. All of those years coming down to that one play.”
I asked her if she saw any parallels between her faith and her Vol fandom (because I’m always looking for the faith angle, of course.)
“That one win has completely rejuvenated the fan base,” she said. “My faith is rejuvenated when I attend a night of worship, meet new, like-minded Christians, attend a youth rally with my kids.
“I remember the excitement I had when I was 12. I had just gotten home from a fall retreat and I decided I wanted to be baptized and I just didn’t want to wait another day! We all need to feel that real, genuine excitement from time to time to keep us growing in our faith.”
I also asked Justin Peach if he had any spiritual takeaways from the Vols’ win.
But the minister doesn’t think he’ll be using the win — or the orange suit — as a sermon illustration anytime soon. After morning announcements he changed out of the suit so as not to distract from his friend, Joseph Mankin, who was the Homewood church’s guest speaker. Mankin, youth minister for the Hillsboro Church of Christ in Nashville, Tenn., taught “tech classes” for church members, focusing on the challenges of parenting in the digital age.
Peach had just started serving with the Homewood church when Bama fell victim to the infamous “kick six” play against arch-rival Auburn in 2013. Just after Auburn cornerback Chris Davis returned a failed field goal 109 yards to win the game, Peach got urgent messages from the church’s leadership: “Don’t mention the game! You’re new. They won’t respond well.”
Now, after 10 years of ministry with Homewood, Peach has earned the right to gently rib his brothers and sisters in Christ.
Most of the church’s Bama fans took it in stride, he said.
“We’re just the same,” one church member told him. “I’ve got clothes in my closet I haven’t worn in 15 years, too.”
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