The destination for decades for football players in Knoxville has been the checkerboard. Run to the checkerboard. Get there as often as you can. And then do your best to get there again.

Countless unique traditions fill fans’ souls in colleges across the country, but the checkered end zones of Neyland Stadium truly set Tennessee apart from every other campus in America. Others have tried, but their checkered duplicate falls short of the original.

It is Knoxville’s own nuance. An orange-and-white checkerboard rectangle dissecting the end zones at Neyland, the gigantic home of the Volunteers. But while the sheer size of Neyland Stadium, which now seats 102,455 fans, can blow you away, it’s those checkered end zones that take Tennessee fans away to another time and instill pride.

Those squares are the living, breathing history lessons of Tennessee football.

In Maddie Irons’ “Checkerboard Endzones: A Tennessee Tradition” written last year, it talks about former Tennessee director of sports surface management Bob Campbell telling ESPN that “he has never realized the distinctiveness of the checkerboard end zones until years ago.”

Campbell talked to a friend who worked at Iowa State who informed him of a poll done in Des Moines about the most recognizable sports venues in America.

“There was Yankee Stadium on the list. And Fenway Park and Wrigley Field. And darn it, if our checkerboard end zones weren’t in the top 10!”

Charge toward the checkerboard

The fabled story goes back to the man Neyland Stadium was named after, General Robert Neyland. Sheild-Watkins Field was built in 1921, holding a grand total of 3,200 people. That same year, Ayers Hall was completed on the Knoxville campus, and there was a “subtle” checkerboard design at the top of what would become one of the university’s most well-known buildings.

Back in those days, before what is now iconic Neyland Stadium, it was extremely tiny, and so there was a clear view of the tall, well-built Ayers Hall from the field. Coach Neyland connected the fire and passion of football with the fine artistry of a tall campus building, and a tradition was born.

When the Volunteers were on offense and facing Ayers, Irons noted that Neyland would say things to his players like, “Don’t stop until time runs out or until you reach the checkerboard and once you get there … get there again.” He would also say, “Charge the checkerboard!”

It was a motivational tactic from the great Neyland, and you can probably say that it worked. Neyland had a record of 173-31-12 during his three coaching stints in Knoxville from 1926-52, a legendary career at Tennessee broken up twice because of his military service.

Turned out the General was brave and bold, as well as creative. He led men in the service and those in football stadiums, and he told them to aim for that end zone. The checkerboards didn’t exist there yet, of course, but he wanted to have his players pretend they were there already and not just sitting atop Ayers Hall.

All these decades later, the checkerboards are a cherished thing in Knoxville, right there along with that distinct bright orange on their jerseys, or the latest edition of Smokey patrolling the sidelines or, of course, the “Rocky Top” fight song.

Those checkers are carefully spray-painted before games into squares and then placed into the end zone, using some 80 gallons of paint and tons of attention to detail spread across two days, sort of the Tennessee version of Notre Dame’s old tradition of spraying its golden helmets.

When Doug Dickey became the Vols’ coach in 1964, that checkerboard design at Ayers became the design in Neyland’s end zones, as the two structures were linked when Dickey introduced the checkers so players could actually run to the checkerboard for real and not as a reference to Ayers Hall off in the distance. Dickey picked the school colors of orange and white as the checkered end zone design, a natural choice. According to Irons, he was inspired by a magazine ad.

The popularity of these new end zone creations took off for the next four years, but then the field was redone in 1968 when artificial turf was installed and the checkered wonders on each end of the field were taken away. Suddenly, there was no checkerboard to charge, no checkerboard to get to again and again once you got there once.

General Neyland’s vision, brought to life by Dickey, was gone from the hearts and most importantly the passionate eyes of Knoxville. It was a long two decades before the checkers were brought back. Finally, in 1989, they were set down again in each end zone, but this time within the cookie-cutter artificial turf.

It was admittedly a cleaner look for the checkers, without all the dirt and mess of natural grass, and running back Chuck Webb gave the newest version of the checkerboard end zones quite a memorable christening, running for a school-record 294 yards on 35 carries on Nov. 18, 1989, in a 33-21 victory over Ole Miss.

Webb did charge to the checkerboard on that memorable day, and bruising backfield mate Reggie Cobb did too during the checkers’ reintroduction in ’89, most notably on a 79-yard touchdown dash to the delight of a deafening crowd in a 21-14 victory over an Auburn team that was ranked fourth coming in.

Maybe it was fate that the checkers came back in ’89, just in time for such a thrilling running tandem of Webb and Cobb to run into them, again and again, on short touchdown runs and long ones like Cobb’s. The powerful duo were a pretty good publicity machine for the end zones that season, as fans at Neyland and at home were constantly seeing touchdowns and constantly being reminded that those orange and white squares were finally back.

End zone an iconic tradition

Neyland Stadium went back to grass in 1994 after a quarter-century of artificial turf, and so the checkered end zones were once again natural, as they had been those first magical four years after being introduced under Dickey.

Today, the aura of the checkers is respected nationally as well as being revered in Knoxville and across the state of Tennessee. College Football Fan Index ranked the 10 best fields in college football for 2014, and Alan Siegel had Neyland Stadium a mighty impressive third, only trailing the famous blue Smurf Turf at Boise State and the iconic sod at the Rose Bowl.

Then comes Neyland, ranked ahead of the field at famous Notre Dame Stadium. Quite an accomplishment, and those impeccable orange and white checkers were a big reason. The countdown shows a picture of Neyland Stadium as one giant checkerboard, with each section alternating between orange and white. Call it the fans paying tribute to the checkerboard tradition.

Irons wrote: “To this day, the checkerboard end zones are iconic and special to Neyland Stadium. Over the years we have watched players celebrate hundreds of touchdowns in them. The pattern can be seen on overalls, corn hole boards, socks, t-shirts, tailgating tents, you name it. … Other schools and fan bases recognize it.”

And season after season, those Volunteers run to it, charge toward it as General Neyland once commanded.