In the heart of Knoxville, overlooking the Tennessee River, is a place considered sacred by thousands of Vol fans. On a perfectly sunny Saturday in the fall, Neyland Stadium’s enormous brick columns tower over the thousands clad in orange, hoping to witness the Volunteers best a longtime SEC rival. A young boy attending the game with his father looks up at the colossal structure, and after shaking a player’s hand during the Vol Walk, an instant bond is formed. An elderly man and his wife climb up the never-ending ramp to their seats, which they’ve held tickets for since the Eighties. Each person in attendance has their own account of how their fandom began, but only the tried and true know the story of how Neyland Stadium became the revered coliseum we know today.
Construction of Shields-Watkins Field in 1921, photo courtesy of UTSports.com
In 1919, construction on Shields-Watkins field began, after University of Tennessee trustee Colonel W.S. Shields donated the funds necessary for the school’s first football field. It was completed in 1921, and that fall Tennessee hosted Emory & Henry for the first game of the season, winning 27-0. Since then the field has maintained the name Shields-Watkins, but the stadium itself was renamed Neyland Stadium in 1962 after beloved coach Robert Neyland, who took the Vols to a record-breaking 173 wins and four national championships.
For many, Neyland Stadium is synonymous with its checkerboard end zones, which play a large part in the Vols’ branding today. While they weren’t implemented until 1964 under Coach Doug Dickey, the concept for the checkerboard end zone came from a story of Coach Neyland yelling at his players,“Don’t stop until time runs out or until you reach the checkerboard – and once you get there, get there again!” The checkerboard that Neyland referred to, however, was an engraving on the top of Ayres Hall, on the Hill. These days, you can find the orange and white checkerboard on everything from campus buses to banners, and of course, in Neyland Stadium. It has become one of the most iconic UT traditions, and a means of easily identifying Vols from a mile away.
On October 4, 2014, in a game against the Florida Gators, Vol fans created a checkerboard pattern in the stands of Neyland Stadium, and the tradition has been continued in the seasons following.
Traditions such as the checkerboard, running through the T, Smokey, and the Vol Walk set Tennessee and Neyland Stadium apart from other SEC Programs. Today, it is a gathering place for people bonded by an incessant love of Peyton Manning and a hatred for anything and everything houndstooth. It is a place which turns deafeningly loud from the first snap of the game and doesn’t cease rocking until the final second. It is a place where old Vols are greeted with thunderous applause upon returning, and magic happens on fourth downs. Most of all, Neyland Stadium is home sweet home.
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