IN WHICH a 41-year old Commodore supporter finds out that you can go home again, as long as you bring 30,000 of your closest friends.
I've told this story before, but I'll say it again: the first time I heard of Vanderbilt was in Gardendale, Alabama, in 1982, at a Hardee's overrun by fans in black and gold seeking sausage biscuits on the way to the Hall of Fame Bowl. Stanford (with John Elway) was meant to be the opponent, but Cal put paid to that, and instead the Air Force got the better of the Dores that day, the first outright loss in a bowl game for the Commodores and their last bowl appearance for 26 years.
Clearly, we had unfinished business in the 205.
To me, this was even more of a home game than at Dudley Field. We probably had the Houstons outnumbered 10-to-1 by game time, but even before that - whether it was the packed house at the Rogue Tavern for the call-in show or at Dreamland on Friday night (when there were fully four Anchor Down cheers in the three-quarters of a mile back to Five Points on the shuttle) or in the NCC tailgate tent where they had to pull the sides off to fit everyone in - this was a full house for Vanderbilt. When we finally got the icing touchdown in the 4th quarter, I actually got a good chunk of section 40 to join in the sarcastic chant of "WE DON'T TRAVEL (clap clap clap-clap-clap).
The game itself? If I had to sum it up, I'd say that everything went to plan: try to run out to a big lead and then sit on the ball until it hatches. For whatever reason, Houston cracked the code of our pass defense; after being one to two schools to go all season without giving up a 50+ yard pass play, we coughed up two in that third quarter. And the running game kind of choked up for a bit before shaking loose down the stretch. I give lots of credit to Patton Robinette, who once again had to go in knowing there was no help coming behind him if anything went wrong, and to Brian Kimbrow, who turned in easily his finest performance of the season and one that augurs well for his future.
On the way out of Legion Field, my companions and I were adamant: "Martha, stroke the check." And one passerby yelled "We don't need Martha, we got all the damn dollars!" Well, if we do, I hope we're spending them, because we are living through the greatest age of Commodore football in almost a century. We're doing things I would never have thought possible during those 26 years of wandering in the desert. Even when we did break the seal in '08, it was in the most Vandy manner possible: run out to a 5-0 record, blow it, get one win to sneak in, then win a 16-14 game where we played almost as perfect as we could and the punter won the MVP. Hard to get more Old Vandy than that.
Because what we have now is a team that can blow a three-score lead, sag against the ropes, spit out the blood, and say "is that all you got?" before swinging back hard with the knockout blow. We have a departing senior class with more wins than losses, and a junior class that with anything other than a complete collapse will almost certainly shatter the school's career wins record next year. We delivered a bowl game its second-highest attendance total, with an overwhelming proportion of our own fans packing the house. We were loud, we were big, we overcame adversity and got wins. We were everything this team and this program didn't use to be.
What I saw on Saturday in my hometown was the Ghost of Vandy Yet To Come. And I asked "Spirit, are these the shadows of things that will be, or shadows of things that may be only?"
And I swear I heard that ghost answer "Who ya wit?"