A-Day: Football and Fanaticism in Alabama

At 11am some will have begun their tailgating for the A-day game; when I wake it is nearly 11 and I am immediately struck with the confused and somnolent panic of one who thinks they may have ruined their day by beginning it too late. Alex, an MBA student from Dallas who is my main connection to this house, insisted that I take his bed last night while he slept on the large reclining chair in the living room – Southern hospitality is real and alive and well. As soon as I emerge from his room my brief panic is quelled. The only sound is Jay, a recent graduate who now lives in Birmingham AL, violently vomiting behind the bathroom door beside me after a bad reaction to some muscle relaxants that he had been so happy to source the night before. The rest of the house is drowsy and dark, though with blades of bright Alabama light sneaking behind the blinds and revealing the hour. I am beyond the frat house; I am in the house of a couple of recently graduated frat boys that have not left the university but have had to leave their past habitat. The enormous and upsetting bag of disposable cutlery suggests that they may not be quite ready to leave that life behind.

 In the main open plan room I am greeted by Otis, the quiet and wonderful rescue dog that has been trained to fetch a beer from a closed fridge, close the door after him, and bring the can to whoever asked. Feeling like Jay and Otis shouldn’t be the only ones getting a jump on the day, I pretend to knock over an empty beer bottle that clangs around on the hard kitchen-area floor and starts the place into life.

Within minutes Carter, a real, feel every torn ligament kind of fan and the other actual resident of this house besides Alex, has disappeared to pick up the tickets for their box and to see if they can scrape me one, while Alex is utilising his one-hitter and announcing that it is: “Fucking A day!”

 A few more minutes and he is demonstrating his gun collection to me: “See this one is more traditional. You have to cock it between each shot, which is a bit of a pain, but still.”

 Now, since adolescence ended guns have always freaked me out – like holding a pocket fucking guillotine would – but when I acquiesce and take the large slightly aged single-barrel from him I do get a feel for the appeal of the air conditioned steel and I now know that I would have accepted the invitation to go shooting with them just outside of Tuscaloosa the next day if I had not desperately needed to progress with my trip – perhaps this is one of the consequences of an extended period in the US, we’ll see if it lasts. I was supposed to leave on Thursday you see, but it is now Saturday and I have decided to accept the continued hospitality of Rebecca, my Couchsurfing host, who [quietly: don’t say it too loud in this town] confesses to having no interest in football and so I would not see until after A-Day, and heed the advice of every person in Alabama about visiting Mississippi – “Where should I go in Mississippi?” “Airport” – the only state that comes below Alabama itself in stats on e.g. education, obesity, general prosperity. Plus, this Saturday means A-Day, the end of Spring training and the first unveiling of this years set of 18-22 year olds who will bear the weight of maybe the most intense supporter expectations in modern sport. 

 Tuscaloosa is a college town, a core population of around 90,000 is supplemented by a term time college population of around 45,000, and that college is the University of Alabama, home of the Crimson Tide, the Red Elephants, Bama. Boasting 16 national championships and suffering only three defeats in the last three seasons combined, this is the most successful and menacing college football program in the US, and the pride of the town, including even those residents who are quick to tell that they eagerly await the college holidays so that they can get their town back. This support is shown in the 101,821 seater Bryant-Denny stadium that looms proud in the heart of both town and campus, one being nearly the other, and in the ubiquitous phrase “Roll tide!” that is used throughout the town as a greeting, a how are you, an I’m good, and a farewell.

 Back to Alex and his guns. Well nothing actually happened with the guns, they were presented to me proudly in turn, and I inspected them and then complimented them, as I guess is only proper when a man so earnestly shows you his phallic symbol, and then returned them to their owner, the guns going from overly cautious hands to overly nonchalant ones. 

 Carter returns shortly after the weapons are stored and tells me that I am “In like Flynn” as he hands me a gas station Chicken biscuit, a blue Powerade, and a ticket to the executive box that they have for the game. I have been consistently taken aback by the almost ridiculous level of hospitality that I have been shown in my near week in Tuscaloosa; after the initial “what the hell are you doing in Tuscaloosa?”‘s, the entire town has seemingly been on an ardent and coordinated mission to show me a good time. There is surely a causal connection between these two: if a young guy from an allegedly exotic land turns up in your small Alabama town against all expectations, then you will likely do your best to show said guy the best possible angle of that town in an attempt to disprove the apparent preconceptions that most Alabamians seem extremely conscious of.

 After Otis demonstrates his famous trick a few more times, we realise that the day is getting away from us and I am ceremonially handed an oversized crimson ‘Bama’ polo shirt before we head to the stadium. These shirts are standard attire and not limited to game- or A-Day wear; go to any Tuscaloosa college bar on a Friday night and you will see a variety of these red or white or red and white polo shirts decorating confident, fraternity funded slouches.

 The traffic is of course terrible on this drive and generates much complaining, as it tends to in America [perhaps because it inhibits the freedom that their cars, like Cormac McCarthy’s Pretty Horses, represent] a problem that is exacerbated by this country’s utter devotion to personal automobiles and negligence of a decent and widespread rail network. We stop off on the way to the stadium to collect a much sought-after parking pass from someone else’s house, which turns out to grant us parking only a few hundred metres closer to the ground than we would otherwise have been, but then, as Alex told me last night after drink-driving [apparently not an issue here in Alabama or the South generally, “So long as you keep it between the lines”] a hundred metres from one bar to the next: “I am an American. I do not walk! That’s what y’all do in Europe.” 

 On arrival the town is buzzing, each crimson bee heading only for the prominent hive. I am told that the stadium will be two thirds full today – the official figure given of 74,326 an absurd number for a warm-up game – and that I should come here for a real game, then I would see something else. On the short walk from designated parking area to stadium I get a sense of the aggressive Alabama heat and am truly glad for the shaded and of course air-conditioned box that we shall be inhabiting; a pasty motherfucker can and will burn out here. The benefits of this box are not limited to climate though, there is a continuous supply of ‘Stadium Dogs’ and nachos, as well as a fridge to which large cases of beer have been dropped off the day before, allowing extortionate prices to be avoided. And these luxuries can be yours for a mere $300,000 dollar ‘donation’, which allows you to watch unpaid athletes [though I am sure they receive similarly within-inverted-commas-belonging donations themselves] play against the same from other colleges in the 7 home games a year, as well as this bonus early run out among themselves.

 When we get to the front of the box and take a seat I am able to get an idea of this monstrous, 101,821 capacity [Consider that Bournemouth play in the Premier League in front of a capacity of 11,464] coliseum. Though the stadium’s top tier is indeed fairly empty, its other two look pretty much full at the start of play, and there is a great deal of proud energy coming from those that are here. Beside me Alex looks fairly misty eyed – though this has been true for much of the morning – and starts to eulogise earnestly: “You see why we win? Because each of those players is made to know how much we care. Because we cheer louder than any of ’em. Auburn? [I hadn’t asked about the rival college’s support] Forget about it.”

 Then he disappears to find something or other at the back of the box and I am left alone to comprehend the oft discussed power of the Crimson Tide support.

 The greatest roar of the day is for the announced entry of the players, coming from either end of the pitch and complete with orchestrated explosions. A couple of players, surely freshman, seem slightly taken aback by their first sight of a near-full stadium and turn as they run to take it all in, others are well accustomed to this spectacle and raise their arms to generate yet more noise from the crowd: this is what they have been waiting and training for.

 After the national anthem has played and we have stood and I have pretended to nearly know the words, the players line up for the game to begin. There is a fairly long pause with the kicker at the back of his run-up and an out-of-place man in a yellow polo a few metres from him. Sitting beside me, Carter says that this man’s presence indicates that ESPN is currently at commercials and so the play cannot start just yet – even the warm-ups are televised here. 

 Once the network has given their permission and the yellow shirted man has waved his arms and trotted off, the next thing that strikes me is that the first, specials teams, play is non-contact: just a two handed touch brings about the first down for Alabama on offence against Alabama on defence [“At least we’re guaranteed a win.”]. As the game progresses it does turn out to be largely full contact, the only exceptions being the injury prone kick-return, in which running speeds reach absolute full-pelt, and of course the vital Quarter Backs, both of who wear distinguishing black shirts that absolutely forbid their being tackled properly. The competition between these two QB’s is the main point of interest in this game. With last years freshman QB Jalen Hurts, who led the team to an undefeated 14-0 run until the last play of the NCAA final before the Crimson Tide lost a 31-35 stinger to the Clemson Tigers, now facing stiff competition from the pointed signing of Hawaiian freshman Tua Tagovailoa. It is a cut-throat world beneath the pressure of Crimson Tide expectations: “If you lose the last game of the season, nobody gives a shit.” [Film version of Billie Bean] 

 This QB battle can only take you far though and with it being difficult to decide or discern who I was supposed to support, the interest in the main spectacle quickly dwindled and so we turned to the main focus of our day. But before we get drinking properly I remember that I have to thank Carter for sorting me out with these ridiculous tickets, an experience that most lifelong Bama fans do not receive and thus one that I feel a bit sheepish about stumbling into. When I do thank him Carter waves me away in a casual and honest fashion:

 “Oh, you’re good,” he says, then turns to me with a satisfied little smile, “And now you’re a lifelong fan – it’s great!”

 Obviously having no intention of telling Carter that I don’t really care for American Football, I lamely turn the conversation to the sheer size of this stadium to watch university sport, the eighth largest stadium in the world and indicative of a slightly larger following than me and the three or four dozen others who would watch the decent standard first team rugby at Nottingham, all of us present out of obligation to a participating friend. Carter looks proud but seems to understand my amazement.

 “It’s all we have here in Alabama. Football.”

 Then I make my first mistake of the day, one that I have already made in the past few days on more than one occasion.

 “So did you play?” I ask.

 This single question brings about the same wistful eyes upon the face and sigh upon the mouth of any true Bama fan as they contemplate what could have been if they had been more talented or worked harder or been someone else entirely: then they could have been somebody, gone out in front of the 101,821 seven times a year and really been somebody. 

 Post sigh, Carter tells me that he did and then I conveniently realise that I need a stadium dog [I end up having half a dozen of the delicious disgusting things] and I am able to avoid the same conversation template that I have already experienced a number of times. 

Hanging around the oft restocked food store at the back of the box I find Bear, another through and through, local born fan – the fact that he is named after the Crimson Tide’s legendary coach ‘Bear’ Bryant suggesting that he didn’t have much choice in this fandom, but then I’m not sure who does in this town.

 “So noone’s really watching this football much are they?” I ask from behind Bear as he appears to be weighing the different foil wrapped dogs in the store.

 “What happened!?” He asks on the turn, dropping the food and hurriedly facing the stationary field.

 “No, nothing. I’m just saying that no one here seems that interested in the football is all.”

 Bear busily rearranges his face.

 “You’ve gotta come back for a home game man. A real one. This place is unbelievable; on a big play, when you can feel the stadium move! Shit, gives me goosebumps just thinking about it!” And he holds his forearm in front of my face to show me the fine white bumps that cover it and looks proudly at the clear and indisputable evidence of his passion for this football team and then calls Alex over to show him this same evidence and recount our conversation practically verbatim.

At some point there is half time, the scores set at Alabama 14-7 Alabama. During this half time there is some fairly tragic dodgeball match between past Bama players, now NFL pros, designed to show both the fruitful individual success of the Alabama program, and the loyal respect that these players have for the team that got them where they are today. These pros can be seen around the small Tuscaloosa bars throughout the weekend, alone, drinking in the awed adoration with their disciplined water bottle resting on the table in their hands. One of the players, looking comically large in the distance besides the more reasonably sized announcer, speaks at the end saying nothing of any real interest and concluding of course with the expected “Roll tide,” complete with clenched fist raised, the chant echoing round the stadium in cultish reply.

 After the half-time filler dodge ball match, the similarly competitive football resumes. When we return to the seats at the front of the box I see that the attendance levels have dropped significantly: there are great patches of seats now visible across the stands. They have shown their support for this team and are now able to say they went to his year’s A-Day and were part of the 74,326 true fans, though I can understand that the searing heat in the stadium cauldron may be hard to bear without the distracting spectacle of actual competition with actual stakes.

 The second half progresses and the game itself is everything you could ask of it: of a high standard and coming down to the wire, the QB’s ending up throwing over 300 yards apiece and the game being decided with a field goal on the very last play. Our group is actually too absorbed with organising a frat-boy reminiscent, beer can shotgunning [harder than it looks] competition to pay too much attention to this, but at least we know who won.

 Following the game’s conclusion there is an address from the much-worshipped coach Nick Saban, who, as I am repeatedly told during my time in Tuscaloosa, was the first college football coach to feature on Forbes’ annual list of the ‘World’s 50 Greatest Leaders,’ before the pitch is opened up to the crowd, the vast space being quickly filled with fathers trying to inspire their children amongst slightly drunken students. In a note on the amount of money that goes into this program, I am assured that the turf of this pitch will be entirely replaced after the damage that the thousands of people currently trampling over it will surely do.

 With the game concluded, a member of the stadium staff arrives to usher us out of first the box and then the stadium. On being spewed out onto the searing heat of the campus streets I am made to properly appreciate the climate controlled box and wonder how I would have managed without it – not very fucking well I imagine.

 I urge us to hurry out from the sun and we dive into the nearest bar available, a barren, concrete floored room with only three pieces of real decoration, a series of 8ft portraits of the lord our saviour, Nick Saban, the most powerful man in Tuscaloosa. The most striking of these portraits was mounted on the shorter wall of the rectangular room and depicts a benevolent looking Saban with palms forward, fingers down, elbows by his side, and with a divine light emanating from behind him. While inspecting this painting I am tapped on the shoulder by Domico, a stocky and almost astonishingly pleasant guy of Italian descent who is a good friend of Rebecca, my football loathing host, and a former squad member of the Crimson Tide team, serving four years as a walk-on, a rare feat indeed.

 “The man himself,” I say, gesturing to the divine image ahead.

 “The man who can do whatever he wants in this town.”

 “You played for the guy, what do you make of him.”

 Domico pauses a second and seems to consider what he should say here, before apparently deciding there is nothing to lose with telling me straight – people are always more likely to tell the truth to someone who is only temporary; someone they will not have to see in the day to day and be constantly aware of everything they have revealed.

 “He’s Micheal Corleone. He’s a businessman, he don’t think twice about cutting someone. I’m not saying he’s a bad guy, dude gets payed seven million bucks a year, he has to be. I don’t know if he’s the guy he’s made out to be though.”

 Indeed, the traffic stopping power that Nick Saban has in this town is beyond belief. My inquiries have revealed little evidence of his abusing this power – at least not abuses that have made it into Tuscaloosan common knowledge – but I do hear that last year’s offensive coordinator, Steve Sardinian used his own status to seduce college girls, whether that abuse is identified as the real reason behind his departure I cannot say.

 In the Nick Saban devoted bar our group meets a similarly numbered group of sorority girls [nobody has every said sorority women, regardless of official, alcohol drinking adult age] who have also come from the A-day game and are sporting the mandatory crimson outfits. Alex is delighted by the attractiveness of these girls and takes a tourist board tone when he tells me to “Look what we have here!” The same tone that he took last night after we were offered coke in the bathroom of a local bar: “Cocaine! In small town Tuscaloosa!”

After I’m introduced to the sorority girls and the expected “Oh you’re English” bullshit is over, I try to discover what motivates their devotion to this football team – what is in it for them?

 “It’s Bama football! We go to every home game and most of the away!” says one, a smartly dressed brunette, her tight, not quite bra outline revealing polo shirt tucked into her dark trousers, with real and earnest passion, “Last year was tough, but this year we’ll do it again; usually we win, this year we’ll win.”

 “So you like football?”

 “I like Bama football.”

 “Do you have a choice?”

 “Of course! We all chose to come to this game and we’ll choose to come to the next one.”

 “Who decided?”

 “All of us!”

 And with that she turned to nod along to the fairly detailed technical conversation which Alex and Domico were having concerning the two quarter backs and the merits of the passing focused offence which Tagovailoa suits, versus the running option that Hurts trumps him on, a conversation that I barely even try to follow.

After a few hours of the familiar drinking focused routine, the evening is over and I realise that I need to get home to prepare for tomorrow’s departure, exchanging slightly drunken and properly fond farewells with the people that have welcomed me so wholeheartedly into their town. I tell Alex that I will leave his shirt with Rebecca to give back to him but he pauses and gently punches the ‘A’ logo on my chest.

 “That’s yours now.”

 This is a touching gesture but I immediately and silently curse that I will have to find space for it in my already busting backpack. 

 Wearing my newly acquired shirt for surely the last time on this trip, I proceed back to Rebecca’s house.

 “So how was A-Day? A day to remember?” She asks when I arrive.

 “Good. You didn’t want to be a part of it?”

 She shakes her head with a smile.

 “I don’t watch football. Never have.”

 “So you guys [I nearly say y’all, probably the most infectious piece of slang I have ever heard, and which makes every use of ‘you guys’ feel painfully cumbersome, but doesn’t work without the delightful Southern twang] lost in the final last year?”

 Rebecca nods, only slightly glumly, especially compared to the effect I have seen this question have throughout the week.

 “It’s fine though, we’ll win it this year. We do most years.”

 “We?” I say, smiling at her lapse into the collective pronoun. She shrugs and grins guiltily – I guess it is always more appealing and sometimes less effort to feel a part of something than to not, especially when that something keeps on winning.

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