Ben and Luther took their Monday lunch like most Mondays, at the Cracker Barrel where the Cosby Highway meets I-40, just a couple of miles south of downtown Newport. The topic of conversation was pretty much what it always is, on Monday or any other day – Tennessee Vols football.
They had been friends since grade school. Both played on the Cocke County High School football team – Ben was a big ol’ defensive tackle and Luther a swift little halfback. Both were pretty decent at football, but the same couldn’t be said for their Scarlet and Black Fighting Cocks, who finished 3-and-7 their sophomore and junior years, and if it wasn’t for a particularly galling tie against Maury, they might have had the same record for three straight seasons. It didn’t matter because they were the best of friends doing together what they loved doing. Not surprisingly, no colleges came knocking for their athletic talent, which would have been their only chance for a college education. Their high school grades weren’t much to talk about.
Luther Owens is a mail carrier at the post office near the high school. His house isn’t too far away; he’d chosen to stay in town to work and raise a family. His daddy worked at Stokely-Van Camp, and his granddaddy worked at the Stokely Canned Tomato Company before the merger with Van Camp. Luther being on the quiet side, and an only child, wanted to do something different with his life, so he got a federal government job in Knoxville. Bright lights, big city. It proved a bit too much in the way of pretty much everything, so Luther made his way back to Newport, married a farm girl from near Del Rio, and settled into working at the town’s main post office. Before he knew it, he’d been carrying the mail for well over 30 years.
Ben Jarvis owns a string of convenience stores in the Newport-Greenville-Rogersville area, and had done pretty well with his money, enough to own a house on nearby Douglas Lake near the Banberry Golf and Country Club. It was also enough to have become a regular donor to the UT Athletic Department. He wasn’t what might be called a major booster, but he figured it was in the cards if he played them right. It got him to fulfill a dream of sorts – rubbing elbows with the real movers behind Big Orange Country. He’d come a long way from the son of a deputy sheriff who’d been arrested and convicted on charges of extortion and bribery when the crackdown on the local moonshining, gambling, and cockfighting really got cranked up. Ben was getting ready to enter high school when his life caved in on him. His grandparents took him in, but it wasn’t long before he was getting in trouble by doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Football was his saving grace; the discipline gave him something to focus on, and he loved to take his rage out on offensive lineman and quarterbacks from Greenville, Church Hill, and Rogersville. After high school, he worked in a convenience store up by Greenville, did well, got promoted to store manager, and when the owner died from smoking too many cigarettes over a too-short of a lifetime, Ben found himself overseeing a dozen stores. Eventually, he came to own them all, and made enough money to put his three girls through college. Although none of them went to UT, he was proud of them nonetheless.
That was saying a lot. UT football was in the very fabric of the Newport area, just like a lot of little dying towns up and down the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. When Ben and Luther were in junior high school, they’d hang out around the downtown barber shop and listen to the game broadcasts on WLIK. The shop owners even kept their store open on a September night when the Vols traveled all the way to the Los Angeles Coliseum to play a night game against UCLA so that the locals could listen to the play-by-play on the signal from WNOX in Knoxville. There was some pretty serious drinking going on around the back during the second half, but Ben and Luther listened intently to every word John Ward uttered, describing the gargantuan stadium under the floodlights and the richness of the powder blue and pale orange jerseys. They were hooked for life.
Over forty years later, Ben and Luther were at the Cracker Barrel reminiscing about that night when their imaginations had been carried all the way to California. They were also reveling in the recent news that Florida’s head football coach, Urban Meyer, had resigned and was replaced by Will Muschamp.
“You just can’t go out and hire a guy who’s never been a head coach, Luther, not at a school like Florida.” Ben loved to talk about people who he thought didn’t know what they were doing. “That Jeremy Foley f*cked up when he hired that idiot who’s now at Illinois to replace Spurrier, and look what he’s done, Luther, he’s done gone and f*cked up again! I love it!”
“I guess you’re glad Tennessee couldn’t hire Muschamp last year and the year before that, then, huh.”
“Luther, let me tell ‘ya something. We f*cked up with Kiffy Poo. But if we’d hired that Muschump instead, we’d probably not have Dooley right now, and Dooley is the guy to take us to the f*ckin’ promised land. I’m tellin’ you, man, Dooley is the deal. THE DEAL.”
Luther was not enamored with the hiring of Dooley, and it didn’t matter that Dooley had been a head coach and an AD at the same time. Nor did it matter that Dooley had the bloodline. Ben had been all behind the Dooley hiring from minute one, but Luther was convinced it was because Ben was trying to make everyone, including himself, forget that he’d been goo-goo over Hamilton’s hiring of Kiffin. Luther had a mind of his own – he was more than willing to give Dooley the time to rebuild, but he didn’t buy into Ben’s proselytizing. He’d rather have had a bigger name, like the guy from Utah or Air Force.
“Well,” said Luther, “I just hope we can beat the Tar Heels in Nashville. I ain’t looking forward to listening to my wife’s cousins go on and everything about how North Carolina beat Tennessee. I just wish they’d stay over in Weaverville for New Year’s dinner instead of coming to our place. Man, I was hoping for Georgia Tech or Clemson for this bowl game.”
“Luther, you gotta grab challenges by the f*cking balls and twist them until you succeed. You WANT to play your cousins’ state school because you WANT to kick the sh*t out of ’em. Hell, if I thought like you, I wouldn’t own half of the convenience stores in the surrounding three counties. You sound like Hamilton, that squirrely-assed accountant that calls hisself an AD. Hell, I wished we play the Alabamas and Floridas every goddam weekend!”
Luther had listened to this hyperbole for years. He was convinced it came from when his daddy was taken to jail for protecting the local criminal element back in the late 60’s. He knew it was just self-preservation in action. He also knew the best way to put a stop to it was to talk about what the two of them would do together in the upcoming weeks.
“Can’t wait for the trip to Nashville, Ben, we’re gonna have a helluva time.” Luther and Ben hadn’t missed a Vol home game for more than ten years, and they’d even gone to at least three road games together for each of the last fifteen years.
“Me too, Luther. Ain’t nothing like traveling to see the Big Orange, man. We got good seats, too, on about the 40, no more than a half way up on the lower deck. Gonna be colder than a witch’s tit, though. You know how it gets in Nashville. Gets colder than sh*t. Speakin’ of cold, man, did you read how Vandy sh*t all over themselves trying to hire Gus Malzahn from Auburn? Christallmighty, they don’t even have an athletic department! F*ckin’ private school prickheads; have to be f*ckin’ different and sprinkle it over everybody else like it was some kind of f*ckin’ holy water or somethin’. That Vice-Chancellor David Williams just did nothing but throw up all over hisself over this one, Luther.”
Ben kept flash cards in his desk drawer, each with the name of each of the ADs, assistant ADs, head coaches, coordinators, position coaches, all for each of the SEC schools so that when in the presence of a booster, or even his long-time friend, Luther, he’d sound as if he was in with the in-crowd. Luther thought to himself that if Ben knew Williams was black, then he wouldn’t have stopped there.
“Yea, I love it when Vandy just does what it does best, Ben. LOSE!”
Luther and Ben had a big cackle. And, when they were done, they got up from their mostly-eaten breakfast-for-lunch and put their hands on each other’s nearest shoulder and walked to the parking lot.
“Come on out to the lake and we’ll do up some brisket and watch some NFL this weekend, big buddy.” Luther’s wife loved going out to the lake and putter around with Ben’s wife while the men watched their football.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way, big fella'”, answered Luther.
After all, they were just like brothers.