On Saturday, I believe I saw the Colosseum.
Morgan and I arrived early with the rest of our pilgrimage companions: their banners proud and orange, flapping proudly in the chilly Knoxville air. Too cold for it to be smoggy. Clergy-by-association stood along the streets crowded with decorated car windows and hashtags written in orange glass paint, holding signs: "Stadium Parking $35 - NO BLOCK IN," "1 TICKET," "Donate to the Marine Walk fund."
I took the advice I'd been given: park early, even if it costs. Given what I saw later, the $20 it cost me to dock my car without headache was, to say the least, minor. All part of the tithe, I suppose.
I'd estimate that we were ten blocks or so away, which wasn't terrible by any stretch, but the entire walk was surrounded by people - an undulating ant colony of Orange, peppered with infection spots of Kentucky Blue, like leprosy. The local coffee spots and bars were slammed with last-minute pre-gamers who couldn't get close enough to tailgate.
I, of course, had no idea where we were going, but that's not a problem on Game Day. A person may not know, but a person is insignificant in the shadow of the almighty Stadium; a person may not know, but people, drawn by some psychic, spiritual magnet, do. Follow the current. Let go of control. The Stadium will find you.
We crested a hill and watched Neyland rise over the buildings obsuring it from the middle of the city. Around it there were no roads, just people. Shuffling zombies. Penetants meditating on the Tao. The winding circles of those on their Hajj: step by step approaching Mecca.
Student-age workers were shouting announcements incoherently into bullhorns; Morgan and I found a line to enter the colossal Neyland arches, to pass the massive red brick. We were patted down, granted entry. First step: the sacrament.
Petro's: loaded chili; everything you could want to keep you warm. Sour cream, cheese, fritos, jalapenos... and orange sweet tea. Everything is orange at Neyland.
It's very clever the way that Stadia are laid out. Numbered spokes lead to the center of the giant machine from the circular foyer/ambulatory. These spokes rise gently, so that as you look down them, you see nothing but sky, and only by walking up do you realize what it is they hide. At Neyland, this is what we saw as we entered gate Y7:
A vibrant, green, real-grass field surrounded by salt and orange-rind pepper. Layers of decks like the sliding folds of an accordion towering up, framed by alien spotlights and sky, sky as much as you can see. Huge gulps of it. No buildings, no poles, nothing so much as wires to obsure it, so that those in the bowl know only the bowl. The whole world is the competition between 20-year-olds who have people write their papers for them and take classes like tap dancing so that they can continue to play as long as possible. What's outside the stadium is out-of-sight, out-of-mind, for it doesn't matter for the next few hours. Nothing to distract the Lay from the coming order of worship.
An invocation. Salutes. The spectacle of marching bands, of trained dancers, of a deluge of reminders as to why we had paid exhorbitant ticket prices that day: to see the face of the almighty. The University. The Big Orange.
When the service began, it followed a quite prescribed order of worship, though we were not handed bulletins with it printed. Calls to stand worship were frequent, and ranged from the traditional, reverent ("I wish that I was on old Rocky Top") to fits of passion, demands for revelry and raucous, wild displays of out-of-body connection with the mob ("Third down for what?") [Related: somebody really needs to tell Lil' John the number of yards to go for a first down, because that man NEVER pays attention].
The duration of the service was quite clearly specifically designed to be devoid of silence, to banish any opportunity for "personness" to a place and time far from the reaches of the Stadium. In the Stadium, we are not person, we have no ego; we are people, fans, shouters who shout when told to shout.
The names of the saints were flashed in front of us whenever we could be reminded of them, to keep our focus on the storied history of the state Religion: Manning, Summit, Jones. Amen.
During TV timeouts, they were inspirational films based on the passion of the Vol way of life; in fact, being a Vol is life. Renouncements of the faith would be met with jeers and boos, with certain excommunication from the promises of life with Butch Jones. You'd be disconnected with the team - Tennesee-made-flesh, for whom the place erupted when they first emerged, triumphant, exuberant, celestial through the "T" formed by flesh and blood. "It's great," we chanted - our ohm - "to be a Tennesee Vol."
Neyland Stadium is a place of marvel, of wonder, of indescribable spectacle, of reverent passion, of self-abandon. It is Purpose. It is church. Indeed, it is no longer religion that is an inhibitor of free will or of personal choice, it's a group of people starting The Wave at an SEC football game.
Tennessee Football is a religion down here. In some cases, it is the religion down here; church is just somewhere you go the next day. It's certainly more a religion than that of the Baptists or Presbyterians - it is the endgoal of Pilgrimages, the occasion for fervor, the recipient of the unshaken faith of its orange-clad practicers, of passionate expressions of corporate worship. Neyland is not a building or a Stadium, but a house of the gods. Pantheon and Colloseum, all at once.
It is what we survive our weeks for, it is what we watch the clock at work for, it is what we discuss when we're through with what we have to do. We get fed it in small enough doses to keep us looking for the next hit, and when it comes, it placates us for the afternoon, allows us to sleep soundly because of the cadence of the band flooding through our turf-stained veins.
Opiate of the masses, some might even say.
When our smartphones have failed to extract the last bits of silence in our lives, when reality televion has failed to distract us from the slippery reminders of death and hardship not caught by the blocks of radio pop and loud advertisements, we must fall back on that which makes vast promises about eternal youth.
The faces and names will change but the ability of those wearing the Orange-and-White will constantly improve; through football we will remain young forever.
You can relive your college days for as long as the Games go on - wear the same frat clothes, gulp the same cheap beer, shout loudly about an afterparty at the bar down the road to celebrate victory or commiserate over defeat, and endure your week until you can do it again next Saturday.
And before we know it, we've successfully drowned the silence in mid-week recaps, we've erased our friends' phone numbers in our memory banks for statistics, we've learned the names and hometowns of the starting offensive line instead of learning the names and occupations of our neighbors. We've analyzed everything about the game with subscriptions to premium sports channels except, perhaps, the way that it affects us - or why we feel so relieved when another fight song starts playing and we can finally, gloriously, connect with something bigger than ourselves.
But I'm probably just reading into it.