I was finishing up my charting on the last patient of the day last Friday afternoon when DU, a friend from Harding and a longtime blog reader and commenter, left me a message: “Eyeguy, call me when you have a minute. Thanks. RTR!”
DU is a Bama man, born and bred, and I could tell by the excitement in his voice that college football fever was eating up his bones. I’m a relative late-comer to the party, but after reading Warren St. John’s Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, the fundamentalist bible of fanatical Bama fandom, a few years ago, I repented of my childhood allegiances to Virginia Tech and Notre Dame and was washed beneath the Crimson Flood. I knew then that I needed a little more of that kind of crazy in my life, but little did I know just how crazy it would get. I was about to find out.
“Hey brother!” DU yelled over the noise of rubber meeting asphalt in the background. “I’m headed your way and was planning to go to T-town tomorrow for the big game and was wondering if you’d like to ride along. I don’t have any tickets, thought we could try our luck on the sidewalk and if we can’t get in, just find some food and a big screen and watch the game there. Waddya say, Eyeguy?”
That sounds a little crazy, I thought. Your mind races in a situation like that. It would be a classic matchup and a renewal of a storied rivalry–Alabama versus Penn State–and the joint would be jumping. It was the anniversary of 9/11 and also Bear Bryant’s birthday (9/11/13). It would make a great story, you think, rich, moist grist for the literary mill. You ask yourself if you could be happy, worse case scenario, sitting outside The Temple of Tidedom and listening to the roar of 101K+ crazy people as you munch on lip-smacking BBQ ribs and watch the game on a 60-inch HDTV in the air-conditioned comfort of an eatery on The Strip.
You say, “Um, let me think about that a minute”…and then you call back seconds later and say, “Uh, yes, and Roll Tide.”
We met up in Athens and jumped into line and took our place in the Game Day caravan headed south on I-65. There was a lot of Harding and personal news to catch up on, and it seemed like only minutes until we felt the train begin to slow down near the Mercedes plant in Vance. It was just a little after 1:00PM and kickoff wasn’t until 6:00, so if the traffic was already backed out this far, we might be in trouble.
But it was only a small bottleneck as three lanes turned to two, and soon we exited at Cottondale, my favorite backdoor approach to Tuscaloosa. We began to slowly snake our way onto University Avenue amid the flag and magnet-festooned SUVs and the Hummer stretch limos ferrying jet-setters from the Birmingham airport to what is, on this day at least, the place to be and be seen.
After parking for free downtown and purchasing a $2 round-trip shuttle ticket to campus–one of the cheaper items we would buy that day as it turns out–we piled on one of the buses along with dozens of other crimson-clad crazy people. I could tell by the wild look in DU’s eyes that he didn’t want to resort to Plan B. The man. wanted. in. that. stadium.
“Does anybody have any extra TICKETS?” DU yelled as the bus started to amble slowly down the streets of Tuscaloosa like a lumbering elephant.
There was complete and utter silence. Visions of a hostage crisis à la the movie Speed must have been passing through their heads. What manner of crazy man is this dressed in a crimson and white, striped Bama polo and a Bear Bryantesque houndstooth fedora?
A few seconds of awkward pause passed and then DU relieved the tension. “That’s not the answer I was looking for.”
There was laughter now, along with a few calls of “Good luck with that.” DU turned toward me and said, “Next time, it’s your turn.”
The driver dropped us off at, appropriately enough, Paul Bryant Avenue. As we made our way toward the new south end zone addition to the stadium, DU called out to a man nursing a Bud near the steps of a renovated and recently flipped 1920s bungalow, “Any extra tickets?”
“Got two,” the man drawled through his buzz. “Five hundred dolla’ a piece.”
We rolled our eyes and moved on. We passed the soaring wall of the new addition to Bryant-Denny which reached cathedral-like toward the heavens, row upon row of confident, Ozymandias bricks, a memorial to man’s ceaseless attempts to defy his mundane and temporary shell and leave a lasting mark. It seemed to beckon to us and call out as we passed: “If thou art to enter my holy gates, thou must git downright craaazy before the day is done.”
We took a left on Sorority Row and paused to plot strategy. “Where do you think is the best place to look for tickets?” DU asked.
“I know just the place,” I replied, trying to sound confident even though I had never bought tickets off the sidewalk before. Somehow, I had the impression that DU was an old pro at this, but as I learned later, it was his first time too.
I led him to Tailgate Central, the corner of Colonial Drive and University just west of Denny Chimes at the southwest corner of the quad, site of the large bivouac of Southern people since the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. Since seemingly everything and everybody had to pass that way, we decided to make our stand there. And there we stood and worked the corner like a couple of seasoned pros, each spinning in a tight circle and holding two fingers aloft, normally the universal gesture for “Peace,” but on Game Day, the sign for “I need two!”
Tickets were scarce at first and the prices high. Not as high as buzzed Bud man back on Paul Bryant, but still well above our tentative ceiling price which we had agreed to target on. Word started to spread on our corner among the licensed resellers wearing the pink ID badges of the two men, one wearing a houndstooth fedora and the other wearing a Bama ball cap and a coach’s polo like Nick Saban, who dared to dream they would get lower level seats for a mere $60 over face value.
“You’ll never even get in the door for that price,” they warned. “Oh, and watch out for counterfeiters too. There’s tons of them out here.”
And indeed there were. I held several tickets in my hand that day that felt lighter, like they had been printed on a cheaper, more illicit stock of paper. I would remove my glasses and inspect the hologram closely. If the secondary image reflected poorly or failed to appear altogether when I turned the ticket in the afternoon light, I would hand it back to the owner and say, “No thanks.”
DU is a fundraiser for Harding, an affable man of easy conversation accustomed to pressing the flesh and loosening wallets for a worthy cause. It was interesting watching him work in reverse. Many of the same sales techniques applied, including searching for and often finding some type of Arkansas connection.
One denizen of the Razorback state in a white tee shirt and jeans offered us a pair of genuine tickets for only $25 above our ceiling, but he wouldn’t budge any further. “Come on,” DU cajoled, “you can do better than that. We’re both from Arkansas!”
I looked at DU thinking he might fold and fork over the cash, but he looked off in a distance and held pat. “They’ll come down more,” he quietly said.
Meantime, clouds had been rolling in from the southwest, and that’s when we caught the first of two big breaks. The rain started pouring, sending people scurrying into the tents which dotted the quad and reaching for their rain ponchos, which they donned faster than an infantryman’s gas mask. “This should help,” I told DU, thinking that the threat of rain at kickoff would have the same effect on ticket prices as a plague of locusts on corn futures.
As the rain continued to fall, we decided to take a short break and amble over to the Walk of Champions to greet the team as they emerged from their bus. Thousands of people several rows deep were already there, and when the first bus pulled up, excitement rose to a fever pitch–that is, until everyone realized the bus was empty, apparently some type of practice run. At Alabama, Nick Saban’s vaunted “Process” which began in 2007 covers every phase of the program in Swiss watch detail, right down to the team ride to the stadium.
When the real bus finally arrived, the throng held their cameras aloft, flashes popping as General Nick himself emerged first, leading his troops to battle. One burly, grim faced gladiator after another came down the steps, many of them dressed to the nines and listening to the the martial music of their choice through their buds and Dr. Dre earphones. They swaggered forward in small groups and would occasionally pause for pictures.
I was far back, and it was one of those times when I wished that I was just a little bit taller. But through a gap in the jumble of shoulders and heads I spied Trent Richardson, his well-groomed dreads hanging from his head like lethal snakes, face expressionless and eyes closed in the picture of studied concentration, his broad shoulders carrying the hopes of the crowd like they would the six, eight, sometimes even ten would-be tacklers that he would drag along like boxcars on a train as he rushed for over 140 yards later that evening.
We returned to our corner and tried again. This time eager sellers emerged from the woodwork. DU zeroed in a man born in Pine Bluff who was wavering and about to lower his price for two prime lower level seats to the price we were willing to pay. “Listen,” he said, “let me walk down here just a little further and see if I can sell these for what I’m asking. If I can’t, I’ll sell them to you for your price. I’ll be right over there.”
And that’s when we caught our second big break. Unbeknownst to us, another man had been listening in on the conversation. When the first seller was out of earshot, he swooped in and flashed us a couple of lower level tickets near the north end zone. “I couldn’t help but overhear what you were saying,” he smiled wryly. “I’ll sell you these for $125 each.”
DU and I looked at each other and nodded. We inspected the tickets closely, and seconds later, it was a signed, sealed and delivered done deal.
We spied the man from Pine Bluff on our way toward the stadium. “We got’em!” DU shouted to him.
“Well, I’m sooooo happy for you!” the man replied. There was a ting of sarcasm in his voice as it dawned on him that he had been undercut by another seller and would probably be forced to sell his pair cheaper anyway.
We each purchased a game program which featured Nick Saban and Joe Paterno, nose to nose in a “Classic Clash,” on the cover. We were like two kids on Christmas morning as we took our seats in Section M, Row 33. It was still over an hour before kickoff, and while we could have probably held out longer and gotten in the gate cheaper, we wanted to enjoy the fruit of our labor: to watch the crowds filter in and the excitement rise, to observe the teams warm-up and maybe catch a glimpse of JoePa, to kick back and enjoy a meal of Diet Coke, Dreamland BBQ and Golden Flake Potato chips (a mere $8–a pittance!) before the evening got too busy.
As kickoff neared, pre-game fever inside the towering cauldron of Bryant Denny began to rise and bubble over. Penn State fans, who all afternoon had mixed and mingled amiably among us on the quad, chattering away in some strange, foreign dialect, were scattered here and there, their blue and white and 1930s era leather football helmets contrasting sharply and standing out like well-marked buoys in a sea of crimson. But for the most part, they were congregated in the northeast corner of the end zone where they were doing their best to pull-off one of their famous “white-outs.”
From there, they had the perfect vantage point to take in all the craziness going down in the asylum and get a taste of college football, fried up Southern-style. The cheer practice. The crowd standing and belting out “Sweet Home Alabama” like it was their national anthem, punctuating it periodically with “Roll Tide, Roll!” The synchronized “swoosh swoosh” and gentle breeze of a million and one crimson and white shakers stirring the evening humidity and beating out the rhythm of the group Alabama’s signature song “Dixieland Delight.”
Soon things turned more solemn. Nick Saban, Joe Paterno and special guest Bobby Bowden, another octogenarian and recently retired coach at Florida State, met together at midfield. What the time-tested troika discussed is anybody’s guess, but it had the air of a “farewell tour” for JoePa as both he and Bowden gently placed their hands on Nick’s shoulders as if to say, “It’s yours now, son.”
The crowd stood and thundered as the faces of JoePa and Bowden loomed above them on each of the Jumbotrons placed strategically in the four corners of the stadium. Like young Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird, they stood out of respect–because “History was passin’.”
We remembered the victims of 9/11/01. The sound of silence was deafening, save for the one drunken fan somewhere in the upper deck who let out a lusty “Roll Tide.” There’s always one, even in a crowd of 101K+.
And after that we remained standing and belted out “The Star Spangled Banner.” Close to a minute after Alabama’s Million Dollar Band had finished off the final bars, two Air National Guard fighter jets buzzed the stadium, sending up another whoop from the crowd. Their timing was a little off, perhaps due to the low-lying cloud cover, but one thing was obvious: Nick hadn’t been in charge of that.
As the band played “Yea Alabama” and formed the script “A” at midfield, I looked on in awe at the great cloud of witnesses stacked high to the heavens and wondered about those who weren’t with us. I do not know with any great degree of certainty whether or not there is consciousness beyond the grave. But I hope there is.
And I hoped they were watching too, thankful that we had remembered them, but even more, so that we had moved on and were busy living our days well and to the hilt, all crazy and crimson, beneath the racing, arcing sun.