These members of the TSU Aristocrat of Bands horn section have on their game faces as they exit the tunnel and head for the field. (TSD Archives)

Ask any Tennessee State University alum or fan and they will tell you that last year’s cancellation of the Southern Heritage Classic celebration due to the global pandemic did nothing to dampen the spirit of Nashville’s Tiger Nation.

“Although we had to go fully virtual for most of our activities last year, TSU is coming with it this year,” said TSU National Alumni Association Memphis Shelby County Chapter President Georgia Dumas Whiting. “And JSU Jackson (Mississippi) State University is not ready.”

Students and staff, alumni and fans – thousands of them – are converging on the Bluff City for the highly anticipated 32nd Southern Heritage Classic scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday (Sept. 11) at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. 

From the trash talk at the tailgate to the spectacular half-time show when the Aristocrat of Bands takes the field, fans of TSU Tigers feel their team dominates over every aspect of one of the South’s most competitive sports rivalries. 

“It’s going to be like Homecoming Week,” said Whiting. “Everybody’s coming back to celebrate this classic – from the East Coast to the West Coast, from the north to the South. 

“There was nothing we could do about canceling last year. COVID-19 shut everything down, all over the world. We have kept in touch virtually, but it’s a whole other thing to be about to greet each other in person and just let everybody know, ‘I’m still here for you’ and ‘I love you.’”

This TSU half-time moment reflects a commitment to keep tradition going. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/TSD Archives)

Just like in past years, there is plenty of trash talk, jive talk and woof tickets. 

“First of all, that battle of the bands is going to be a massacre,” said Marcia Mitchell-Maness. “But the game? We waited two years to play, but the day of reckoning is here. I just want to say to the JSU Tigers, ‘Only one Tiger Nation can win. Don’t feel too bad. There’s always next year.’” 

Whiting said this year’s “secret weapon” will turn up the TSU Tigers so much in the pre-game hype that JSU won’t know what hit them.

“At the tailgate, we have a special treat for the TSU fans,” said Whiting. “This year, we will get together to honor former players, coaches, staff and support personnel in our Salute to the Alumni Football Program. We are so excited to welcome back all the wonderful people who have meant so much to the Tiger football program through the years.”

Those to be honored are members of the TSU Alumni Association of Football Affinity.

Coordinator for the special salute is one of TSU’s most memorable players, Carrington Walthal III, who first distinguished himself on the field as a Northside High School quarterback, graduating in the class of 1977.

“It has been my job to contact former players and staff members, everyone who has been a part of the football program,” Walthal said. “The response has just been tremendous. It’s been great. More than 100 football alumni have said they will be coming for this special salute. What a time it’s going to be.”

Walthal said during the tailgate football alum will have the opportunity to reflect on the time when they played or served.

“They will have the chance to relive the glory years,” said Walthal. “Shared memories unite us, regardless of age. TSU has a beautiful heritage. Many accomplished individuals have attended. And quite a few of them came through the football program. We want to remember what they contributed. Their stories are a part of the Tennessee State University story. Those memories will be precious ones.”

After their time of reflection, Walthal said TSU fans gathered for the salute will send football alum off to the Liberty Bowl to the TSU Tiger locker room.

“We will stroll on down, singing some of our old fight songs,” said Walthal. “We’ll probably sing, ‘It’s hard, so hard to be a Tiger, so hard to be a Tiger, so hard, to be a TSU Tiger.’ The fans will be singing with us, and we’ll probably have a drumline to march to. It’s going to be a great, big class reunion.”

Walthal added that encouragement from past players and coaches is going to be a huge boost of confidence for the TSU Tigers. It’s no way they can lose, he said.

As news spread about the special salute, fans are excitedly responding with a little pre-game hype of their own.

“I love the idea of past football alumni having the opportunity to share with our team,” said Verlene Carter, a registered nurse, who graduated in the class of ’78.

“We know that Jackson State has their new head coach, Deion Sanders, but they’re going to need more than ‘Prime Time’ and star power to beat our team this year. Our boys are going to be fired up. Neon Deion better look out for that quiet storm, Eddie George.”