Deep in the Appalachian Mountains of northern Tennessee stands the last great colosseum in the world. Rising nearly 200 feet out of the ground, this massive stadium has rich southern culture and racing history dating back to the 1960’s. Known as the “World’s Fastest Half-Mile,” this track has seen victory, tragedy, and madness over the past 50 years. But on September 10th, Bristol Motor Speedway didn’t hold a NASCAR race. The second-largest stadium in the U.S. instead hosted the Battle at Bristol: the biggest college football game ever: Virginia Tech vs. Tennessee. 160,000 fans.
But this non-conference matchup wasn’t just another game penciled in on the schedule. This renewed rivalry has been talked about and planned for the last 30 years.
Leading up to the summer of 2016, only Hokies and Volunteers knew about the importance of this game. However, the game began to receive major publicity after over 150,000 fans were expected to attend the game — breaking the existing college football attendance record by nearly 40,000 people. In response, some of country music’s most distinguished names started scheduling concerts in Bristol, including Kenny Chesney and Sam Hunt. ESPN’s popular college football pregame show, College GameDay, also made the trip to Bristol to bring more excitement around the event. “The concerts had more of a unified crowd,” explains McGee Roman (‘17), who attended the game, “whereas GameDay had a friendly divide between Hokies and Vols.”
“Both the concerts and GameDay had tons of energy,” claims Connor Jones (‘15), “You could easily tell that the fans were excited to take part in an event that was much bigger than a football game.” And Jones was right. The three-hour game quickly turned into a three-day tailgate for fans all over the country. I spoke with many random fans before the game, including a California native named Ben. “I’ve been going to Cal and Stanford games all my life,” he says, “but in the South, the atmosphere is completely different especially in front of a record-breaking crowd. There are no distractions. These fans live and breathe college football.”
I will never forget the next seven hours after arriving at the Bristol Speedway complex with Colton Jones (‘17). As we entered the West Earhart Parking (which was a endless grass field of SUV’s and pickup trucks), the whole complex was already buzzing with excitement and anxiousness. It looked like the downtown of a major city had been cut out and placed in the middle of a Tennessee valley. It took us nearly 20 minutes to walk from our reserved parking spot to the security gates, passing countless food and clothing vendors miles from the stadium. Waves of Chicago maroon and powder orange overflowed the gravel concourse.
I was speechless as I first walked into the belly of the colosseum. Our seats were in The Allisons Grandstand, Section A-J, Row 36, Seat 5 & 6, which put us about 50 rows below and above the entire Virginia Tech side of the stadium. Many people thought that the view of the field would be an issue, since the stands are so far away from the field. David Kish (‘17) actually enjoyed the overhead view of the field. “I actually liked the view from my seat because I could see the whole play developing without looking around. It was pretty cool watching the quarterbacks scanning the field and the receivers getting open at the same time.”
The actual game, however, is not one that will be remembered by any Hokies fans. After shocking the Vols with two quick scores in the first quarter, the Hokies looked like they could pull off the upset. But the 14-0 lead didn’t last long as Tennessee capitalized on five Virginia Tech fumbles and eight personal foul penalties, scoring 31 unanswered. The final score was 45-24, but I had seen enough by the middle of the fourth quarter to trot out disappointed and embarrassed.
Every kid has a dream to see their favorite team play on the biggest stage in sports. I had just become an adult at this point, but the experience was bigger and better than anything I could ever had imagined as a kid.