KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It’s more than five hours before kickoff of the Tennessee-BYU football game on a sunny, broiling Saturday afternoon in early September and a fleet of boats are moored on a dock on the Tennessee River, a few hundred yards downhill from legendary Neyland Stadium. 

These vessels, which come in all types and sizes, festooned in Tennessee orange, are known as the Vol Navy, a flotilla of University of Tennessee football fans that congregate for every home football game. It’s a long-standing tradition and a unique atmosphere in college football.  

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Some boats arrive in Knoxville from various parts of Tennessee via the river while others keep their water crafts docked at Volunteer Landing throughout the season. As many as 200 boats show up for the biggest games of the year.

The Vol Navy is a convivial, close-knit community that welcomes friends and strangers alike. These fans share hugs and laughs and conversations. On one large boat, a live band plays soft rock music. And there’s always plenty to eat and drink before a game on Rocky Top.

One of the proud members of the Vol Navy, Jason Soss, who hails from Chattanooga (112 miles from Knoxville), is hosting a floating tailgate party for 20 people on his 40-foot mini-yacht that is named “The Hot Soss.” 

While his boat is only two months old, he’s been participating in this type of tailgating almost all his life. 

“It’s just an instilled family tradition. I started coming to games with my old man when I was probably 6 or 7 years old, about 35 years ago,” Soss says. “My father’s been coming to games since he came to Knoxville, about 60 years ago. I bring my wife and my kids and I’m passing this on to them.”

Many of Soss’ childhood memories are wrapped up in Volunteer games. Maybe that explains why he invests so much time and money to celebrate his Tennessee fandom. It’s not just a game — it’s an experience. It’s an escape from work and life’s problems, a chance to bond with others. 

“There’s only two places in the United States where you can bring a boat to the game, dock, tailgate and walk across the street to the game,” Soss says. “If you can do it, it’s certainly worth being able to do.”

After the BYU game, Soss slept on his boat overnight before returning home in the morning. 

Many college football fans all over the country, like Soss, spend their Saturdays tailgating — though almost everyone else does it on dry land — attending games and reveling in the pageantry of the sport. 

The previous week, Tennessee suffered a stunning loss to Georgia State. Yet Soss and thousands of other Vol fans turned out again to watch their beloved team, which wound up suffering a heart-wrenching loss to BYU in double overtime, 29-26.

Among the sea of orange that attended the game (announced attendance was more than 92,000) was an estimated 13,000 royal blue-clad Cougar fans. Among them was Dennis Nuckles of American Fork and his 22-year-old son, Cade. They flew from Salt Lake City to Nashville, with two layovers in between, and made the two-and-a-half-hour drive to the Knoxville area, arriving at their hotel late Friday night.

They witnessed the Cougars’ thrilling victory, then were stuck in traffic trying to get out of the Neyland Stadium parking lot for about 90 minutes. They drove back to Nashville and took an hour-long nap in the airport before boarding a 6 a.m. flight home. Upon landing down, Dennis Nuckles left the Salt Lake City airport and drove straight to Idaho on a work trip.

“I couldn’t even see straight when we landed in Salt Lake,” Nuckles said. “But it was well worth it.”

This kind of devotion and loyalty to a college football team may seem extreme but not to Diane Roberts, a professor at Florida State University and the author of the book “Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America.” She has extensively researched the connection between fan culture and the human condition. 

Roberts explains it has to do with the inherent need for belonging — and belonging to something bigger than oneself. People tend to attach themselves to an organization or cause that helps them understand their identity.

“We’re hard-wired to do this because for some reason we are hard-wired to be tribal,” Roberts says. “I like to call it tribalism. It’s very hard to feel noticed and to feel part of something in this very fractured culture, as we sit here staring at a screen. But you can feel that if you’re in a stadium with 80,000 other people, shrieking the same thing. If you’re at Michigan Stadium, you feel like you’re part of something enormous and important.”

Yes, tribalism is alive and well in college football. It features, among other things, iconic stadiums, fight songs, marching bands, fierce rivalries, recognizable logos, war chants, hand signals, color schemes and live (and costumed) mascots. All serve one purpose — to unite the tribe. 

Roberts says as a young girl attending Florida State games, she identified herself as a Seminole before anything else. 

“This helps us figure out who we are. I am who I am because I’m not like those people down the road. I wear these beautiful colors and they wear those hideous colors,” Roberts says. “We’re not talking at all about rationality here. People like to organize themselves into groups.”

That’s why Roberts wrote a book about this phenomenon. 

“We’re being told that the country has never been so divided. People divide themselves up according to not just politics and religion but also in other ways. All of these are markers of tribalism. I thought college football beat the country to all of this 150 years ago. This is not new, it just hasn’t been noticed in that way,” she says. “We dislike the people in the next town. In my case, it’s Gainesville. Gainesville, home of the University of Florida, and Tallahassee, home of Florida State, are very similar towns. They have very similar universities.

“Florida looks just like FSU and the two towns have a very similar population. If you weren’t from around here, you wouldn’t know one from the other,” she continues. “And yet we hate them and they hate us, even though we are them and they are us. This is something humans do. It’s very peculiar.

“It’s like in medieval churches when everyone was illiterate, you knew that the saint that had those colors and that sword, you knew which saint that was. It’s the same thing. We understand who people are in college football culture by their colors and logos and general affiliations. It has something to do with where you went to college but a lot of people don’t go to college and that doesn’t stop them from picking a team.”

Roberts used to teach at the University of Alabama and it was easy for her to observe one of the cultural customs in the state. Instead of saying “Hello” when Alabama fans see other Alabama fans, they say, “Roll Tide.” Auburn fans greet other Auburn fans with “War Eagle.”

This is what fans do. 

“Those are two of my favorite examples,” Roberts says, “because they are just so weird.”

Some may think over-the-top fandom is bizarre — it will be on display Saturday in Provo when No. 22 Washington comes to town — but nothing will stop passionate college football fans from following and representing their teams.

Nuckles and his family select one BYU road game a year to attend. 

“I would call us BYU fanatics but also college football junkies. We always try to pick the marquee teams and stadiums,” he says. “We’ve been to USC, UCLA, Washington, Texas, Michigan, Nebraska, Tennessee. We want to see BYU play the biggest teams in the most iconic stadiums.”

It’s a continuation of what he did as a young boy. His family’s vacation every year involved attending the Holiday Bowl to watch the Cougars play. They’d load up the van around Christmastime and drive to San Diego. 

“I would say some of our best memories are going to BYU games,” Nuckles says.

Sitting at Neyland Stadium with his oldest son was the latest memorable road experience for him. Nuckles also enjoys rubbing shoulders with other BYU fans from around the country. 

“It’s fun to be part of a group of people that have a common passion for something. We find it very satisfying getting to know them and other fans, who they are and why they are there. There were people who were members of (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) with no ties to the state of Utah,” he says. “There were people that were alumni of BYU and they were craving the chance to see their team in the South where they live.

“You almost feel like you’re part of a fan fraternity going to those road games. I like the us-against-the-world mentality, too. You’re sitting in a stadium and 90,000 people are against you and there’s a small minority that are cheering for you. It increases your level of intensity and passion. You know you’ve got to be loud for your team because there’s not many of you.”

Back on the Tennessee River, in the Vol Navy, Soss soaks up the pre-game atmosphere. He plans to keep his boat in the marina and take it back to Chattanooga when the season is over. Before the game, Soss welcomes visitors experiencing the Vol Navy for the first time. 

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“We love having BYU fans here and there’s a lot of southern hospitality,” he says. “We welcome anybody to come have food and drink with us. It’s a good time.”

But he and his fellow Vol fans probably wouldn’t be as hospitable to, say, fans of rival schools like Alabama or Florida or Vanderbilt. 

For Soss, it’s all about his tribe and a decades-old family ritual. 

“It makes for a great afternoon, a great family tradition and a great tradition with friends,” he says. “We’ve known all these people here in the Vol Navy for a long time. We’re lucky to be able to do this.”

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