Vanderbilt defeated Tennessee 42-24 yesterday, for a joyous ending to an otherwise lamentable season of losing football for the Commodores. With its high academic standards, Vanderbilt has never been a power in football, especially among the behemoths of the Southeastern Conference. And yet for decades its teams have drawn an unusual band of lifelong followers. I wrote about these people several years ago for “Vanderbilt Magazine,” and now is perhaps a good time to re-publish it.
Toward the end of the Vanderbilt/South Carolina football game last week, with the Gamecocks firmly in control, the stands began to empty and the sparse crowd began to thin. Most of the people who remained seemed loyal to the point of unconsciousness. As I gazed across the field toward the alumni section, in the growing gloom of the overcast afternoon, the expanse of dull gray metal began to grow as the vanishing spectators left the stands and entered the dark tunnels into their lives outside. All that remained after a while were isolated gatherings of indistinct people dressed in the paling yellow of their Vanderbilt shirts and jackets. These people would hang on until it was time, too, for them to go.
I have wondered about these people, now that I am one of them. I have watched them over the years entering the stadium in their yellow garb, but I have never detected much open excitement in their voices. They speak quietly and politely with each other as would befit attendance at a solemn or serious occasion. I have seen aging, wiry men who still carry themselves as men who might have been athletes fifty years ago, when they were young and bright of eye and Vanderbilt was a winner. And I have seen very old people staring raptly ahead toward the stadium, being helped along by younger friends or family members who know how much this means to them. They are a touching group.
What distinguishes them is an ageless suffusion of light in their eyes. They seem pilgrims who care nothing about the cost or the pain of their journey. They are not here because they expect Vanderbilt to win, but because they believe perhaps a miracle will happen, something beyond expectation, but not beyond their tireless imaginations, something unseen by anyone before, something these people want to be present to witness.
They have seen it before, in fiery glimpses– in ‘69 against Alabama and in ‘82 against Tennessee– and in the minds of these pilgrims those wins might have been just last week, so vivid and immediate are their memories. Even so, the wait for something larger and more permanent at Dudley Field has been long. Maintaining faith has been hard.
There is something magical about Vanderbilt football. How can a team compile a losing record every year for 18 straight years? Robert Service might call that a spread misere in the desperate hands of Dangerous Dan McGrew. Yeats might suggest that some portent of the millennium was slouching toward Dudley Field, as yet unborn and unsuspected: could an entire generation of losing augur a shift within the planetary arcs of the SEC– a crack at the center of the gyre? The prospect is compelling because the price which has been paid is so high. And so we wait, in quietly wild surmise.
The students do not feel this power yet. They have not experienced the slow tread of insistent failure, year after year, from one decade to the next. Maybe they think there’s plenty of time left to begin winning– but there isn’t. Maybe they think it doesn’t matter– but it does. Maybe they think they can remain indifferent– but they can’t. They will become like the rest of us in time.
My undergraduate indifference was formed early when I began taking my books to the games to study– really! There was always plenty of room, and the atmosphere was usually peaceful. The sight of the Parthenon over my right shoulder inspired my study, and in a reassuring way it put everything happening on the field into its ephemeral perspective.
I have tried to maintain that perspective through the years, but I can’t; for I love Vanderbilt, and I love those boys who run out week after week to collide with a fate that only young men could presume to change. The rest of us know that we will not change Vanderbilt, and we glance askance at each other as the final quarter wanes, wondering at the power which defeats us but keeps us clinging to our seats. “That which we are, we are,” Tennyson said, but at some visceral level we also know that somehow, obdurately, intractably, and probably foolishly, we are truly “one equal temper of heroic hearts” and lifelong fans of Vanderbilt.
As I watched the remaining yellow-clad spectators hanging on in small clusters against the growing gray of autumn and the emptying stands, I felt a sudden warmth and thought of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73:
“That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang …”
and I caught fire at the beauty of these people and their lives. They are our Yellow Leaves. You see them every fall at Vanderbilt. They are the natural cycling of our seasons.