CLEVELAND, Tenn. - Walt Disney World or a day with Peyton Manning.
Those were Adam Holden's two Make-A-Wish choices as he underwent cancer treatments to remove a brain tumor at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital 16 years ago.
For Adam, a mere 6 years old at the time, it would have been understandable if Mickey Mouse and the gang had won out, even if Chattanooga businessman and University of Tennessee super booster John "Thunder" Thornton was sponsoring his wish.
But Holden wasn't your typical 6-year-old. He'd already fully embraced his father Mark's unquenchable thirst for all things UT Orange. His room was orange. His clothes orange. His blood unofficially orange.
The kid chose Peyton, then wound up with the unexpected bonus from then-UT coach Phillip Fulmer of getting to run through the "T" that same 1997 autumn.
"Adam was Peyton's first Make-A-Wish kid," Lauri Holden said Friday night after taking her youngest son to see new UT coach Butch Jones at Bradley Central High School.
Added Adam, a big smile on his face despite being confined to a wheelchair due to a broken hip: "Peyton's my big brother."
If life was always fair, Adam Holden might be wrapping up an All-America playing career with the Vols this coming autumn under Jones. Instead, the chemotherapy and radiation he endured to save his young life permanently damaged his brain, as well as altering his eyesight and hearing.
"He'll always see life through the eyes of a 12-year-old," Lauri said. "But maybe that's a good thing sometimes."
One truth of sports, especially college sports within the Southeastern Conference states, is that a lot of us tend to act like children regarding our favorite school.
So when a 22-year-old Adam approached Jones and proclaimed, "I really hate the Georgia Bulldogs, so would you please beat them," it didn't seem one bit different than a host of other requests and statements the coach fielded from fans regarding archrival Alabama, recruiting and whether he would wear orange pants on the sideline this autumn.
"No orange pants," Jones said.
That doesn't mean Adam won't wear them, however.
"His whole bedroom is orange and white UT stuff," said older brother Aaron (23), whose mother-in-law Lisa Mullinax gave Adam his VIP pass for a private meet-and-greet with Jones as a birthday present.
"On game days we all have to slap a sign that says, 'I'll give my all to Tennessee today,' just like the players do in the locker room. And when the Vols score, he has this stuffed Smokey dog that sings 'Rocky Top' and dances."
Added Lauri in describing those family gatherings with Aaron and older sister April (33): "Adam is very ritualistic about things. He wants everything to remain the same from game to game, right down to the clothes he wears."
Adam's passion has made such an impression on the UT family over the years that in addition to his keepsakes from Fulmer and Manning he has an autographed basketball from Pat Summitt.
"His favorite saying," Lauri said with a laugh, "is a line from 'Forrest Gump,' where Forrest says, 'We're more famous, sir, than Captain Kangaroo.'"
Famous or not, can your favorite Big Orange fan top this? Adam recently gave away his set of red and black checkers because they reminded him of Georgia.
"We had to find orange and white checkers," Lauri said. "Thank goodness for Cracker Barrel."
If Friday night was any indication, the Big Orange Nation is increasingly saying "thank goodness" for Jones, though he won't coach his first game until Aug. 31 against Austin Peay.
"I graduated from Tennessee," said Walker Valley High School assistant football coach Ken Johnson. "I worked in the program when Coach Fulmer was there. Coach Jones is very impressive. His staff has already been in contact with us. He's doing all the right things."
A rising sophomore at Bradley Central High, defensive tackle Blake McSpadden hopes he someday gets to play for Jones.
"I loved what he said about UT being relentless," McSpadden said. "That's what the Vols need. I think he's going to win championships there."
All fans want to win championships, whether they're 12, 22 or 72. And that drive to win at any cost is what sometimes calls into question the worth of sports at their highest level.
When supposed role models such as the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez or the Milwaukee Brewers' Ryan Braun continue to lie and cheat regarding performance enhancing drugs, it further weakens the argument that sports builds character.
Yet Jones already has overseen the best football GPA for one semester in Vols history, 46 players posting a 3.0 or better.
And when Adam Holden handed the coach a UT orange-painted brick to sign -- "Mark even looked up the PMS color code, so he'd get it perfect," Lauri said of her ex-husband -- Jones told him, "We'll have to get you up there for our first practice."
So while she understands those who think pro and college sports are sometimes teaching the wrong lessons these days, Lauri Holden also knows their power to inspire.
"Following Tennessee," she said, "is something that's given Adam's life meaning."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com
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