It all started under the shadow of a field goal post.
There I stood, pacing in a sticky Georgia night, a pack of Skittles picked up from the concession stand stuffed in my back pocket, a reporter’s notebook clenched in hand.
Josh Woodward was a few feet to my left, pointing a video camera toward the field. Danny Parker patrolled a couple yards away, swinging around a camera accompanied by a lens nearly as long as my arm.
In front of us all, Elliot and Evan Berry – twin brothers of former Tennessee great and current NFL standout Eric Berry – cracked pads under glowing lights. The next day we were off to Sanford Stadium.
It hit me that night, standing right there in that moment.
“What an amazing experience,” I recall thinking while trying not to smirk.
Little did I know I’d be forced to share a queen-sized bed with Parker that night in some remote hotel just outside Atlanta, but, hey, I survived.
That night was nearly two years ago now, which seems impossible. Parker and Woodward let me, then a wide-eyed junior in college just trying to figure it out, join them to help cover the Tennessee-Georgia game.
I’ll never forget it. But if that experience was “amazing,” I don’t know what word best describes my first season covering the Vols as a full-blown member of the InsideTennessee team.
But it doesn’t matter what word I’d go with – incredible, astonishing, unbelievable, whatever – there are so many great memories and stories from my first season and it would be a crime if they went untold.
My favorite, for reasons I don’t quite understand, happened during one of Tennessee’s bye weekends.
Parker and I decided to use the time to trip to Atlanta to see then-Vols commit Kevin Mouhon and other prospects.
In his usual rigid and programmed way, Parker sent me a text Friday morning with our strict travel agenda.
“I’ll pick you up between noon and 2 p.m. We leave no latter than that,” it read.
So, 5:30 p.m. rolls around and Parker pulls up to my driveway, smiling with Justin Timberlake likely blaring inside the rented sedan.
Anyhow, we hit the road. Our sights set on Norcross, Ga.
Once we arrived, I took a post on top of the pressbox to film and Parker worked the sideline snapping photos. We met on the field as both teams finished swapping hand slaps and “good games.”
“Interview the coach,” Parker said.
Easy enough, I thought. Consider it done. Just one question.
“Which one’s the coach?” I asked.
Now, Parker may tell the story differently, but trust me his version is wrong.
He lifted his arm and waved an extended index finger vaguely across the field, the path of his point crossing over several gentlemen.
He must have been pointing to that guy, I thought, looking at a roundish man dressed in a coach’s polo.
I approached the man, hand extended for a shake and began the usual spiel.
“Coach, my name is Riley Blevins, I’m with InsideTennessee and Scout.com. You mind sticking around after you address your boys?”
I was greeted by a blank stare. The man’s jaw dropped. His eyes opened wide. It was utter confusion that bordered sheer panic.
“Umm, yeah, that would be, wow, I’d be honored,” he stammered. “I’d be glad to, but, you sure? Me? Really?”
Parker’s voice soon hollered in the background.
“No! Not that guy – that guy!” he yelled, followed by yet another vague point.
So, I sprinted to another dude – coach’s polo? check. Play sheet? check – and started again. This looked more promising.
“Hi, I’m Riley Blevins with Scout.com…” yatta, yatta, yatta.
Great. Another expression like a deer in headlights.
“Me?” he managed. “Are you sure?”
Don’t worry. The third time was a charm. I finally found the elusive head coach. And the interview went fantastic, absolutely super-duper. It couldn’t have gone better.
Actually, I can’t remember how the chat went at all, but I’d like to imagine it was the best interview of all time after all that effort and awkwardness.
Oh, the memories.
But that’s just one story ¬– one that got brought up several times on long road trips to faraway stadiums and campuses, and one that I’m sure will be recalled again as we travel to bring you the best coverage this offseason.
There are countless others just like it.
This season, I saw a future SEC football player fall to his knees, pound the turf with a closed fist and cry uncontrollably. I’ve been hung up on more times by recruits than I can count on both hands. I’ve been yelled at during an interview and smacked on the butt during another by a 300-pound three-star.
I’ve been told to “go back to where you came form and never return” along with other kind comments after selecting Vanderbilt to top the Vols in our staff picks.
There have been long nights, early mornings and way too many Applebee’s stops than I’m proud to admit.
But still, it’s all been, well, amazing. And it’s these stories that make it so.
There’s the time I dashed to the airport to meet Parker and hunt down official visitors as they departed Knoxville.
Rushing to get there on time, I realized just as I pulled into the parking garage that I forgot to put in contacts or bring glasses. Not good.
So, I sat on a bench, thinking every blurry, semi-large figure that walked through the automatic doors was a recruit.
Finally, I found Dontavius Blair.
After the interview, I sat back down and started typing away. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Parker flailing his arms, like he had fallen overboard and was struggling to stay afloat. He was interviewing Owen Williams.
I sprinted to him to find out Williams committed. Apparently, Parker had been trying to get my attention for a long, long time. But it’s hard to read lips when you can’t see farther than three feet in front of your own face.
Along the journey, I’ve interviewed so many different athletes. Each experience different from the next.
I’ll never forget a particular chat one scorching September afternoon.
“So, what do you think about the Vols?” I asked.
I was greeted, much like those random assistant coaches I talked to at Norcross, with a confused gaze.
“The Bulls? Well, man, they be classic, you know? M.J. and all ‘dat,” the recruit began. “But I is a K.D. (Kevin Durant) dude.”
“No, no,” I interjected. “Tennessee.”
“Titans? Nah. I’m more a Steelers guy, bro,” the recruit said.
Yeah… the interview didn’t get any better from there.
It’s hard to believe the season is officially over – from the last game in November to National Signing Day.
There’s the time I was told by a source that Tennessee had “absolutely no” interest in a prospect only to have him commit a few days later.
Actually, that’s actually happened more than once.
Or the time Parker and I were the last ones to leave the Commonwealth Stadium pressbox at around 3 a.m. I came up with the genius idea that we should just suck it up and make the three-hour drive back to Knoxville right away instead of spending the night.
An hour-long break at Steak ‘N Shake, several stops to prevent my contacts from crusting to my eyeballs and we arrived when most people were getting up to go to work.
A rookie mistake, yes, but why’d Parker listen to me anyway? His fault. He should know better.
After all this time, I’ll still never get used to filming Insider Reports. Parker and I have the same brief conversation before each one.
“So, Danny,” I always start, “what do we want to talk about? Let’s do some planning. Any ideas?”
“Nope,” Parker would say as I stood in front of the camera. “Just hit record. We’re live. Welcome to another edition of Insider Report…”
It’s yard to believe Year 1 is over. The journey covered roughly 1,400 miles, spanned five states and resulted in more than 150 articles produced. It was exhilarating, tiring, educational and fun all rolled into one.
But the most exciting part about it all is that I know it’s only the beginning.
Take a look at my first attempt at an Insider Report following a rain-soaked open practice at Neyland Stadium.