Sunday, November 25

Iron Souls

Odometer: 15,190
Location: Lake Martin, AL
States Visited: Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama

Thanksgiving is typically a time for family. Being at home was unfeasible, so I opted for time with my “road” family of Erik and Chrissy in Atlanta. They had relatives coming, but generously offered me a seat at their table. Unable to cook anything myself, I could only provide a cherry pie from Bigg’s Market. Luckily, it perfectly complemented the pecan and pumpkin pies, giving us a trio of options. The Publix pecan garnered the most rave reviews.

I’d be lying if I tried to claim that I’m not feeling some fatigue. It’s been a long road and though the season is almost over, I still feel like I’m in the middle of it all. Perhaps the looming trek to the west coast is affecting my perspective. But someone did something right when they put the rivalry games at the end of the season. The Iron Bowl is nothing if not a rivalry. In fact, the fans and participants would argue that it is the rivalry. The increased intensity due to the opponent rejuvenated fans who otherwise would be licking wounds and focusing on recruiting season. That has in turn made it easier for me to do my job and find more energy myself.
A fine publication.

On a gorgeous Saturday morning, spots were staked out early, but most tailgates didn’t get rolling until around noon. When I approached people, they generally greeted me by saying “War Eagle,” words whose significance I understood, but whose usage confused me. Almost a muttered “good day”, to which I repeatedly replied with a blank, puzzled expression. It reminded me of visits to a foreign country where you know the textbook language, but have no idea how to apply it. Fortunately, enough people took pity on poor, bewildered me and took me under their awnings.

After hearing the legend of the original War Eagle, we discussed great games of Auburn’s past, with everyone’s favorite being the 1989 Iron Bowl. Alabama came to town with a top five ranking, but lost to a team with the support of fans who’d been waiting for the game for four decades. Pat Dye was also reverently recalled by all. I have always liked both programs and hadn’t made any conclusion about which side I was on. On January 1st, 2001, Michigan played Auburn in the Florida Citrus Bowl. My interaction with Auburn fans online ranged form pleasant to affable. The year before, Michigan played Alabama in the Orange Bowl and relations were similar, plus the Tide did me the favor of missing an extra point in overtime. I found myself feeling very dirty. I hoped by the end of the day that something would compel me one way or another. There weren’t as many ‘Bama fans present as I anticipated. Losing to Louisiana-Monroe surely had an impact. The ones that showed had to endure epithets and vitriol, but all of it hollered in good fun. Some Tigers privately intimated that they “just hate them,” but true altercations were few and far between. One group of young alumni set up shop on Donahue Drive and employed a toy megaphone in hopes of getting a rise from Crimson-clad visitors. They were collecting as many “birds” as possible. The over-under was six. When I checked in with them three hours before kickoff, they’d reached nine and were clearly satisfied with their work. A show of exuberance not to be missed is Tiger Walk. Two hours before kickoff of every home game, the players walk from the athletic offices to the stadium. There are other places that do something similar, but I haven’t seen the passion from fans like this anywhere else. The 1989 game featured the most renowned Tiger Walk. Current students lament not being around for it, and those that were can’t stop talking about it.

Immediately after Tiger Walk, some seniors mentioned to me that some friends of theirs were stabbed by some Alabama fans at a bar two years ago. You hear stories like this all the time, but this one surprised me. Throughout a long day of tailgating, all I saw was good-natured ribbing. I know that the Auburn and Alabama fans will take issue with this statement, but last week in Ann Arbor, there were hateful shouting matches every fifty feet, many featuring beer showers. I was lucky enough to have a pres pass for this game, and that meant entry to the field for pregame. Technically, I was supposed to head up to the press box or find an open spot in the stands once the game commenced, but I figured I could get better photos and get in touch with more fans from the field.

Auburn was clearly the better team, but ‘Bama brought their best effort and made it a tense contest. The late start time and a steady breeze created a chilly environment. At halftime, with their team up 10-7, the students huddled together for warmth. Most were optimistic, though a quick score to start the second half would go a long way to easing concern. The third quarter passed without any points from either side despite some decent drives. When Auburn scored a late touchdown giving them a ten point lead, everyone went nuts. Alabama cut it to a one-score game, but couldn’t secure the onsides kick, giving Auburn their sixth straight Iron Bowl victory. I turned to take some photos of the student section’s glee and was nearly knocked into the turf when the players came running through to celebrate with their fans. I should have known they were coming, but was too busy taking snapshots. The players are big enough on their own, but when they’re wearing shoulder pads and gleefully running to the wall, my narrow frame was that much more inconsequential. But I kept my feet and took some more pictures.
This broadcast brough to you by the number six…

…and the letter d?

Some time during the revelry, a mass of photographers came zooming across the field, and I was struck again. This time, I was more put off as I couldn’t fathom any reason to run around at this point. I grew angrier once I realized these were other media people knocking me about. Tommy Tuberville had decided to take a victory lap of sorts, waving thanks to each section of the Auburn crowd. The fact that he did this in haste made for paparazzi racing to keep up, unconcerned with anyone in their way. When Tuberville made his turn for home, he came right at me. I was sure that I would get swept up in the wake of working press, but they dodged me and followed him around. Incidentally, back in September, I interviewed an older LSU fan named Bill Sharkey who owns a Cajun restaurant in Atlanta. One of the comments he made was that Tommy "always has that smirk" and that was enough to make Auburn a rival. Judge for yourself:
The Sharkey Smirk?

Of course, no visit to Auburn is complete without a visit to Toomer’s Corner for the great unraveling – provided Auburn wins the game. A jubilant throng celebrated by “rolling” the trees, signs and anything else around. All were well behaved, taking pictures with six fingers on display. Apparently someone lit the paper on fire later in the evening, but I was long gone by then. I stayed with extremely gracious friends on Lake Martin, most of whom were Bama fans and rather distraught about the outcome. I didn’t have the gumption to tell them that I eventually leaned in the Tigers direction, if only a bit. I was more than grateful for the hospitality they showed me, and similarly pleased to see another fine contest with passionate fans on both sides. I also want to give a special thanks to Jay of Track Em Tigers who provided me with an introduction to all things Auburn and spent a long lunch talking football. Jay, I wish we could have had more time. It was a pleasure.This amazing journey is winding down for me. Just one more game to go. It happens to be over 2,000 miles from here, so it doesn’t exactly feel like the end.

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