This past Friday in Tuscaloosa, Ala. — just like many other Fridays every fall — hundreds of thousands of people awoke from their work or school-induced slumber.
Not because the workweek had finally ceased, not because a beautiful, sunny weekend was in its approach and certainly not because Sean Zak was in town (although that’s a pretty good reason). It was because Alabama football was ready to host another home game, their fifth of the season.
There were a few storylines leading up to the game, so a fair amount of buzz could stand as reason for the excitement. But it was just another SEC football game, after another week spent ranked No. 1 in the nation, so why did so many people suddenly rouse?
Because football in Alabama isn’t just a fun event every other weekend where alumni bring their family or where students get disgracefully drunk and cheer cuss words back and forth.
It’s way different. In Alabama, football is a way of life.
Given an opportunity that few, if any, Wisconsin student journalists are offered, I jumped at the chance to take in a weekend immersed in Tuscaloosa for the Alabama-Texas A&M football game. I’m glad I did because it opened my eyes even wider to the world of college football, one normally limited to the 608 area code.
I briefly met a pair of football fans in the airport who were traveling from Boston, simply out of respect from the rumors they had heard. This pair, like myself, needed to verify the lore surrounding the tradition and prowess of Alabama football.
As soon as classes were out on Friday afternoon, the footballs came out as well on nearly every front lawn of the 26 fraternities that line the campus. Bryant Denny Stadium — home to the Crimson Tide football squad — may rest in just a corner of campus, but there is not a more important building to the University of Alabama.
How could I tell? It was guarded at each entrance like the baby doll of a 6-year-old girl.
It was only Friday afternoon, more than 24 full hours from the start of the game, and there was already the feeling that everyone in town was waiting for something, kickoff in particular. But there was all Saturday morning to wait too, and no tailgate I’ve ever attended could compare.
On campus there is an open park known as “The Quad.” The park is rarely open because, normally, it’s flooded. Take Bascom Hill, flatten it out, multiply it by about 15 and litter it with hundreds of tents, loads of food vendors and about 100,000 college football fans. Take everyone from Spring, Dayton, State, Johnson, University, Randall, Breeze and Lathrop street and throw them into one area. That’s the “Quad.”
Located directly adjacent to the stadium, “The Quad” is the place to be from Friday afternoon to the early hours of Sunday morning. ESPN Radio held it’s popular radio show College GameDay, and while it certainly attracted quite the audience, the masses of tents held even greater attraction. The university sponsors some tents, dressed to the nines with flat screen TVs showing, you guessed it, SEC football.
Other tents are set up by the thousands of ‘Bama fans, consistently displaying their version of Southern hospitality with a beer or a plateful of chicken wings, jumping at the first ounce of a conversation about the victory over LSU the prior weekend or how bad the rival Auburn is this season.
There may have been a presidential election on Tuesday, but the game that everyone was waiting for, tailgating for, was the biggest spectacle in the state, just like it is every week. As I took my seat in the end zone of the stadium, it, and the countless number of fans, enveloped me like Camp Randall never could.
The 101,000-plus fans, every one of them considering themselves as lucky as myself to be on site, witnessing Alabama football live. They weren’t there to socialize with roommates, see old friends or to enjoy the afternoon. They were there to watch a football game, invest in their lives, never miss a play and throw their heart into the air through cheer, screams and delight.
Only the delight came in extremely small portions. Alabama, ranked No. 1 in almost every poll imaginable, was facing Texas A&M, the new blood in the SEC that would surely falter at the sheer intimidation of Alabama football and Bryant Denny Stadium.
But A&M jumped out to a 20-point lead in the first quarter. If I was surprised — holding no allegiance to either team other than the Alabama sweatshirt I purchased the day before, simply to fit in — then everyone else was in utter shock.
The Tide wouldn’t be denied its chance to rule as they crept back into the game, though failing to ever take the lead.
As the game wore on, it was glaringly visible how invested each of these people were in their Crimson Tide. A holding penalty was worse than a car accident; a touchdown rivaled Christmas morning. If I had to guess, many of these fans receive gifts of Alabama gear on Christmas morning.
Eventually, too many critical mistakes in the most crucial of times cost the Tide, as they fell 29-24. My Alabama experience was over.
Camp Randall and Madison are great, but in every way that Alabama was drastically different, it was equally just as amazing.
Without a professional team within 200 miles of Tuscaloosa, the Tide represent the hope, joy, elation or devastation of the lives of millions of people.
Football is what they live for, and as Texas A&M did the seemingly impossible, the Aggies temporarily ruined the lives of millions. That is, until next Friday afternoon.