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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Digging up the Hatchet, 2008

So real life has conspired to keep me off the blog lately. Don't look at me like that. I've been to Winston-Salem, Johnson City TN, Nashville, Cleveland, Raleigh-Durham, Pittsburgh, Hershey, Huntington WV, New York, Richmond, Rochester, New York, Columbus Ohio, and Greensboro in the past three weeks. In that order.

But it's the week leading up to the Iron Bowl. I am compelled to write something.

Pre-game analysis is at this point moot, and more effectively pursued by those who've been able to watch the recent games. The bottom line as far as I can see is that we got pissed off against Ole Miss, we showed that we could have beaten Georgia with a few breaks, and we’ve had a solid two weeks to get rared up for the Iron Bowl - I'm encouraged. Beyond that, I’m not going to X ‘n O it, as the X’s and O’s are neither clear nor encouraging, and I’m not going to be the one to sift through our season of DEATH to find the glimmers of hope still holding their breath in the wreckage and therefore jinx the Story indelibly on the intertubes. If anyone’s disappointed, well, they can get their bellyful of freudeschaden by reading my truly glorious preview of the LSU game.

But that’s neither here nor there. It’s HATE week.

It'll rust if you just leave it there, underground.


So what's more interesting to me is the recent paradigm shift in the state of Bama fandom.

Maybe I'm just old-school - fortunate to be thoroughly brewed in our bitter Alabaman past - but I hate Bama. My father will have the blame and credit for that, for he is an Auburn fan to end all Auburn fans, a man who traces his blue-and-orange blood back to our pre-civil war ancestors. The neighbors, peacefully walking their dogs on Saturdays in autumn, are no longer startled when they hear him bellowing inside our house from the other side of the street. He grew up in Montgomery, and his allegiance was forged in that most crushing of decades, the long haul from 1972 and "Punt Bama Punt" to Bo Over the Top in 1982. As a child, he watched most of that 1972 game on television. Late in the game, Bama was cramming the football down our throat and he was literally driven from his home by the flood of calls from his Bammer classmates. He lived through the near-decade of agony that followed. He became a student at Auburn himself, and met my mother there. And in 1982, when Bo went over the Alabama line straight into the heart of the Crimson Tide, taking with him the famous words on which the Bear would ever gnaw... my father was there. My mother was there. And I was there, in the womb, as he and she and thousands upon thousands of Auburn faithful erupted. Victory! My mother was knocked down a row or two when he sprang to his feet - War Damn Eagle!


Press play. I am somewhere to the left of your screen.
Eleven seconds in, my world gets permanently shook.


Explains a lot, one could say. As should be obvious by now, I’ve been toted about in blue and orange since the day I first entered God’s green earth at Lee County Hospital. And almost as long as that, I’ve been well-instructed in the hate. Not just any old hate. The kind of hate that Hamilcar Barca administered unto his son Hannibal with the strength of an oath. A hate that has little equal. Ohio State and Michigan fans, for instance, will quickly point out that they, too, hate each other, and if you pal around in Ann Arbor wearing silver and scarlet or stroll into a Buckeye bar in Columbus humming “Hail to the Victors,” you’re itchin’ for a beatdown. Maybe that’s true. But hate ain’t about beer-addled twenty-somethings dustin’ up over “disrespect” and such like. Hate’s better than a mere rivalry. And maybe I’ll be the first to say it, but in that respect the Iron Bowl isn't a rivalry game because it isn't really a rivalry at all. Rivalries are born on the gridiron and spill out into the rest of the year by virtue of their implications. Ohio State - Michigan is a great rivalry. They’re two storied teams that have clashed over and over, often with national ambitions hanging in the balance. Bowl games, championships, trophies - ever do the Buckeyes and Wolverines stand in each other’s path, and from this mutual blockade flows the hostility. But had the Wolverines and Buckeyes never played, they wouldn’t have a hate at all. That's a rivalry.

Had Auburn and Alabama never played, it would only have been worse. What lives between Auburn and Alabama is itself sovereign, and not the child of mere football. It grew up all on its own, gnarling deep in four and a half million hearts, 364 days of the year, waiting to emerge from its lair and hurl young blood headlong into young blood for a savage four hours. Our hate, having festered in the wilderness for an entire year, enters into the stadium like a demon summoned to an altar, ready for the bloodletting. It demands the contest, not (as in mere rivalry) the other way around. The university presidents of the two schools knew it and wanted no part of the madness, when so long ago they refused to pit their young men against each other to slake the thirst of the Yellowhammer State. It would be a gruesome tilt to overshadow any other, they protested, driving the weak-spirited before it in horror. Oh how right they were about that. How deeply true it is that to become a citizen of Alabama is to become enter one of two fiefdoms, to be owned wholesale. Those young men belonged to the malice - it demanded their youth. And oh how bad we wanted it anyway.

Scratch that - it's hard to say "want it" when I don't even like the Iron Bowl. It's hard to enjoy the game when the moral, even synderetic significance of the game is palpable - every yard given up to the Tide an affront to human decency, every first down is a sheer crime, and may God forgive us if we're beaten. It isn't fun, it's work. I grind my teeth a little flatter every year even when we win. Moreover it has little to do with our standing in the conference or the nation. In fact, I most enjoy the years when neither team stands to make national gains from our regional grind. With nothing to distract from the grisly task, our moral certitude is even clearer. Put it to you this way: looking forward to the Iron Bowl as a springboard to national aspirations is as foreign to me as going to church with the hopes of getting all the money out of the offering plates. You go to that game to give, not to take. To sacrifice for the greater good. So I'm not one of the Auburn fans who claimed boredom with an Iron Bowl devoid of "implications." I don't care if it's competitive - all I want is their hearts broken. I want old ladies going up to Nick Saban and asking "When are we going to beat those people?" We could beat Bama by nine touchdowns for fifty years and it wouldn't be enough. Had they gotten the "death penalty" as they richly deserved, had they become financially destitute and utterly talentless, I would still grit my teeth for every play and I would still exult in every victory, every single year. It's the oath I inherited, the roar of Jordan-Hare still echoing through amnion and umbilicus, twenty-six years later.

And while many Auburn fans don’t drink as deeply from that goblet of teeth-gnashing fandom, we're united in that unalloyed devotion to the school. It's true - as is so smugly pointed out - that Auburn never was a beauty queen and probably never will be. Our fans are quick to point out 2004's disaster, and it will ever rankle, but nearly as galling was 1983, the year of my birth and the bowl season after Bo over the top. We were leap-frogged by the newcomer Miami because they were new on the scene, and we were stonewalled by Oklahoma because they had always been around. Whatev. As an Auburn fan, I've been trained my entire life not to be an attention whore troubled by the uninformed opinions of sportwriters and haggard coaches. I have no illusions about the polls, about "history," about being the hotshot - the only meritocracy in college football is sixty minutes between the sidelines. When we win out, we go to the SECCG or we go to a great bowl. While it's frustrating sometimes for our team to be overlooked, there's a kind of pyrrhic honor therein. By my estimation, everything Auburn gets Auburn has earned. And that includes our fans. Auburn fans root for Auburn - not for the polls, not for the BCS, not for a history that they may never have lived. Big Blue. And I'm proud to be a part of that. The commercials are cheesy but true: we're a family and we recognize one another.

Bama is entirely different, ever the pageant contestant consumed by the gaze of the masses. And it seems it's not the point why or from where the attention comes - the culture that surrounds the University of Alabama seems to be "any focus on us is good." Which cuts two ways.

The first is the wide legion of Bamagroupies (groupiebammers? ironically, grammers?) that crawl out from under every rock whenever Bama is "back." Which, somehow, Bama manages to be "back" every other year. My father (totally unbiased, mind you) will rail on about all the Bama fans who've never even been south of Tennessee or east of Mississippi and couldn't find T-town on a map of Tuscaloosa county. I wouldn't begrudge the Tide their success on the field, moral affrontery though it may be. But the flood of OMIGAWD BAMARR YAWL that festoons the intertubes every time SJPW completes a pass is damn near comical. But also, meaningless. For instance, you may also have been audience to the joker who left a blithely anonymous comment over on a JCCW post:
So let me get this straight, after all thats happened this year, if Auburn manages to knock off Bama, Auburn fans will happy about this season? Dear God that is pathetic...
At first I thought to myself, oh hell, another fool Bammer crying sour grapes. After all, how can this guy not understand what kind of satisfaction that would bring? I figured that their spirit was simply broken, crushed under the weight of six straight defeats, of three senior classes that would never beat the Auburn Tigers. That they were unable to bring themselves to express any hope for fear of mentally reliving the past six years. But it gradually dawned on me: this guy has absolutely no clue what team he's rooting for. Else he wouldn't need “his” own team's history spelled out for him. When an alleged Bama fan tells me he don't hate Auburn or claims not to understand our dream of spoiling the Tide's season, I just think he's not a Bama fan. He's merely another hanger-on with no connection to the actual university. That, or a rabble-rouser who thinks himself sly and aloof as he anonymously rouses the rabble on the intertubes in a manner that divorces his image from his fanhood. Either way: throwaway, and familiar practice from the grammers. I'm glad not to have to deal with that kind of fan.

The second way is of the last-words-of-a-redneck variety. Par example, Jerry at the JCCW pointed out the bammer-tastic smack talkin' over at West By God Virginia, back before the Mountaineer game. Any Auburn fan whose spleen needs a pre-Iron Bowl ticklin' should get on over there and bask in the anti-glory. It's a feast for the eye and the conscience:
Auburn [is still] destined to live in the shadow of the Crimson Tide no matter what their successes or our failures.

Consider: Since 1996, the year Gene Stallings stepped down as the head coach of the Crimson Tide, Alabama has seen more turmoil in just over a decade than many programs have seen throughout the course of their entire existance[sic]. Five different coaches have been hired in that time span, with two of them being derailed by sordid sex scandals (one of whom never even coached a down because of it), one of them abandoning the program due to impending NCAA probation, and one landing the job by virtue of having played quarterback for the school in the 80s and not much more. The program was run into the ground and embarassed by all means imaginable, while Auburn rose to the ranks of the SEC “elite” during that time, and yet all of the focus remained on Alabama.
News flash: gettin' all the 'tention cause you're acting like a bunch of degenerate hillbillies is really, really bad. So immature - would the average Tiger fan talk so blithely of a complete failure of character that plagued our school for a rip-roarin' decade? Not that we would do such a thing, or even if we did, not that we as fans would be caught dead taking pride therein. No, Alabama, that shadow you cast as you shamble out of the strip joint is not one that falls on Auburn.

Neither is this behavior new.

But what's most intriguing about the smack-talking post, though, is not the sleight-of-hand that allows him to claim that no one cares about Auburn because they couldn't tear their eyes away from the Crimson Tide's humiliating train wreck of a decade1. Nor is it the nifty trick whereby he claims to be above hating Auburn, and yet still revels in Bama gettin' all the 'tention, y'all. What's most interesting is the simultaneous embracing and rejection of Tide history that distinguishes the new Bama fan. On one hand, he's obviously denying more than a century of vicious, gladiatorial combat in the form of football. As I need not mention, this is a war fought long by our fathers and grandfathers - and in my case, great-great-grandfathers. To claim that the Iron Bowl holds no significance is to completely ignore the bitter feud that has shaped our two institutions. All while simultaneously proclaiming the resurrection of the Tide, return to the glories of the Alabama past, the days of a new Bear - this itself is an appeal to history, to trudishun, to legacy. Mmm, crimson cake to be eaten and to be had!


Can't have your Bear and eat him, too.... er....


And yet these two aspects of Alabama's history are inextricably intertwined. For one, they are united in the Bear. Just go back to his famous2 proclamations before and after the 1972 Iron Bowl - that he would rather lose to Texas ten times than to Auburn once, and that he would never lose to Auburn ever again. The titan of Tide history knew that Texas was a rival and Auburn an enemy. To appeal to the national significance Bama attained under Paul Bryant and yet discount wholesale the passion he had for the game seems distinctly un-Bammerly - downright heretical, even.

But even Bryant's recognition of the Iron Bowl's significance is mere symptom and should be taken as such, lest we repeat the mistakes of our universities' past presidents. Each university in turn feared that a gridiron manifestation of the hate would overtake the entire state's culture, but in truth it is the state's culture. Like I said before, rivalries are born in tough games in which hearts are broken and dreams are made, but in our war - our hate - football is merely the expression of a symbiotic hostility that lives all on its own. This is no casual diversion to be brushed aside when inconvenient, it's life in Alabama. Hell, it's life in upstate New York. I remember my 10th grade earth science teacher, a hard-bitten New Englander who got on my case for saying "Yes ma'am" because she thought I was smarting off. "Oh I know Auburn alright," she said one day, having seen me in my Auburn cap. She told me the story of two kids she taught back in upstate, a boy and a girl who became friends, grew in affection, and began dating. However, it was soon discovered that one family was from Auburn, and the other from Alabama. In a rare display of mutual intention, both sets of parents put an end to the relationship. Immediately. This is, as my dad puts it, a hate that ends marriages and bankrupts businesses. And by God, those businesses should fail. If their owners haven't the acumen to understand the state in which they live, they ought not set up shop within the Yellowhammer's borders.



As you can see, to deny our enmity is to deny our very statehood, and the history that flows from it. Again, it must be said that many uneducated groupies can do so without real intellectual consequence - these remoras can't be faulted for not knowing whence the whale has swum. But I'm convinced that a growing number of genuine Bammers are going down that path. When a Bammer says on one hand that Bama is better because the nation gawked at theirs, the most dramatic and most public self-humiliation endured by an academic football squad, and on the other hand tries to claim they have outgrown the sordid, snarling grudge between our schools that is such a facet of Alabaman life... well, what can a plainsman or plainswoman do but shake their head? Isn't it clear that you can't logically claim to have transcended the boundaries of Alabama and still claim the expression of its skankiest, most stereoptypical qualities as your nimbus? Would the Tide truly have us believe that they have somehow become greater than the petty infighting of the state of Alabama, as evidenced by their decade of redneck revelry and near-execution? How embarassing.

Yes, Alabama, the world will show up to take in the spectacle, but at the end of the day.... that's all it is.


So take heart, tigers. We may be beaten on the field, but we should take pride on this Thanksgiving that we will never be those people.


War. Damn. Eagle. Kick 'em in the teeth Big Blue.





1 Though it is clever, I'll have to admit.
2 And famously edible.

1 comment:

aubtigers said...

I feel the same way. You put in words what I was feeling all last week. It is great to be an Auburn Tiger!