SEC Football Stadium Accessibility – Volunteers at University of Tennessee, Knoxville Do it Right!

It was a long weekend at the mining site, resulting in departing home on an early Saturday morning instead of Friday afternoon as we were accustomed. We were tired but after our third flight the beers were flowing, as were our spirits. Single at the time, I did not mind being stuck in any city on any given weekend. Big Sexy AKA Alex and I were sitting at a Toronto, Canada airport terminal sports bar enjoying great conversation and some college football whilst awaiting boarding flights to our home bases. Mine was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Big Sexy’s in Nashville, Tennessee.  All the sudden, out of left field, an invite came from Alex: “Come to Tennessee for a game?” Wait! What?!

Immediately rebuffing Alex’s attempt at being a polite Southern gentleman, inviting me down to his neck of the woods, the South, for a SEC college football game, I smiled. And I am a Vols fan too. Hmmm, could it be true? Alex stated: “I assure you in Tennessee we are sincere, if we make an invite it is authentic, it is real. None of that sugar-and-spice, all things nice you find in some other Southern States.” I told Big Sexy that his reply sounded more like sugar-and-spice than ever before. He laughed as he said “Come on down and see for yourself.” At the time Alex made the invite we were working for DeBeers diamond mines in the far north of Canada as management consultants.  Much had changed.

Seven years later, a book about meeting an express train rendering me a quadriplegic published, Alex once again brought up the idea of going to a Vols game.  By this time in my recovery I was comfortable attempting attending a college football game, and all it involved. But the dates just could not work. One year later, a new friend, also in a wheelchair, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in conversation made an invite to attend a LSU Tigers game. After quickly figuring out her invite was traditional ‘Southern spice’ – also known as BS – it was back to square one. Then a text arrived from Alex. He found a game date, and would it work for me? I replied I was in Europe for summer, would check schedule and advise.

Two weeks later, my summer and fall starting taking shape, and it appeared the weekend Alex wanted to finally see a Volunteers game together, I was free. But I would have a friend joining me. Alex did not mind as he had three tickets and was happy to break another SEC fan’s cherry by attending not only his first SEC college football game, but also his first Volunteers game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville – home to the 4th largest college stadium in the US, seating capacity 102,455. The finer details still needed to be worked out. For now it was on – me and a friend would be venturing down south to Tennessee to see our first SEC game at Neyland Stadium. We were thrilled to the brim at the idea of the trip.

A few weeks before the game I inquired with Alex to see if our seats were handicap accessible or not. I was aware that Neyland, a very old stadium, has some parts dating from early 1900s, thus making accessibility a potential issue.  Our seats were not accessible, in fact. An idea came to mind. Alex, don’t worry about seating, I will call the Athletic office to see if they can find us some nice accessible seats. I will do a story on the stadium and my experience Doing The Dirty Dishes of life, attending a game there in a wheelchair.  He loved the idea. Well, it turned out, UT-Knoxville did as well. Now, instead of sitting in the nose-bleeds, we were front-and-center, end zone, first row, pro-gratis.

Originally I wrote a letter to the Assoc. Dir. of Athletics for Communication, Tom Satkowiak. He put me in contact with a Manager in event coordination, Angie Doyle. She put me in contact with someone at the ticket office – “Will the ticket man,” self-described, and super helpful. Tickets sorted, not a minute passed, and Angie fired off an email with all the information specifically needed for handicap parking, and direction to special handicap accessible buses that would shuttle us to the stadium.  It was quickly becoming clear I was dealing with a momentous event of serious proportions that would take proper planning and execution. It was also clear the level of professionalism of all UT-K staff was a step ahead.

Angie momentarily sent an email with descriptions of many types events, activities and other pertinent information leading up the game. We would have to arrive early. Early as in 8am or so! I had heard SEC fans liked to party early before noon games but did not think they were serious. Oh yes they were. We arrived at the stadium early that morning, the streets already buzzing with activity. It was fixing to be a hot day too, according to the forecast. We followed Angie’s directions, parking at the Agriculture Campus, where they had a special lot reserved with over 120 parking spots. And it was free, too. Bonus at a time when parking can exceed forty dollars, beers fourteen dollars, etc. at events.

The school’s athletic department has a ‘Game Day’ page where fans can find out upcoming game time, critical updates of any kind, along with stadium rules and regulations. There is an information tab clearly marked for accessible/ADA seating. There you can find information on parking, entry and seating. For those sitting in the upper levels, please check with the ticket office as you may need access to an elevator, which requires a pass. The website also describes the various game day festivities offered – there are many:  The Vol Walk, Band March, Volunteer Village, Tennessee Park, Kickoff Call-In Show and Tailgate Tennessee are a few of the endless activities offered prior to every home game.

The morning of the game we arrived bright and early, securely parking at the Agriculture Campus. The campus was very easy to find; police and event staff could be found every fifteen feet. Within minutes of parking we were in line for special accessible buses that would take us to the stadium. Only ten minutes passed before we were approached, given wristbands to enter and exit transport buses, and readied to board. Since I was traveling with a friend from home, Joe, and a friend from Nashville, Alex, we would need room for three. There was never an issue, at any point – the staff was always more than accommodating. Within thirty minutes of parking our car, we were off to see our first SEC game.

As we embarked on the short drive from our parking lot to Neyland Stadium, excitement was in the air, palpable on the bus and extending well beyond to the endless throngs of people outside, all slowly making their way to the stadium. There was no lack of tailgating everywhere, food and drink abound. They were not joking – it is serious business in Tennessee.  As long as you were wearing orange you were welcome to eat and drink as much as you liked, you were treated like family. Every direction you turned someone in orange was ready to offer a smile, beer, burger or laugh. The hospitality of the people of Tennessee is real – it can be felt.  Finally, fifteen minutes later, we arrived at the stadium.

Luckily we were dropped off close to the ticket office and also gate we needed to enter stadium. As there were large crowds of people gathering near the entrance I asked Alex to please sort out the tickets. Five minutes later Big Sexy appeared with three seats in Section Y9, Seats 4,5,6.  Ready to go, a polite event supervisor approached to inform us of a special medical entrance that would allow for a more convenient way into stadium. Everywhere we turned there was a fan or staff ready to help, incessantly offering any assistance they were able, always with a big Tennessee smile. We followed his directions and minutes later entered the stadium. The excitement in the air could be cut with a knife.

Game time close, Alex, the polite TN host he is, offered up first round of drinks.  At the same time, a gentleman from the main gate following us, two chairs in tow, lead us to our seats. As we entered a blinding sea of orange came upon us. They sat us in the best seats in the house, with amazing views of football play and fan shenanigans, on all sides. John, the host of our section, a Yankee originally from Michigan, had his house in order. The whole game he made sure we had a clear view of the field, as did fellow fans. It was as if we were being treated as VIPs, though we were in all orange and bought a seat like everyone else. Tennessee really knows how to make a couple first-timers feel incredibly welcome.

As could be expected, as with pre-game activities, there were a number of other great Volunteer traditions in order as time to kickoff approached  closer. Only recently had they started selling alcohol at the stadium, resulting simply in higher levels of fanaticism.  Though I am not too sure the fans needed much help. Somehow I couldn’t imagine counting the number of eggs and beers breakfasts served. Oh, with sausage biscuits and gravy, of course. The band began playing on the field – the anticipation of kickoff looming larger. Soon the Field Commander entered – closing out his five-star performance as the band split into a “T” – allowing team to enter field through “T.” All the while, Rocky Top played aloud.

There was no lack of delicious food or drink on the first floor main concourse for purchase. Bathrooms were plentiful; one never a far distance.  Within thirty feet walk of our seats there were two bathrooms, both with handicap accessible stalls.  Thankfully I was spared testing the facilities, though they looked amazingly clean for a stadium that sits over 100K fans. John was the consummate host, always checking in to see how we were doing, seeing if there was anything we needed.  He served as a great photographer as well. A magnificent time was had by all. The game was spectacular; the seats even more so. The fans were the nicest I have ever encountered at a stadium. And we won, double bonus!

Leaving the stadium was just as easy as entering – right in front. We exited the same gate as we entered and within minutes were in line for accessible shuttle buses returning back to the Agriculture Campus.  Fans were orderly and polite, lending a smile or joke whenever possible. The Vols had just won a game after the worst start to a football year since 1988. Fifteen minutes or so and we were being loaded onto a bus to take us back to our car. The bus driver tied me in, asked me if I needed anything, and we were on our way. It took no time at all to make it back to our parking lot. A few minutes later we were exiting the campus, entering highway on our way back to Nashville for two more exciting days.

The system they have in place in Knoxville for football games is meticulously well thought out. Bus lanes and pedestrian walkways ensure one quick access throughout stadium grounds. Event staff can be found as easily as a Southern Baptist Church on Sunday. There are no lack of signage or clear directions on flow of pedestrians and traffic. The stadium was entirely accessible, a totally stress-free experience. The food and drink offered were more than adequate. The staff working inside the game was more than helpful, always willing to lend a hand. Our greatest thanks and gratitude goes out to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville – all their staff, players and fans. We had an unforgettable experience. Thank you. Go Vols!

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