Friday nights this Fall consisted of covering high school football at the smallest level of TSSAA-sanctioned competition.
Covering class 1A Greenback took me to towns like Loudon, Coalfield, Oneida, Sunbright, Rockwood and Decatur - all places I never would have seen if not for the game of football.
After filing my story around 11 p.m. and returning home about midnight, I'd unwind, hit the sack and then head to a different world centered around the same sport on Saturday.
Covering SEC football is like the political equivalent of covering Congress. Well, maybe not that extreme. It's definitely less important, but it's also something that people in East Tennessee probably care about more than they care about what's going on in Congress.
So just hours after covering a game between two tiny high schools in a town that might not even be on the map, I found myself dressed professionally, taking chauffeured elevator rides and eating catered meals in gargantuan stadiums filled with 10 times more people than even inhabit the county I covered the same sport in the night before.
It's quite the transition. For starters, when covering 1A football - or any regular season high school football - no press pass is required. If the gatekeeper ever gives me trouble, I'll pull out my UT football practice pass and they immediately yield, spellbound by the glossy Power T and laminated explanation of my validity as a reporter.
During a high school game, seats aren't even guaranteed in the press box, although one kind fellow at Rockwood High School told me, "here, have a seat, if it wasn't for the press we wouldn't have a box."
After keeping stats with pen and paper like a caveman and channeling 21st century technology only briefly to tweet scores and type a few paragraphs at halftime, I head down to the field for post-game interviews*
*Sometimes I'm on the field the whole game if no seat is available upstairs.
Rather than being ushered around by a media coordinator and conducting formal interviews, my initiation of a discussion with a coach usually goes like this.
Me: Hey Jason, got a minute?
Coach: Yeah, man. How you doin'?
Me: Alright, heck of a drive out here.
Coach: You're telling me.
Me: Haha, well anyway, what were ya'll doing to them defensively in the second half?
......rest of the interview.
After I get my quotes and abduct more accurately kept stats from a radio guy or dedicated statistician, I head off to the nearest McDonald's to write up my story, format my box score and send it in.
This routine on Saturday's could not be more different.
Just counting writers, the number of people covering the game goes from 1-3 to 40 or more for UT football games. The wi-fi trumps what McDonalds offers and it's available in the press box, which offers reserved seating.
Unlike Friday's, technology is crucial on Saturday's. It's a race to see who can tweet the important stats the fastest, and everyone is playing with the same numbers thanks to the instantly-updated utstats.com.
Following the game, interviews are conducted with the head coach and players selected by the SID staff in a markedly formal setting. Rather than a casual encounter on the field like the night before, interviews are formal press conferences conducted in front of a room 100 or more reporters and onlookers.
Obviously, there are innumerable differences between high school football and UT football, but to experience them so close together - from one day to the next - as a reporter is a fascinating transition.
The game feels more pure at the high school level. You feel like your reporting really, truly matters. Though covering major college football is a fantastic experience, it's easy to get lost in the shuffle of a media madhouse.
One is not better than the other, in my opinion. However, the experiences could not be more different.