In January of 2009, I made what I considered to be a very important trip to the Michael’s art supply store. At age 38, and for the first time in my life, I bought a shadowbox.
Then I went to Party City and bought a necklace made out of miniature bronze-colored footballs.
What brought on this sudden bought of craftiness?
Vanderbilt had just beaten No. 24 Boston College in the Music City Bowl on New Year’s Eve. It was the Commodores’ first bowl game in 26 years, the first time they’d won one since 1955. This was an achievement worthy of commemoration, worthy even of battling the congested post-holiday traffic around the strip malls of Cool Springs.
When I got home, I printed out miniature color reproductions of the game program and the front of the Tennessean sports page from Jan. 1. I found a schedule card (with cornerback D.J. Moore on front), my game ticket (Section 234, Row H, Seat 6), and a lapel pin featuring the teams’ helmets resting atop the bowl logo. I printed out several pictures from the game. My friends – most of whom I had met 20 years earlier during my freshman year — looked cold but happy (as did my father-in-law, a lifelong Vandy fan). I glued all these items in the shadowbox and wrapped the football necklace around some concealed pins. For good measure, I included a photo of my wife, Alison, and me standing in front of the smiling faces of Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso and Chris Fowler (on the side of an orange bus) from when ESPN’s College Gameday had come to campus for the first time that October, when the Commodores beat Auburn to improve to 5-0 and climbed to No. 13 in the national rankings. The football world seemed upside down. Back when I was in school, the Dores won just three games my freshman year of 1988, and that turned out to be more victories than my sophomore and junior years combined.
Now, 10 years after putting that shadowbox together, I’m greeted by it every day when I get to work. Sitting atop my desk, it’s a reminder that what once seemed an impossible dream come true is now a regular occurrence. When Vanderbilt takes the field at NRG Stadium in Houston to face Baylor in the Texas Bowl on Dec. 27, it will mark the Commodores’ sixth bowl appearance in the last 10 years. After just three bowls between 1890 and 2007, that has to be one of the most remarkable turnarounds in college football. This new reality sure is a lot more fun, but there was something extra-special about that Music City Bowl 10 years ago, when decades upon decades of frustration were erased on a frigid Nashville afternoon.
Mitch Light, class of ’93, recalls that he began to have doubts if Vanderbilt would ever advance to a bowl game when the Commodores came close with five wins in 2005 and 2007, especially after starting 4-0 in ’05. If Vandy couldn’t make it with a rare talent like Jay Cutler at quarterback, was it ever going to happen? After the Commodores’ 5-0 start to the ’08 season, it looked like there might be another heartbreak, with the team losing four straight games. But a 31-24 win at Kentucky on Nov. 15, 2008 made Vanderbilt bowl eligible for the first time since 1982.
Light was home in Bellevue watching on television. He debated whether to wake up his four-year-old son, Gabe, and tell him the good news, but thought better of it and let the boy sleep. But he did jump on his computer, celebrating by making his first-ever Facebook post.
Alison and I were visiting friends in Huntsville, Ala. that night. In my shadowbox, there’s a picture of us smiling in front of their TV. We made the Spayds rewind their DVR to the point where Commodore players were dumping a Gatorade bucket onto head coach Bobby Johnson, an historic moment frozen in time.
Vanderbilt lost its final two games after that Kentucky win, and when postseason matchups were announced, VU was assigned to the hometown Music City Bowl. After 26 years, the Commodores were going bowling. But there would be no road trip to sunny Florida. Just a three-mile bus ride downtown. Initial disappointment faded away when it became obvious that thousands of out-of-town alumni saw this as a chance for a special kind of reunion, returning to Nashville to celebrate an achievement most had never seen.
Back in 1991, during Gerry DiNardo’s first year as Commodore coach, I joined a group of friends for a road trip to Baton Rouge. Vandy almost beat LSU in Tiger Stadium, a last-minute goal-line fumble ending the upset bid, but what I remember most is standing shirtless throughout the game with a giant black and yellow “A” on my chest. We spelled out GO VANDY that night — rearranging to O DANG when the Dores messed up — and made a pact that if we ever went to a bowl game, we’d do it again. One can pack on a few pounds in 17 years, and 20-degree temperatures make sweatshirts and jackets really appealing, so we decided against the chest-painting on Dec. 31, 2008. But we did pose together in the same order up in Section 234, and again later that night at a post-game victory celebration at the old Da Vinci’s pizza place on Hayes Street.
Shirtless or not, ask anyone who was at the Music City Bowl what they remember most, and they’ll tell you it was the chilly weather. Theron Corse had decided to walk to LP Field (as the Titans’ stadium was known then) from his house on Forrest Ave. in East Nashville, and with every passing block, he regretted the decision. Sophie Moore’s boyfriend gave her bowl tickets for Christmas. Even though she had bronchitis, she wouldn’t have missed the game for anything, huddling with her friends throughout the late afternoon to keep warm. Erin Dugan was a freshman member of the Vanderbilt Dance Team. Her classmates had been called “spoiled” all year, the first class to live in the brand-new Ingram Commons, starting the season 5-0, Gameday coming to their front yard. But now she felt anything but spoiled. Her feet were cold and numb and she stood so close to the sideline heaters her shoelaces melted together. Up in the stands, Lisa Uiberall shivered with old college buddies who had driven in from Arkansas, Virginia and Georgia.
Fant Smith, class of ’92, could only wish he was freezing along with his Commodore brethren. Instead, he sat in the toasty comfort of a restaurant in Gatlinburg, unable to shake free from a pre-planned family trip to the mountains, just praying there’d be another bowl he could attend someday.
The game itself was bizarre. Freshman quarterback Larry Smith made the first start of his career. The Commodores committed no penalties. Vanderbilt’s only touchdown came when Sean Richardson recovered a Brett Upson pooch punt that had bounced off a Boston College player. Upson, the junior punter, was named the game’s Most Valuable Player. How many times do any of those things ever happen? Then again, for those of us who believed it would take some kind of divine intervention for Vandy to make a bowl game to begin with, the improbable seemed only fitting.
When senior kicker Bryant Hahnfeldt hit a 45-yard field goal (his third of the game) with 3:26 left in the fourth quarter, and when Myron Lewis intercepted a Boston College pass with 1:36 remaining, a 16-14 victory was clinched. Bill Trocchi, class of ’93, immediately called his sister to celebrate. As a Boston College alum, she wasn’t too happy to be on the receiving end of the first Vanderbilt bowl victory taunts in more than 50 years. Uiberall pointed in Upson’s direction and chanted MVP, MVP! Willy Daunic headed home to help his wife Erin prepare for their annual New Year’s Eve party, this time with extra cause for celebration. A few days later, Nashville Sports Council official Dave Harrell carried out his usual duty, distributing bowl money to each university. In this case, he just drove across town.
“I remember vividly walking into David Williams’ office and officially handing him Vandy’s payout check,” he recalls. “It was easier to just deliver than mail, plus it was a great memory, saving on the stamp.”
Ten years later, the people who were there remember the game – and what it represented – in different ways and for different reasons. Corse, now an associate professor of history at Tennessee State, remembers it because he has never been to another football game since. Katherine Klockenkemper, a student at Hume-Fogg back then, remembers the stocking cap and hoodie she’d gotten for Christmas and wore to the game. Daunic recalls the bowl appearance as a turning point in what it means to be a Vanderbilt football fan. No longer do fans wallow in gallows humor, commiserating over tales of excruciating defeats. Instead, they expect bowl appearances, yet still appreciate them.
A decade later, former Commodore wide receiver George Smith is reminded of the game every day, and still feels immense pride. Smith’s now a thriving citizen of the new Nashville, living with his wife and two sons in the house they built in Brentwood and working in downtown real estate. A photo of the Music City Bowl trophy presentation hangs in his living room, as does a framed jersey. Just being a part of that game was an achievement he’ll never forget for so many reasons. Smith was a sixth-year player that season, a team captain. Athletes often talk about overcoming adversity, but nobody’s overcome adversity quite like George Smith. As a freshman, he suffered from a rare condition known as transverse myelitis and was paralyzed from the neck down for nearly two months.
Two years later, after working his way back to health and onto the field, he was celebrating a victory over Richmond at an on-campus party when he attempted to break up a fight in a dormitory and was shot in the arm by a non-student gunman.
Again, he worked his way back to the field, only to suffer from a stress fracture in his foot that plagued him the entire 2008 season. But nothing was going to keep him off the field, and there was no greater joy than playing in – and winning – the Music City Bowl.
“I remember feeling like we weren’t just satisfied to be there, but to also remember what it took to get there and to enjoy it,” Smith recalled. “We were playing in a bowl game for the first time in who knows how long, and we all realized it was a special moment. As captain, my message to the guys was that for many of us, we’d never play in another football game the rest of our lives. Enjoy these moments. Look at the guy next to you and lay it on the line. When we won that game, there was nothing but hugs and tears of joy in that locker room. It was a validation for all the days and nights and weeks of extra work we put in when nobody was watching, and nobody believed in Vanderbilt. We were just ecstatic that we had done something nobody else before us had done for decades. I can look back now and say we were part of changing the culture at Vanderbilt, going from a team that won two games a year to one that consistently goes to bowl games. That is a huge story I’ll be able to tell my sons someday.”
I imagine it’s a story I’ll tell my kids someday, too, when they ask why I have a shadowbox commemorating the 2008 Music City Bowl. Vandy goes to bowl games all the time, they’ll say. What was so special about that one?