Surprise! These Vols stats look pretty good! And my hair is a mess.

5 5 votes
Article Rating

Surprise! Tennessee had 35 first downs, nearly 700 yards of offense, 450+ rushing yards, and 62 points while holding Missouri to 24 in Josh Heupel’s fifth game as the head coach of the Vols. If I knew how to use GIFs or memes or whatever the kids are calling such things these days, this is where I’d insert Chris Farley’s “That was awesome.” Because those three words and a runaway fan-boy/man-crush says more (and more easily) than 800 words of analysis written primarily for the sake of getting a gold star for the proper use of SEO from the Royal Family of Search Engines, Bestowers of Clicks.

Also, Surprise! I am shuffling out of my cave in search of too much coffee due to over-hibernating. I love my new Hatch Restore, and you can set the alarm to go off only on certain days and in certain patterns, but I had no idea that it apparently also has a hibernation mode where it only wakes you up if and when your team scores 62 points. (In case you’re curious about the unfunny reason for my extended absence, a Reader’s Digest version is below the meat of this post.)

Before I fall down the rabbit hole of bear hibernation never to be seen again — did you know black bears can spend five months without eating, drinking, or pooping and never lose any muscle mass or bone strength? — here’s a groggy color-coded look at how the Vols’ national stat rankings right now compare to those at the tragic ending of 2020.

Offense

If that looks wonky on your device, try this link.

Goodness. Either I’m still dreaming or joy really does come with the morning, even when it comes to hibernating bears and football. The difference on offense between now and the end of 2020 isn’t just mere improvement. It’s a remarkable transformation. So this is me, remarking on it. Mark this as remarked upon. Okay, I’ll stop.

High fives: Not throwing interceptions, first down offense, rushing offense, scoring offense, total offense. All of these are in the Top 21. In the nation. The best of these last year? First down offense, for which we ranked No. 50. Scoring and total offense were in the Facepalm 100s.

Attaboys (improving): Third down conversions and red zone offense are no longer things you’re hoping your pastor doesn’t find out, and TFLs allowed and passing efficiency are also better.

Fix this next: The offense is still allowing an embarrassing amount of sacks. Completion percentage is somehow worse than last year, and the passing offense (yards gained through the air) has not actually improved from 2020 yet. But don’t blame the scheme, blame all the early overthrown balls. Plus, the excellent run game may also be eating some of those opportunities. But still, a bit more balance will likely be needed later on.

Defense

If that looks wonky on your device, try this link.

Wait, what? This is happening to the defense, too?

High fives: Tennessee’s defense is in the Top 25 in four categories, including the all-important category of rushing defense. TFLs and interceptions are not only in the Top 25, they’re dramatically improved over last year. The defensive line and secondary appear to be helping each other this fall instead of taking turns punching each other in the face.

Attaboys (improving): Passing efficiency defense, third down conversion defense, and passing yards allowed no longer need disguises to go out in public. They’re not getting stopped for autographs just yet, but it’s nice to be able to walk to the mailbox without encountering protesters. First down defense is also improving quite nicely.

Fix this next: Red zone defense. A defensive unit that is having decent success in other areas of the field is not getting it done when the opposition is within spitting distance of the castle. I don’t know whether they’re changing the scheme when opponents cross the moats or whether they should be changing the scheme at that point and aren’t. Somebody wake up the archers and the folks in charge of the giant cauldrons of boiling tar.

Special Teams

If that looks wonky on your device, try this link.

Odd. SP+ has Tennessee’s special teams ranked No. 18, and it feels to me like they are, in fact, doing quite well. But . . . those numbers are not better than last year. What gives?

High fives: Much of the green on special teams is basically a participation trophy for all of the teams that have merely avoided rare catastrophes when kicking or punting the ball. (There are currently 65 teams tied for first in blocked kicks allowed and 97 tied for first in blocked punts allowed.) So yeah, half-hearted, fly-by high five to you and almost everybody else. Good job showing up.

But actually creating said catastrophes? Those are worth some hearty mutual celebration. Tennessee has blocked both a kick and a punt already this year, so huzzah. Also, punt return defense is Top 25, so keep it up.

Attaboys (improving): Hmm. This chili could use some more cayenne.

Fix this next: Okay, so allowing a 100-yard kickoff return to a team you are otherwise grinding into powder apparently moves you from 48th nationally to 109th. My humble and considered opinion is that we should attempt to avoid doing that in the future.

Turnovers and Penalties

If that looks wonky on your device, try this link.

Penalties. Um, fix this next. All of it. Only two penalties for 20 yards against Missouri is a good start. And look what happened. More, please.

Turnovers. Much of this is better than last year, but still with a lot of room for improvement. Not fumbling the ball is Job No. 1.


Joel, I know you’re not a bear and that you don’t actually hibernate. So, seriously, where have you been?

Well, first let’s talk about the magazine. Unless I’m mistaken, 2021 is the first year since 2009 that we did not publish a print magazine over the summer. The reasons for this were numerous. Among the more notable reasons were (1) a 2020 pandemic edition that lost a bunch of money; (2) a palpable lack of interest in a 2021 edition due to how the 2020 season ended, the looming NCAA sanctions, the massive amount of talented players high-tailing it out of town, and a transfer portal that was changing daily and would continue to do so until July 1. There was so much roster movement this year that it was incredibly difficult to keep up with, and any magazine that published before the transfer portal closed had to be rife with outdated information. Because of all of that, I initially decided about two thirds of the way through to wait until after July 1 to finish and publish.

And then, in May, two things happened that sealed the deal. I can’t tell you one of them because it involves work and it’s somebody else’s story to tell. The other, though, is my story, and it starts on May 15 when I got up in the middle of the night, passed out, and landed head and face first on granite. Two CT scans confirmed a brain bleed, and my heart was in a-fib for several hours before resolving by itself.

Fortunately, the 24-hour follow-up CT scan showed that the brain bleed had also resolved on its own. So, I stayed in the ICU for two days and a regular room for another while they ran a ton of tests. At the end of that stay, everything basically checked out except that I had positional vertigo and generally felt terrible due to a concussion, and they wanted to monitor my heart for two weeks to see if I was going into a-fib regularly without knowing it.

So, when I went home the first time, I thought I was just waiting out concussion symptoms and wearing a heart monitor as a precaution. To close the loop on the heart thing, there was no a-fib or any other irregular rhythm for those two weeks. The cardiologist said everything actually looked okay, but he wanted me to have an implantable monitor to wear until the battery gives out, which with this new fully-loaded Mercedes model will take 4.5 years. Bottom line on my heart: No problems, although the cardiologist — who, I feel compelled to add, is not a picture of health himself — was, in my opinion, a little over-zealous about my diet. In my mind, the conversation boiled down to this: “Everything is mostly fine. Nothing to worry about. But I want you to change everything anyway.”

Anyway, back to my brain. As I said, I thought I was just waiting for the concussion symptoms to resolve, so I took the rest of the week off and then started back at work half-days. I did that Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Wednesday evening, I started feeling a little weird.

Then, something went badly wrong with my brain on Thursday morning as I was getting ready for work. In a matter of only a few minutes, I was incredibly worried and scared to death about nearly everything. My heart raced, and I was shaking and hyperventilating. And then came a spontaneous onset of terrifying, dark, and uncontrollable thoughts of death and suicide. I’ve had no past experience with any of these things. They just came out of nowhere, and it was terrifying.

Back at the ER, another CT scan came back normal. But because I’d told them everything, they confiscated my phone and transferred me alone without my wife to “Crisis,” which is apparently the politically correct term for a mental ward where a nurse aide is assigned to sit outside your room, watch you through the glass (presumably to make sure you don’t act on those intrusive thoughts but merely wrestle with them for hours before giving you any medicine.) Eventually, a social worker appeared via webcam to question me and talk about whether I should have inpatient or outpatient psychiatric care. We decided outpatient, and my discharge orders were to simply go find a psychiatrist.

Friday, things got worse. We had trouble reaching my primary care physician, but eventually he prescribed an anti-depressant over the phone. My wife picked it up, and when I took it, I immediately felt even worse. The PCP then gave me a prescription of five tablets of Xanax. I took one. It helped, and I slept.

Saturday morning, I was worse still, and my wife sent out emergency texts to several key friends from church who all dropped what they were doing and raced over to our place to sit and talk and pray with us. I still haven’t been able to find the right words to explain what I was feeling during this time. The closest I can get is to say that it kind of felt like a tornado had blown through my mind and uprooted everything I believed. Nothing was different — I could still reason and think and remember — but I’d completely lost any ability to control certain emotions and beliefs. My memory was intact, so I could remember the beliefs that guided my life and that my usual temperament is to be neither afraid nor anxious about things, but now all of those things were spinning in the funnel of the tornado, and I could not grasp them or put them back into place. And worse still, they were now intermingling with these other, unwanted dark thoughts of death that were threatening to overwhelm everything. The unwanted would seize my attention and relentlessly attempt to persuade me that ending it all was the only way out of the torment. I was still unable to anchor myself to the memories of my faith and my hope, but I could still remember and recognize them, and the confounding incongruity of it all was literally driving me crazy.

At its worst, I would sit with my face in my hands and just sob until I was too worn out to weep anymore. My wife and friends would pray for me and tell me it was going to be alright. That it was just an injury to my brain, that it would get better, and that it was just going to take some time. I was capable of appreciating that they were there to help, but I was incapable of believing them. The faith I’d had just a few days before was now flying around in the air out of reach, and without faith, the intercessions on my behalf were just meaningless words going nowhere and doing nothing. I was utterly hopeless.

That was a bad day. It was Memorial Day Weekend, and we were trying to locate a neurologist friend we all knew from the church to get a needed referral to a psychiatrist. We eventually connected, and he got me an appointment with a trusted psychiatrist in the area for Tuesday. Now, all I had to do was make the four Xanax I had left last until Tuesday. Friends stayed with me and tried to help me battle the darkness.

I made it through the weekend with much help from my wife and friends. When we met with the psychiatrist Tuesday, he said he knew exactly what was happening, what was causing it, and that there was medicine for it. I cried yet again right then and there, but this time it was because I was finally grasping a small handful of hope. The condition was Pseudobulbar affect, he said, which made me think it was a placebo diagnosis he made up on the spot just to make me feel better. It’s a real thing, though, basically a malfunction of the part of your brain that controls emotions. It can happen for a few different reasons, including traumatic brain injury. So, he knew what it was and what to do about it. Good news.

The bad news was that the medicine would only work very gradually, over the course of two to four weeks or more. I started my first dose right there in his office.

The next six weeks were extremely difficult. My only goal for most of that time was to get from one minute to the next, to string enough minutes together to make an hour, and then to string enough hours together to make a day. There were many bad days, but over time, they grew fewer and further between.

Where am I at now? Well, I went back to work at the very end of June and have been working since, but I was very careful to make sure I was getting the rest I needed, so really all I did for most of the summer was work and sleep. At some point, I began to have classic symptoms of clinical depression. The psychiatrist said that was normal, and I’m on medicine for that now as well. It’s troubling not being interested in anything, especially the things I used to really look forward to, like pursuing goals for the future. spending time with family, music, and watching, talking, and writing about football. The doctors advise getting out there and doing some of the stuff I used to enjoy even when I don’t feel like it. It was really strange to be almost completely disinterested in the approaching football season this year. Weird, too, that not caring somehow can also make you sad. But the theory is that the desire will likely and eventually follow, and that and the medicine and the prayer is working, if more slowly than I’d like.

So. I don’t know how much I’ll be writing, but I will say that it does feel good to be right here right now. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to many, but here I specifically want to thank Will, not only for holding down the fort while it was spinning for me, but even more for his friendship and support through this time. And to you all as well for still being here.

5 5 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
20 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Will Shelton
Will Shelton
20 days ago

My man.

Benjamin Smith
Benjamin Smith
20 days ago

Joel, I don’t know you personally, but I want to thank you for sharing everything you did in this post! And I’m not just referring to TN’s unbelievably bad penalty statistics, or about our unbelievably improved run defense numbers. I pray you are doing well, and thank you for sharing your struggles with what sounds like an extremely scary head injury and mental health struggle! Most men are so reluctant to disclose struggles with depression or mental health challenges, and I want to just thank you for your courage and bravery in sharing what you’ve been going through in this… Read more »

HixsonVol
HixsonVol
20 days ago

Joel,

I hope and pray that you will be able to return to the life you had before all of this happened. Like Benjamin I will go back and the prior articles if it will aid you in any way. I sadly do not view myself as a wordsmith but hopefully this comes out correctly when I say – Joel you truly are a Paragon of courage for writing this story.

HT
HT
19 days ago

Wow, Joel I didn’t even notice the byline and had no idea what I was clicking on. So glad that you are OK or at least on the road back to it. You have been missed!

It was really strange to be almost completely disinterested in the approaching football season this year.” – Are you sure that was from the brain injury and not just from being a UT fan? (I kid, I kid.)

Praying for you and your family and proud of you.

HT
HT
16 days ago

This may be the year! I have seriously underperformed thus far by my usual lofty standards.

Harley
Harley
19 days ago

Wow Joel… I definitely noticed your absence and I am shocked at all you and your family have been through. It is great to see you back and I wish you the very best for continuing healing and a complete recovery. Thanks for sharing your story. Good luck and best wishes, Harley

Adam Hull
Adam Hull
18 days ago

I appreciate your vulnerability, Joel. And we’re glad to have you back in whatever capacity works for you.

Jayyyy
Jayyyy
18 days ago

Great to hear from you Joel! Appreciate everything you do!

OKVol
OKVol
18 days ago

I have been reading your stuff for YEARS (OMG, how many?) and purchased every summer magazine I heard about. We have never met, but you are one of many voices in my life that I look forward to ‘hearing’ through your writing. Your approach to football seems similar to my own – that being a fan of a team is about understanding the team and the game. Not a zero-sum game where only mindless support or infinite rage can exist. I also have several family members battle sever depression, including the sudden, severe kind you described so well. It is… Read more »

Sam Hensley
Sam Hensley
18 days ago

Joel, I have a lot I want to say. First, I’m so sorry that this has happened to you. Second, like others have said, thank you for your courage, vulnerability, and honesty. Like you said in one of the other comments, there is still a stigma around mental health, though it seems to me that that stigma seems to be receding over the last few years; thank you for contributing to that recession through your discussion here. I’ve never had a traumatic brain injury or pseudobulbar affect, but I know about mental illness all too well. I was depressed in high school, though I… Read more »

Will Shelton
Will Shelton
17 days ago
Reply to  Sam Hensley

Man, thanks for sharing this!