My history with the city of Knoxville, Tenn., goes back quite a ways.
I saw the inside of Kneyland Stadium for the first time from the top of a gigantic ferris wheel my parents forced me to ride at the 1982 World’s Fair.
I’m deathly afraid of heights, and I was traumatized — but not nearly as much as I was the next year when a bunch of orange-clad fans came to Birmingham to see the Tennessee Volunteers beat my beloved 11th-ranked Alabama team, 41-34.
They came in, smacked our guys around and let us know they enjoyed it on the way out the door.
That was probably the first time I realized just how intense the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry really is — and I’ve shared a love-hate relationship with the folks in orange ever since.
That’s one more reason why I was simply floored by the overwhelming hospitality I was shown during the 2019 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods.
Everyone from B.A.S.S. raved about it. But it was especially heartwarming for me, considering I spent the week clad in crimson and white from the eyebrows up.
If you’ve met me in person, seen pictures of me or just glanced at the mugshot atop this column, you know I’m quite fond of my Alabama hat. I’ve got 5-year-old twin daughters who are both autistic — and considering the way they obsessively cling to certain security blanket-type items in their lives, I can’t help but wonder if it’s autistic traits that cause me to cling so tightly to this hat.
The hat has become as much a part of who I am as it is a symbol of who I root for, and the questions when I don’t wear it are always the same.
“Did you lose your hat?”
“Did your hat blow off your head on the lake?”
“Are you in disguise today?”
Once at a formal Night of Champions dinner before the 2016 Classic in Tulsa, Okla., a member of the Bassmaster sales staff actually introduced herself to me.
We had worked together for three years.
I never planned to leave the hat at home when I left for the 49th annual Bassmaster Classic in Knoxville.
But I have to admit, I was nervous.
I was at Legion Field in 1993 when Alabama needed a late 2-point conversion play to force a 17-17 tie with the Vols. That tie broke a 29-game winning streak, and the Vols fans let us hear about it.
I was at Birmingham’s Legion Field in 1995 when Peyton Manning’s Vols jumped on us early and didn’t let up until the scoreboard clock said the game was over.
Again, the folks in orange weren’t kind.
I guess there was a part of me that expected a little of that during this year’s trip to Knoxville — and I guess it’s why it felt so good every time another long list of kind words was spoken.
Everywhere I went — from Yassin’s Falafel House to the Classic Expo presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods to the daily weigh-ins at Thompson-Boling Arena — I saw nothing but smiles and heard nothing but kind words.
I heard some gentle ribbing, but the good people there were so happy to see the Bassmaster logo on my shirt that the crimson and white just didn’t seem to bother them.
I even heard a few scattered “Roll Tides” from people wearing orange and white T-caps.
It was like an episode of the Twilight Zone.
People of all types coming together for one purpose has long been a common them for the Classic. If you’ve been to a Bassmaster Elite Series weigh-in, you know it’s a common theme across our organization.
But I think the downhome southern hospitality I received during Classic week was about more than fishing.
It was about a town full of good, hardworking people who showed hardcore Tennessee class to their visitors.
I’ll never forget that — not even on the third Saturday in October.