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The untold story of CFB's ultimate party crasher: Meet the fan who led the Vols onto the field for the 1998 title game

2023-09-28
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- It has been nearly 25 years, but J.R. Greene still has the faded orange top hat sitting in his office, the same one he frantically clutched on his head as he led Tennessee's football team onto the field for the national championship Fiesta Bowl game against Florida State, a magical night for the Volunteers and their fans. The top hat was just part of his attire. A 24-year-old student working on his MBA at the time, Greene was also sporting an orange-and-white tuxedo with matching orange gloves and a Power T cummerbund. The ultimate party crasher in the ultimate moment for his beloved Vols, Greene was the "Big Orange Tux Guy," a phrase he repeated over and over to finagle his way onto the stage to sing "Rocky Top" with a band playing before the game, onto the ESPN "College GameDay" set -- and most improbably -- onto the field in one of those Ferris Bueller-like odysseys that almost sounds like a fairy tale. Yet there he was, praying every few minutes that he "wasn't going to end up in jail and miss the biggest game of my life," as he raced from the Sun Devil Stadium tunnel with coach Phillip Fulmer, Tee Martin, Al Wilson, Peerless Price and the entire Tennessee contingent in tow. "It's no fairy tale. He was there. Wasn't supposed to be, but he was there," Fulmer joked. "I'm still not sure how he pulled it off." Nobody is -- not even Greene, who figured the timing was right to tell his mind-boggling story publicly for the first time. This is the 25th anniversary of Tennessee's 1998 national championship season, and the team will be honored Saturday at Neyland Stadium during the game against South Carolina. And, yes, Greene -- a donor and lifelong fan -- plans to be in attendance. He has had season tickets in his family going back to his great-grandfather, John T. O'Connor, who was the mayor of Knoxville in the 1930s. Greene sold programs at Tennessee sporting events as a middle school student in the 1980s. Recently, Greene dug out his old tux from the closet, but he wouldn't dare break it back out to wear this weekend. "Oh no, I'm 1-0, unbeaten," Greene said. "I only wear the tux for championship games." GREENE HAD HIS tux on bright and early 25 years ago, starting that Jan. 4, 1999, morning in the lobby of his hotel. He was ready to show it off, have some fun and send a message. But never in his wildest dreams did Greene envision that several hours later, he would be leading the Tennessee team out onto the field. "Everything sort of perfectly fell into place, and every time somebody asked me who I was or what I was doing, I would just say, 'I'm J.R. Greene, the Big Orange Tux Guy. I'm here to show Tennessee has class,'" Greene recounted. "That's all it was about." At least, that's the way it started. Like many Tennessee fans, Greene was ruffled over comments made by ESPN's Chris Fowler a year earlier. In referencing the nasty backlash and threats directed at him by some Tennessee fans over Peyton Manning not winning the Heisman Trophy, Fowler used the term "trailer park frenzy," something he has apologized for several times. Fowler actually voted for Manning in the Heisman balloting that year. Ironically, Greene said, Fowler played a crucial role in his getting onto the field that evening in Tempe, Arizona. Greene managed to maneuver his way onto the "GameDay" set by climbing up the back stairs from the field. He had bumped into ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit the night before in Scottsdale and told Herbstreit he was going to wear an orange-and-white tux to the game. "He told me if I showed up in an orange-and-white tux that he'd get me on 'GameDay,'" Greene recalled. Crawford Wagner, one of Greene's friends who made the trip to the Fiesta Bowl, remembers that conversation. Now, Wagner had no idea that Greene would be successful in making his way to the ESPN set, but looking back, he's not surprised. "J.R. has always been a guy that could sell things and would usually end up in places you didn't necessarily expect to see him," Wagner said. Greene's penchant for showing up in such places went to another level after his Fiesta Bowl escapades. Later in 1999, he told his story to screeners for "The Price is Right" and made it on stage as a contestant on the Bob Barker-hosted game show. In 2001, after taking a job in Los Angeles, he introduced himself to actor Hugh Grant while at the Beverly Hilton and followed him into the green room at the Golden Globe Awards, where he rubbed elbows with Dick Clark, Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise. "Let's just say the confidence I gained from being the Big Orange Tux Guy that night changed my future," Greene said. Herbstreit was in only his third year of doing "GameDay" during the 1998 season, and now, after visiting so many venues and encountering so many exuberant fans over the years, he doesn't specifically remember the "Big Orange Tux Guy." Nonetheless, he thinks Greene's zeal is the kind of thing that makes college football unique. "His story adds up because there were back steps to the field, and our set was right in the middle of the Tennessee section," Herbstreit said. "The thing I remember most is that I picked Tennessee, and when Peerless caught that first deep pass, I almost came out of my seat because, especially back in those days, you were married to your picks." Fowler has what he called a vague recollection of Greene and the oddity of his showing up on the set with an orange-and-white tux, which had some custom "tailoring" thanks to Greene's creativity. Greene's first attempt to dye a tux orange ended up as more of a peach color. So he bought another tux and colored in the lapels and other areas with an orange magic marker. "That's not real. You're not a real mascot," Greene remembers Fowler telling him as the "GameDay" host moved in closer and realized the orange was colored in with a marker. "But if you've got the guts to do that and come up here, why don't you walk down to the field with us?" Greene, nervously looking around to see if any security guards might be zeroing in on him, went bopping along behind the ESPN duo down the steps. "I remember we had a big net around us, and there were thousands of whiskey bottles on top when we were done with the show," Fowler said. "The Tennessee fans were so hyped to be in that game. But [Greene] looked the part, so I can see why nobody would stop him. "Hey, if I helped him get down on the field in some way, I'm pleased, especially if he was going to make that kind of commitment. Somewhere, that fits into a chaotic cap to what was a chaotic season. "Why not have a guy who's not supposed to be there running around on the field?" GREENE HAD ALREADY morphed into a celebrity of sorts earlier in the day as a sea of charged-up Tennessee fans tailgated outside the stadium. It had been nearly 50 years since the Vols last won a national championship, going all the way back to the days of legendary coach Gen. Robert Neyland. "You could feel the energy and the anticipation. It was like the whole state of Tennessee was there," Greene said. Greene flew to the game with buddies Robbie Pope and Mark Sykes. He was initially going to wear the tux on the plane, but Pope convinced him that would be bad luck. Instead, Pope talked Greene into getting up onto a stage during pregame festivities and singing with the band. "J.R. said something about getting up there and singing 'Rocky Top' and was going to chicken out," Pope said. The next thing Pope knew, the ever-persistent Greene was at the corner of the stage trying to get the drummer's attention. A hulking security guard wearing all black asked Greene who he was, and Greene told him he was there to sing "Rocky Top." The guard told Greene he needed to talk to the drummer, who was right in the middle of a song. Finally, the drummer angrily motioned for Greene to wait, and after the song, the drummer gathered the band together and put a headset on Greene. Looking out into the crowd and seeing all the orange, Greene bellowed, "Who's going to win the national championship?" And right on cue, the band broke into a rendition of "Rocky Top." The only problem was Greene froze and forgot the words. "All I knew was the chorus," he said bashfully. "Thankfully, the band bailed me out and started singing. One of the guys started playing the fiddle." Just as Greene started to belt out "Rocky Top, you'll always be home sweet home to me," he pointed to two girls from the audience to join him on stage, and they linked arms for a little country dancing twirl. Out in the crowd, his friends could only wonder what might happen next. "We were probably 100 feet away from the stage, and vintage J.R., when he forgot the words, he ad-libbed and ran with it, which he's good at," Wagner said. Pope said when Greene hopped off the stage, everybody thought he was a celebrity and swarmed him for pictures, and that's when the legend of the "Big Orange Tux Guy" really ignited. "I didn't want it to end. The rush was incredible," Greene said. IN THOSE DAYS, there were no digital tickets, just paper tickets that were torn at the gate as you entered the stadium. Greene, who by now was separated from his friends, didn't want his ticket to be torn and started looking around for another way to get into the game. (Greene still has the ticket intact and was able to get the late Voice of the Vols, radio broadcaster John Ward, to sign it.) Greene walked around the outside of the stadium, scouting out different entrances. He noticed bowl officials, media and other team personnel going through a special entrance lined with velvet ropes. Surely, he thought to himself as his confidence was bubbling, somebody wearing an orange and white tuxedo and top hat would look official enough to enter there. "I thought, 'Why not?'" he said. "Even then, I wasn't thinking about getting onto the field. I just wanted to get into the game without my ticket being torn. "I had no pass, no credentials, no nothing." Keep in mind this was pre-9/11, and security measures weren't nearly as stringent as they are today. Greene strolled right through the participants entrance smiling and nodding at the security personnel the whole way. Within minutes, he found himself in the bowels of Sun Devil Stadium, just off the field. One of the first people he saw was Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, who took a cursory glance at him and kept walking. "I'm sort of shaking at this point, pinching myself. I mean, I'm walking out onto the field where Tennessee's getting ready to play for the national championship," Greene said. Then he noticed the back stairway to the "GameDay" location. He thought about it (for about two seconds), then climbed up awkwardly and pushed open a little wooden door to the back of the set. "Herbstreit sees me and buries his brow into his arm as if to say, 'He really wore an orange-and-white tux,'" Greene said. "I kept waiting for somebody to come kick me out and they never did." Anything but bashful, Greene approached both Herbstreit and Fowler. To this day, he is grateful they were his escorts back onto the field and eventually to the most exhilarating run of his life. "I know Chris Fowler had become the enemy of Tennessee fans, but had he not invited me to go back down to the field with them, there wouldn't be any 'Big Orange Tux Guy' story," Greene said. "I've got nothing bad to say about him." Once they all got down to the field, kickoff was fast approaching, and Fowler and Herbstreit went about their business. Greene, his heart pounding, saw a member of the Tennessee dance team he knew and hugged her. By then, he was near the front of the Tennessee tunnel to the locker room, where the cheerleaders, mascots and other members of the Vols' spirit squad were gathering. Nobody knew who he was or what he was doing there. Adam DeVault, who wore the Davy Crockett outfit and carried the giant orange "T" flag onto the field, remembers seeing Greene out of the corner of his eye. "That's the only reason I remember," DeVault said. "It was such a big game with so much going on. Nothing is normal about a game like that, really. I guess I assumed he was a donor that had paid a lot of money to run out with the team. I do know I would have been mad had he run out in front of me." As the minutes counted down to the Tennessee players filling the tunnel, Greene felt a tap on his shoulder. "Hey, we're already at the NCAA limit for mascots," Greene remembers someone from Tennessee telling him. To this day, Greene doesn't know who it was. "I just know that I was sure then that it was over, that I was going to jail," he said. Barry Garner was in charge of the Tennessee spirit squad that day, filling in for regular coordinator Joy Postell-Gee, who missed the trip at the last minute because she was close to giving birth. ("I hate to say it, but it would have been a different outcome for [Greene] if I had been there," Postell-Gee said. "He would have never made it onto the field.") The scene was chaotic, including the opposing players jawing at each other in the locker room area as they neared the tunnel. Garner said he might have alerted authorities if Greene had appeared any earlier. "This is literally minutes before we ran out. We're waiting on Coach Fulmer and watching for him, and then you look to your side and this guy with an orange tuxedo is just standing there," Garner recalled. "I said something like, "Who are you? What are you here for?" Greene's response was a familiar one: "I'm the Big Orange Tux Guy." Garner looked at him quizzically and asked, "Wait, are you supposed to lead us onto the field or something?" Forgetting for a few seconds his Eagle Scout vow to always tell the truth, Greene nervously nodded his head yes, to which Garner responded, "Well, let's go, lead us to a national championship." Greene, of course, was oblivious to the team's routine for running onto the field, which included Fulmer pointing and saying "Go," and then Smokey, the Vols' bluetick coonhound mascot, being led out first, followed by Davy Crockett (DeVault) carrying the team flag, the costumed version of Smokey, the cheerleaders and then the team. But at least Greene knew to stay to the right. One of Smokey's handlers warned Greene right before they ran out that Smokey liked to zigzag and that if Greene got tripped up and fell, he would be trampled by the players because they wouldn't stop. Willis Jepson, who was the lead handler for Smokey that season, laughed when asked about the wild scene. "I was so busy trying to keep Smokey calm because so much was going on that I can't say I remember any of that, but it sure sounds like something we would say," Jepson said. "That's funny, though. We're getting ready to play for a national championship, and we've got some guy running out there with us that nobody knows who he is." Greene didn't just run. He kept running. As the team turned left toward the sideline, he sprinted out toward midfield by himself before realizing that he needed to make a left turn. Meanwhile, nearly an hour had passed since Greene's friends had last seen him. They were already in the stadium. Watching from his seat in the opposite end zone, Blaine Cloud's eyes opened wide as he saw the Tennessee team come racing onto the field. "Coming right toward us was J.R.," said Cloud, who was in business school with Greene and whose seats for the game were near Greene's. "I'd seen him in the tux earlier in the day, but he was moving around all over the place. I didn't know where he was. Knowing J.R., he could have been anywhere, including jail." But running out with the team? "We're yelling and screaming. There he was, right next to Smokey," Cloud said. "It's still hard to believe how everything had to align just right for him to be out there." Pope never saw Greene on the field. And when Greene finally got to his seats sometime in the first quarter, Pope didn't believe his buddy's story. "I just told him he was full of s---, but that's what I usually told him about those things," Pope said. "I wasn't inclined to believe him at first blush because I wasn't looking for him on the field. Nobody was. I needed some corroboration, and I guess I didn't really believe it until I saw the video when we got back home." One of Greene's friends, Meredith Christenberry, had a camcorder at the game and recorded the Vols' entrance. The video clearly shows Greene making his run for the ages. Greene remained on the sideline behind the players and cheerleaders for part of the first quarter. He figured he was living on borrowed time by then. Plus, he said he couldn't see the game, so he found his way to his seats. Christi Meadows Dorsey was a Tennessee cheerleader that season. By the time the game started, word apparently started to spread among bowl officials that there was an unauthorized person on the Vols' sideline. "Somebody came over there, and we all got a little scolding that everybody had to have the right credentials to be on the field," she said. "I didn't notice [Greene] at the time, but it started getting around. It was bizarre. Even all these years later, it's bizarre." After the game, the cheerleaders and spirit squad members were on a bus celebrating Tennessee's 23-16 victory over Florida State when the Big Orange Tux Guy came up in conversation. "We'd just won a national championship, and that's what we were talking about," Meadows Dorsey recalled. "At the same time, we were all trying to figure out who this guy was and where he came from." That guy was the Big Orange Tux Guy, the guy with "class" and the guy who dared to live on the wild side that historic night for Tennessee football a quarter century ago. Some stories grow to the point of becoming myths over time. But not this one. "This isn't a Bigfoot or Sasquatch thing or just a wild rumor," DeVault said. "He was there. I saw him, and there are pictures to prove it."

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