A friend and I were discussing the other day about our favorite days of the year - the days that never disappoint and you look forward to them without fail. This entire conversation was sparked by the NCAA Football 08 release last week, which is always a day for me that simply does not disappoint. This year I took the day off last Tuesday just to play it all day, and I know I wasn't alone.
And there are other days, of course - Christmas, New Year's, fifth Sundays where I get to come home and see friends and family and speak in some old rooms...they're not all sports related, but for me obviously a bunch of them are. Like the night before the Tennessee-Florida game and its Christmas Eve-like lack of sleep. And there's the video game. But one of my favorite days, by far, is that mid-summer moment when I get The Smell.
Now, lots of people don't understand The Smell, and I'll agree that it's difficult to explain. But some of you know exactly what I'm talking about. The Smell is different for everyone. For me it's a combination of grass and smoke, laced with anticipation. To the point, The Smell is the almost-tangible moment where, for those of us who invest way too much of our lives and our emotions in college/Tennessee football, sometime around July or August, when there's nothing but the midseason lull of baseball to dominate the sports world, it's the exact moment when you realize that you're ready - really ready - for football. And yes, it's just as important as it sounds.
Some history: my sophomore year of high school, when some of my friends had gotten their license and we were beginning to get free to be on our own, I remember going with several of them to the high school football jamboree that August. And I remember making the comment about being ready for football season, that I could literally smell it. And one of my friends, as I'm sure most people will do, said that was the dumbest thing he had ever heard of. But someone else instantly spoke up and said, "Dude, I know exactly what you mean." And The Smell was born.
It's grass and smoke for me because, well, football is played outside. But also, aside from a couple years in the student section, I've sat in the same seats at Neyland Stadium since 1985 - Z11, Row 48 on the aisle. And my entire life, the people sitting directly in front of me at the stadium have smoked. As a result, to this day I have a very weird affinity for the smell of cigarette smoke - the while-it's-being-smoked smell, not the aftereffects that stay on your clothes and the walls of your apartment when both of your roommates smoke and makes people look at you and say "where have you been?!" - even though I've never smoked a cigarette in my entire life. It's part of what I associate with Neyland Stadium. It's part of what I associate with what makes me happy. Unfortunately for me and the gentleman that sits in front of me, smoking is now illegal everywhere in Neyland Stadium.
But it's not just grass and smoke, for me, at any old time of the year. It's sometime around now, as baseball drags on but those numbers on the countdown to kickoff are getting lower and lower. And it's never the same day every year, and while there are lots of triggers - the video game, emails about signing up for fantasy football, lots of ESPN and websites - there's always a specific moment that sneaks up on me where I all of a sudden get "The Smell"...and then I'm officially ready for football.
And yes, I know how ridiculous all this sounds. But I also had the same conversation with my friend while she tried to explain to me the differences between shopping the day after Thanksgiving and the day after Christmas, and the way she looked forward to both. And I say good for her. You can't take my joy from The Smell, no matter how stupid it sounds. If you get it, you just get it.
So it was last Friday night, sitting in right field at Turner Field watching the Braves and Cardinals with my sister, while in Atlanta to help her move. At this point the Braves were already up big in a game they would go on to win 10-1, but there was something more going on: 48 year old Julio Franco had returned to the Braves after being cut by the Mets, and this was his first night back. And Julio, of course, was released because he wasn't performing, his average dipping to .200. If the Braves didn't pick him up, no one would. But fortunately for him, the Braves have a Scott Thorman-sized hole at first base.
So the old man comes to the plate and gets the standing ovation he deserves from the home crowd in Atlanta who're all glad to see him back. But after starting 0-1, reality sets in: Julio needs a hit. Not just because it would be nice for the storybook, but he really needs a hit - he's batting sub-Mendoza and needs to prove his worth and hold his place with the ballclub, to help his own psyche, whatever you want to call it - Julio needs a hit.
So in his second at-bat, even with Atlanta already up 5-0, the tension mounts. My sister had never heard of Julio Franco before, but after explaining the situation to her he instantly becomes her favorite player, and she's nervous too - Julio needs a hit.
And there in his second AB, with runners on and the tension rising, while sitting there feeling the personal emotional pull from a sporting event I haven't felt since watching Greg Oden block Ramar Smith's last chance shot in the Sweet 16 some four or five months ago, and everything focused towards home plate...The Smell hit me. And there, watching Julio Franco draw a walk in his second at bat, I was ready for Tennessee Football.
In his next at bat, Julio would smack an RBI single.
So now, it's like all my senses are tuned towards September, even though the calendar still reads late July. Because now you can say things like "Practice starts next week". And now you can look at that countdown and see numbers you can wrap your mind around. Now you can start planning weekends to be in Knoxville and what to say no to elsewhere. Now you know, for sure, that football is knocking on the door...and as I've said before, everything...everything is better in autumn.
37 days baby. 37 days.