(Editor's Note: Every game warden has great stories to tell. They come with the job. But Matt Cameron, former game warden and now TWRA Information Specialist, shares this blast from the past that every Big Orange fan will surely appreciate. The story has become something of a legend around TWRA... and not a legend that Cameron is especially proud. But he kindly shared it with NewsChannel9.com Outdoors readers).
I told my dad when I was a kid that I wanted him to see me on the JumboTron inside Neyland Stadium, but I don’t think this was what he had in mind.
There I was, as green as a gourd, all decked out in a game warden's Class A dress uniform, complete with a new Glock handgun and boots so shiny I could see my reflection. It’s too bad I didn’t recognize the bad hair day I was having at that moment. There before 100,000-plus Tennessee Volunteer football fans, was yours truly, on a television screen so large astronauts have reported watching the Vols play during lunar missions.
This then 24-year-old Matthew Travis Cameron, born and raised a Tennessee Volunteer football fan was caught in the middle of two dreams... recently becoming a TWRA wildlife officer and being on the big screen inside Neyland. The dream quickly became a nightmare as I thought my career was about to be over before it really got started.
One responsibility of being a TWRA officer in Knox County is policing the “Vol Navy” during home University of Tennessee football games. Neyland Stadium resides on the banks of the Tennessee River. Thousands of boaters converge on the Knoxville waterfront during home football games to indulge in their own form of watery tailgating known as “sailgating.”
The perk for TWRA officers assigned to patrol the venue is getting to go inside and watch half or sometimes all of the game. Fortunately for me, this was a non-televised game or potentially millions of people would have witnessed what’s become known in TWRA circles as “The Neyland Stadium Debacle. “
Having graduated from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville just the year before, my orange blood flowed thick and at that moment, I had hair to match. As I stood there beside the play clock in the southeastern corner of the checkerboard end zone, a first-row fan had been wearing what’s been described as a “flaming-orange treasure troll wig." If a deer hunter were wearing it in the woods it would count as 500 square inches of blaze orange alone. The problem was, he wasn’t wearing it anymore - I was.
Late in the second quarter he thought it would be funny to slip it on my head. And it was funny for about the 45 seconds I was on the gargantuan Jumbotron screen. There I was, flexing my muscles in my best Arnold Schwarzenegger poses and cheering with the fans as the Pride of the Southland Band blared out Rocky Top. For a few brief moments in my delusion of grandeur, I was Peyton Manning directing the band after the Vols defeated Vanderbilt in November of 1997.
Who was Tennessee playing on this fateful day?
You guessed it... Vandy.
My 45 seconds of fame came and went and as I turned to see Sgt. Joe Durnin with arms folded and a coy smile.
“Well Matt, it’s been nice working with you,” he stated matter of factly. “We’ll see what Brian has to say at the half. He usually calls to tell us how good we look down here and how proud we make him. Did you know he has season tickets?”
“No Joe. No, I didn’t,” was all I could mutter.
“He sits right up there,” Joe said as he pointed to the opposite corner of the stadium.
"Brian," as in Brian Ripley, was our law enforcement supervisor and is now known as Major Brian Ripley, the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in Region 4. Ripley had hired me the previous summer to be his Knox County Boating Enforcement Officer believing I’d represent the agency well in an urban area.
Man, he got that wrong!
Fellow Knox County Wildlife Officer Rusty Boles also took time to tell me my days were numbered.
"I can’t believe you just did that, he said. "I’d say Brian will want to talk to you about your decision-making ability."
My orange blood pressure was nearing heart attack zone as the reality of what I’d done sat in. I knew at that moment; my career was over.
Halftime came and went without a call from the boss.
“Well Matt, Brian didn’t call,” said Joe.
“Is that bad Joe?” I asked.
“That’s bad Matt,” he said.
I then wore out a path beside the play clock as I paced back and forth for the next two quarters.
My wife and I were in the process of building a new home in east Knoxville so I could meet the living requirement for my new job appointment and that afternoon, my dad and my sister stopped by for a visit to see how the new construction was going.
“You’ve had a haircut since I saw you on the Jumbotron,” my sister said with a laugh. She and my dad had been at the game and witnessed the whole thing live and in person. We kind of laughed it off as I was dying inside.
The next day, our work unit, Area 41, was having a “dummy deer” detail in Hancock County, one of the most road hunted places on earth. We all met up a BP gas station near Sneedville for breakfast and to get our marching orders.
Being a newbie, I had to ride with another officer and as I exited the door into the parking lot, I was looking for anyone to ride with but the boss man. I headed towards several green trucks but was repeatedly rejected like Forrest Gump when he tried to find a seat on the bus. I turned around and to my disgust, there was Brian standing beside the passenger door like a chauffeur.
“You ride with me Cameron,” he said as I approached with my head hung low.
During the ride, I leaned as far against the door as I could get just trying to create distance between him and me. Several minutes passed as he let me sit there and fester like a child waiting on his father to get home from work and administer punishment for his son’s schoolhouse follies.
“So, tell me, what in the (expletive deleted) provoked you to put on a flaming-orange treasure troll wig and lead Rocky Top on the Jumbotron in front of 100,000 screaming Volunteer fans?” he asked.
Now, I knew what I’d done, but to hear him verbalize it all in one breath pierced my heart deeply.
“I won’t lie to you boss,” I said getting queasy and nearing death.
He lashed out, “No. I need a good one to explain this one to the [TWRA] director."
Taking into account that he was actually at the game and witnessed the entire tragedy in person, I knew there was no way to minimize the situation.
“Sir, when they put that wig on my head, I wasn’t sure if I should take it off and be serious or if I should be a good sport. I just got caught up in the moment.”
Now, Ripley is a very well-spoken man of great eloquence and I don’t recall his exact words but it was something to the effect of, “Well, I admire your self-confidence and outgoing personality and as long as I don’t get any calls from the director’s office and any commissioners or your face in uniform wearing that wig doesn't show up on the cover of Volunteer Pride Magazine, I’ll write it off as youthful exuberance. It was funny as (expletive deleted), but don’t ever even think about doing it again.”
That was it?
No meeting with the chief of law enforcement? No, “Turn in your badge and gun at headquarters tomorrow morning?” It was like a stay of execution! All of a sudden, the color returned to my face and I could breathe again. I felt like Elliott when E.T. revived and the geranium blossomed as the music played. I almost jumped out of the Ford Expedition shouting, “HE’S ALIVE! HE’S ALIVE!”
So, there you have it, The Neyland Stadium Debacle,” all spelled out in orange and white. Looking back about fifteen years later, it’s become a good-humored story to share with the younger generation of wildlife officers, and here are a few lessons learned: 1) Don’t do something like that in uniform but if you do, make sure there are not 100,000-plus witnesses. But, if any other officer feels the overwhelming desire to reenact this scenario, please notify me first as I want to witness it firsthand and document it.
2) In 2004, cameras on cellphones were in their infancy and smartphones weren’t in existence nor was social media. You’d go viral in an instant if you pulled a stunt like that these days.
3) Never mix your passion for sports with anything work related. For this reason, I have more “bleeding orange” heartache I might share in another issue of the TENNESSEE GAME WARDEN Magazine. Learn more on their website.