Are bodies really buried beneath Neyland Stadium in Knoxville?

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New details regarding the real-life story of “The Blind Side” was not on my 2023 Bingo card, but the conservatorship of former NFL player Michael Oher inspired a uniquely Knoxville question: “Are there really bodies buried under Neyland Stadium?”

Perhaps you remember tutor Miss Sue (played by Kathy Bates) suggesting as much in her attempt to sway Oher to sign with Ole Miss.

“They work with the FBI to study the effects of soil on decomposing body parts,” she said about the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, according to a quote on IMDb. “They have lots of body parts − arms and legs and hands from hospitals and medical schools. And do you know where they store them? Right underneath the football field.”

Just like the 2009 film itself, this scene is at least inspired by truth. But Dawnie Wolfe Steadman, director of UT’s Forensic Anthropology Center, said “bodies” were never beneath the gridiron.

“However, hundreds of skeletons of individuals were stored in East Stadium Hall within the east side of Neyland Stadium at one time,” she said via email.

Forensic research did happen at Neyland Stadium

The school’s anthropology department moved into South Stadium Hall in 1971. Ten years later, the donation program began, with skeletons being cleaned and housed in East Stadium Hall beneath the stadium’s east-side stands.

Fans storm the field after Tennessee's 52-49 win over Alabama in Neyland Stadium, on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022

Fans storm the field after Tennessee’s 52-49 win over Alabama in Neyland Stadium, on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022

Each person whose remains were stored there volunteered to donate their body to the Forensic Anthropology Center, Steadman said. Skeletons were placed in a box for forensic science education, training and research.

More than 2,000 people have donated their remains to the collection, which moved with the anthropology department to Strong Hall in 2017.

The Forensic Anthropology Center should not be confused with the Anthropology Research Facility, commonly called the Body Farm. As of March 2019, the farm consists of “2.5 shady acres” in Knoxville, according to the FBI.

FILE - In this Feb. 7, 2016, file photo, Carolina Panthers' Michael Oher watches from the bench during the second half of the NFL Super Bowl 50 football game in Santa Clara, Calif. The Panthers released the former starting left tackle — the subject of the movie "The Blind Side" — after he failed a physical on Thursday, July 20, 2017. The move comes six days before the Panthers are scheduled to report to training camp and 10 months since Oher last played. Oher started 16 regular games and three playoff games for the Panthers during their Super Bowl run in 2015. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

“The movie ‘The Blind Side’ most certainly contributed to the folklore of the Body Farm,” Steadman said. “The tutor correctly stated that the ‘fine people at Tennessee’ help the FBI and police, but we do so in a number of ways.”

Research continues at the Body Farm in Knoxville, Tennessee

UT does work with the medicolegal community to find, recover and identify missing people to understand how and when they died, Steadman said. However, the university does not accept “body parts” − only the entire body of donors.

“Movies, books, TV shows and documentaries often sensationalize the Body Farm, but they also (and sometimes unwittingly) convey the importance of the research conducted there,” Steadman said.

Today, that research includes using “remote sensing techniques” to find missing people, as well as developing new techniques to obtain DNA from bones to identify remains. Research also involves understanding how drugs in someone’s system affect the rate of decomposition and examining how microbes in soil can be used to estimate when a person died.

Long story short: “No skeletal remains are in Neyland Stadium,” Steadman said. In fact, the areas within Neyland Stadium where the anthropology department once operated have gone away or are being renovated as part of the stadium’s overhaul, she said.

“Importantly, none of the research and training could occur without the generosity of the people who donate their bodies to the Forensic Anthropology Center,” Steadman said. “Over 5,000 people from around the country have registered to donate their bodies, but most of the donors are from right here in East Tennessee.”

Know Your Knox answers your burning questions about life in Knoxville. Want your question answered? Email knowyourknox@knoxnews.com.

Ryan Wilusz is a downtown growth and development reporter. Phone 865-317-5138. Email ryan.wilusz@knoxnews.com. Instagram @knoxscruff.

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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Are bodies buried beneath Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee?

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