Meeting General Neyland
First off, that’s not General Neyland in the pic. I will gladly share with you precisely why I posted a pic of someone other than the General himself as you read this column, my friends.
More than a few of my friends are diehard University of Tennessee Volunteer football fans. Although I do generally root for the Vols whenever and whoever they play, I wouldn’t qualify as “diehard”. Yet, at least somewhat of a fan I am. Maybe just the fact of being born in East TN automatically injects at least a trickle of “Big Orange” into one’s blood.
For those who are truly diehard, completely orange-blooded University of Tennessee Volunteer football fans - just to bring up the name “Neyland” in their presence is to tread on holy ground. I’ve noticed that when such fans/friends even speak of “the General”, their voices takes on somewhat of a sacred tinge. And I’ve heard more than a few say they would love to have met him.
Indeed, Robert Neyland, Sr., is often referred to by UT football loyalists with great reverence and respect as simply, “the General”. It is a title well and duly earned, for this man was far more than “just” a Hall of Fame football coach. He did actually attain the rank of brigadier general, while serving in the US Army. The General just happened to also become the man who served the longest time as head football coach at UT - and still holds the record for most wins in school history. His teams had six undefeated seasons, nine undefeated regular seasons, and four national championships. At UT, the General reeled off undefeated streaks of 33, 28, 23, 19, and 14 games. (Please remember these streaks of undefeated games in particular, my friends, as their significance will be made more clear later on in this column). 112 of his victories came by shutout. And if you don’t know a hill of beans about college football, my friends, just take it from me - these are absolutely unparalleled achievements.
But my main purpose here is not to write specifically about the General, whom I never got to meet in person. My purpose here is to primarily write about the General’s eldest son, Bob (pictured above) and two of his grandsons, Reese and Blake, all of whom I knew personally.
I first met the General’s eldest, Bob, one spring day in 1967 when I was nine years old. Bob had inherited the all-business (but still very comforting and kind) demeanor of his more famous father. The General’s son was coaching a team at Avoca Little League, as he did for several years. It seems his team either won or competed for the league championship every single year. Like his father, Bob took great pride in being a good coach. I remember passing by the dugout just before we played his team the first time that spring. Not a single boy was saying a word. You could literally hear a proverbial pin drop. All eyes were trained on the General’s son, who was actually talking quite gently to his team. I remember this fact surprised me most of all. Somehow I had expected a much harsher tone to his voice.
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