For the Love of the Game

In a region where fans bleed their team's colors, fall's favorite game still takes our breath away.
Rick Bragg

I know why I love it. It goes back to nights in Paul Snow Stadium, where the Fighting Gamecocks of Jacksonville State whipped Troy, or Tennessee-Martin, or Delta State. In my memory we always won, as, in dreams, you never hit bottom when you fall. My uncles, good men, took me there as a boy in the 1970s and bought me hot dogs wrapped in aluminum foil. We always sat up high, so I could see the stadium fill with people I knew: the insurance man, the lady from the Five-and-Dime, and every pretty girl in five counties.

The JSU school colors were red and white but might as well have been dark blue, from all the company jackets from U.S. Pipe or Goodyear. If it rained we hid under Caterpillar caps and programs, but not umbrellas. We did not believe in umbrellas. On occasion, one would unfurl in the seats in front of us, and my uncles would grumble that "We'd see some football, if it wasn't for all these parasols." Our heroes were Ralph Brock--he could throw a football from here to Edwardsville--and Boyce Callahan, who ran for his life. He's a chiropractor now. He was like lightning, then.

We never looked away at halftime. With a great pounding of drums and sounding of brass, the Marching Southerners, in perfect step, would sweep onto the grass. They played music from our history, and, if you listened close, you might hear a tuba player sing: In the sky the bright stars glittered/ On the bank the pale moon shone/ And twas from Aunt Dinah's quilting party/ I was seeing Nellie home. 

And the beautiful Marching Ballerinas, in red velvet, kicked their white boots high in the air. Why do we love football? How could we not?

I teach now in the shade of the great stadium at The University of Alabama, and though my joy of football has hardened in middle age it has not faded. On Sundays, after a rare loss, the air goes stale. It seems harder to move. I have friends who say it is the same in Auburn, Athens, anyplace people live and die on a holding call, and joke that their new state flower is a satellite dish with high definition.

My middle stepson, Caleb, is a Tennessee fan, so I have kept him hidden until now. He insists on wearing that awful color, better suited for deer hunting, forcing me to say something mean about Peyton Manning just to see him hop like an agitated, orange squirrel. But he is so despondent after a loss that I pull for UT, sometimes, to spare him pain.

When Chris Roberts, an Alabama professor, explains our fascination "to the infidels," he describes his route to work: "Past the Bryant Bank on the left, then over the Bryant Bridge. Eventually, I turn onto Bryant Drive, home of the Bryant Museum and Bryant Conference Center. I park near the northwest end zone of Bryant-Denny Stadium. Then I walk past the Bryant statue. If they're not convinced, I show my ATM card--the one with Bear Bryant on it."

I do not know if I would love it as much if I had discovered it at an age of chat rooms, of anonymous bad-mouthing. I learned to love it in an age of newspapers, of fat Sunday sports pages filled with the lore of the game, all but lost in a time when every quarterback's tweet from behind a velvet rope sends ESPN all atremble.

Would I? Probably. "How could a game be better?" said Alabama fan Ken Fowler, who, for seven decades, has suffered and exulted through Saturday afternoons. "People united in common interest, in the outdoors, against one enemy. And, it reminds us that all in this world is not hurricanes and volcanoes."

I hope your teams, at least in distant memory, always win. Unless they are playing one of mine.