On Wednesday, March 29, my colleagues in UT Communications and Marketing and I arrived for work at 4:15 a.m., walked down to Neyland Stadium, and set up tables and stations to check in an expected 4,000 UT students, faculty, alumni, and staff. We needed to record every single name—most of them elicited by swiping student ID cards—to verify to the Guinness World Records folks that we were actually setting a new mark for the largest human letter, surpassing the 3,373 people who formed a human Q at Queens University in Ontario in September 2016.
Our letter, of course, was to be a Power T, covering much of the football field. The orange Power T is the most recognizable element of UT’s brand. When fans see it on the side of a football helmet, they swoon with pride and start to sing “Rocky Top.” Actor David Keith always tries to sneak the Power T into his movies and usually succeeds.
In the early morning hours of March 29, we were slated to show our Power T on the Today show during Al Roker’s weather segments. Roker was visiting a different campus each day of the week in what was billed as Rokerthon 3, with a world record attempt at each stop. On Monday, around 800 students at the University of Oklahoma formed a cloud and a lightning bolt as part of a weather map. On Tuesday, 634 students from Northern Michigan had played the world’s largest game of freeze tag. Our undertaking would be the largest so far, and indeed of the entire week.
On this morning, those wanting to take part in the largest human letter had to arrive by 5:30 a.m. I had my doubts about whether those who had signed up would actually show up. A decisive majority proved my doubts unfounded. After participants were checked in, they got coffee, doughnuts, and an orange T-shirt created for the occasion. They walked out onto the field of glory, then up into the stands to await instructions. On the field, flags demarcated the outline of the T. Music played and some students and staffers danced. When they were instructed to do so over the loudspeaker, two channels of participants funneled down from the stands and into the T, where they filled in the edges.
The process took more than an hour, but there was an excited feeling in the air. Something big was happening in the darkness before dawn and under the bright lights. UT Chancellor Beverly Davenport was on the field in her orange T-shirt greeting everyone. Smokey, the black and brindle bluetick coon hound, was led onto the field in his orange checkerboard jacket and patiently posed with dozens of students. As befitting a celebrity of his stature, Smokey handles the mantle of his popularity with aplomb.
Gradually the T began to fill in with humanity. This progress was visible on the Jumbotron, which carried a live feed from a camera high in the stands. When there was only a small blank area in the middle of T, those of us who were working the event entered and filled in. Al Roker arrived on the field to some commotion, but this was beyond the sightlines of those inside the T. Members of the Pride of the Southland Band were playing now. An NBC drone swooped and hovered, catching it all for the TV audience.
If you have not stood in a sea of human bodies, all mindful of a single purpose, all aware of the uniqueness of the experience—the feeling sticks with you. Large political marches, football games, and outdoor rock concerts create their own group consciousness. It can be contagious and addictive to be part of something much larger than yourself.
In the Power T, all of us in our orange T-shirts were instructed by the Guinness folks to stand motionless for five minutes. We watched the time tick down on the Jumbotron. Al Roker led the final 5-4-3-2-1 countdown, and the deed was done. The official count was 4,223 souls in the letter. In the anticlimactic moments that followed, the Power T disassembled. Students with 9 a.m. classes were given priority to leave first. Others followed. We staffers walked back to our offices, still in our T-shirts. As the early wake-up and the effort of the morning began to catch up with us, we all felt a collective sense that we had taken part in something important, and that it had reaffirmed the significance of our university and our work in it. And we would never look at the Power T the same way again.