A tide of crimson tears fell from my eyes the day my daddy died. They said at his funeral that he was a passionate man, but to me, daddy was bigger than Bear Bryant, bigger than Elvis. He couldn’t win you a football game or sing a lick, but he’d nearly die tryin.’ The Good Lord granted me thirty-three years with daddy, and my fondest memories of him are the hundred or so days we spent at Legion Field in Birmingham, cheering on my beloved football team, the Alabama Crimson Tide. I reckon this story could be told from most any Southern football fan’s perspective. The same story could be told at Georgia, or Florida, even Auburn. But when the Creator of the skies issued football allegiances to my family, he served the papers written in a crimson shade of red.
Being raised in the South, the faithful would argue that toting a Bible and worshipping Jesus has nothing to do with “religion”—it is a lifestyle, a commitment, a pilgrim’s progression toward holiness, if you will. The same belt of faith that straps-in the South serves as the geographical perimeters of the stoutest football base in America. Does anyone consider this to be ironic? What is it about our faith that also resonates with our football?
Southerners, like daddy, are passionate people. They are storytellers. They love to fight for what they believe in. The confluence of these emotional outlets comes out in our football. It is the way we express ourselves. It is our art form.
If you’re ever thinking about moving to Alabama, please remember that is a cardinal sin (maybe even state law) not to pick a side—Alabama or Auburn. Recusal of oneself from these proceedings signifies “Yankee,” “foreigner,” “carpetbagger.” If you can’t understand this dichotomy, let me give you a crash course. The hatred that brews between these two clubs is more melodramatic than the Hatfields and McCoys. Here in Alabama, we don’t need to watch Days of Our Lives or Dancing with the Stars to get our fix. We have our own reality TV show/soap opera, otherwise known as the Iron Bowl, whose final episode will occur when the Lord comes back. If Alabama is Beethoven, Auburn is Led Zeppelin. If Alabama is a tender rib eye and an oaky glass of Merlot, Auburn is biscuits and sawmill gravy and mama’s homemade casserole. If Alabama is industry and commerce, Auburn is agriculture. It’s easy to understand why Auburn is located in the fertile fringes of the Black Belt and Alabama the foothills of the Appalachians.
The Southern football game can turn even the most devout believers into raging zealots; little old ladies morph into banshees, young boys transform into tomahawk-wielding warriors, and preachers convert to screaming lunatics. Sunday mornings in the South are spent prostrate, praying in penitence for pardon for the sins of Saturday.
This same South, which holds on to its precious traditions like a man holds on to his rusty pickup, seems to get more passionate about them as time goes by. It’s as if the South is trying desperately to retain the things that once defined it. Football, family, and faith are the things we have left that connect us, connect us all. It’s the dye that pulses in our blood, in shades of crimson and white, navy and orange, purple and gold, orange and white, and so on, and so on.
I guess the days I miss daddy the most are the ones that visit me in chalky visions of old autumn days in the sepulchre of Alabama football. The splintered sidewalk surfaces of old Birmingham that passed by clapboard houses with iron bars as window treatments were a reminder that some had it far worse than I. Old men sat on porches with tired eyes that had seen too much of life; their skin was weathered and their outfits were rags thrown together from hand-me-downs and Saturday afternoon trips to the Goodwill. Outside the stadium, thousands participated in the day’s pageantry; each holding their place in the madness as a sacred rite or duty. I loved the odor of thin-sliced barbeque and franks on the grill, the sound of Southern voices of parking attendants trying to make a buck, and the sight of crimson-shirted tailgaters with their whiskey drinks buzzing and purring outside that battleship-grey iron megalith. These are the things a young boy picked up on when he walked to the game with his hero.
Stride-for-stride with daddy, a young rawboned boy did his best to keep up, right arm skyward as he reached for his hand. He made sure his new cap wasn’t kidnapped in the wind and the bill was adjusted just right and that his crimson-and-white shaker was anchored firmly in the pocket of his Levi’s. He made sure he bought a program and a souvenir cup and made it into the stadium in time to hear the first chords of Yea, Alabama as the band cut north and south and everywhere in between. He made sure that in the corner of his eye that he caught a glimpse of the pretty, high-stepping majorettes without daddy noticing. And he made damn sure that he experienced it, lived it.
Alabama football, for me, is deeply personal. It reminds me of chilly afternoons in my back yard, tossing the pigskin heavenward and waiting for Keith Jackson’s immortal voice to Whoa-Nellie the coming of the Crimson Tide. But most of all, it takes me back to the precious moments I spent with daddy. They say that grown men aren’t supposed to cry, but to me, that’s just chicken feed.
Why do people in the South love our football so much? It’s because football is a part of who we are, who our families are. We choose a team and call it our own and the world hangs on a thread for our teams, those in which we neither play nor participate—save from the cheap seats. We connect with it from afar, but it has the propensity to draw us in—into a relationship of intimacy and ardent affection.
There is a man who lives in Alabama that has a tattoo of Bear Bryant on his back. He probably couldn’t find Denny Chimes if he had to. But no one could be prouder of Alabama, prouder of the tradition here. To him, Bear Bryant was like a mythological god, a Norseman that yelped from Valhalla and spent time with us mortals for just a little while and allowed us to sip Meade from his overflowing chalice. Say a harsh word about the Bear and he’d probably cut your guts out. It’s that type of loyalty that makes college football our national pastime.
We ring our cowbells loud as Hell, raise our hands and shout “Woo-Pig-Suey!”, wipe our eyes as eagles swoop down on the field, chomp our arms together, scream Rama Jama, name our firstborns Saban, buy our gameday shirts at Wal-Mart, and we’re damn proud of it.
In the South, college football isn’t religion— it’s just something that looks like it. If an alien life form were to attend a college football game in the South and an 11 o’clock church service in town, which would it think was religion? Yet, we are faithful followers to both. I guess our faith is just expressed in different ways. For the Good Lord, in humble reverence; for our football teams in battle-cries, facepaint, and blogposts.
God is God and football is football, and Southerners know which is more important. When I go to meet my Maker and reunite with daddy, I won’t care if the people left on earth know that I was an Alabama fan. I don’t care if Yea, Alabama is played at my funeral or if “Alabama fan” is written on my epitaph. But I can’t deny that just for a little while, the Good Lord blessed me with an opportunity to experience that crimson-stained tradition, to share it with daddy in moments that forever enriched the short time that we had together. When Southern men die, a part of the South dies with them—that part of the Old South that smells like leather helmets and fixins, sounds like Skynyrd, and tastes like winning.
They say that a boy is never the same after his daddy dies, that a part of him dies, too. I guess that’s about right.
Life has taught me a great deal about the Father, the Son, and the “Holy” Pigskin. Luckily, I know where the latter falls in the loves of my life. I hope that when I get to heaven that God will allow us one last walk together toward Legion Field. I hope they serve barbeque up there. And please God, let us beat Auburn.