I write on the cusp of game day, the sacred Saturdays where college football is played. In the state of Alabama, football consumes the energies of a small state (Population: 4.5 million) without its own professional sports franchise. It was easy at a young age to become caught up in the competitive, spirited, dramatic aspects of the game. Almost everyone I knew felt similarly passionate about the ups and down of their chosen college team. Half the state supports the Alabama Crimson Tide and the other half wears orange and blue, the colors of Auburn University.
To outsiders, it is difficult to explain how much of a massively big deal three hours are, the way the anticipation builds to a frenzy. It's an extremely communal activity and many across the state put on parties that usually begin in the hours before kickoff. The lucky buy tickets, meaning they have the right to add their cheers and yells to the thousands of others congregated together on the bleachers. For everyone else, television suffices, though many I know prefer the comfort of their own homes. To cite one example, there is no need to wait in the bottleneck that lasts forty-five minutes or more during halftime to use the facilities.
Major League Baseball, by contrast, plays well over one-hundred games a season, stretching from April to the end of September. Football games are only played once a week. The regular season, nowadays, has been slowly increased to twelve games, though the best teams play more than that. More than a dozen or so, and I doubt teams could field full rosters. The attrition rate for this contact sport, regardless of shoulder pads and helmets, would be something awful.
The tradition stretches back decades. Winning and losing may not be a matter of life and death, but it is something close. Should your team win, you gloat and celebrate. If your team loses, you descend into a communal state of grief. Combined with alcohol, as is often the case, happy drunks can quickly become angrily intoxicated, depending on who loses and who wins.
I was a very emotional child, picking up on the moods of the adults around me. When my team, The University of Alabama, lost a game, I would burst into tears and sob. At the age of eight, Alabama's chances at defeating Louisiana State (LSU) depended on a lengthy game-ending field goal that drifted just right, coming out a few feet short. This instantaneous display of choked sobs punctuated every loss until I was thirteen or fourteen. One cold, rainy day in December I remember running barefooted and crestfallen through the puddles of water that had collected in concrete gutters.
Distraught, tears streamed from my eyes as I splashed along, looking up enough to see sheets of water headed downhill, a few yards in front of me, having already made the journey halfway down a bluff. Alabama had lost to the Florida Gators in the SEC Championship Game in this same driving rainstorm and, as far as I was concerned, the world had ended. My childhood best friend pursued me with concern, though I wonder if he ever understood why I always was so distraught should the outcome of the game not turn out as desired.
As an adult, it doesn’t take much to startle me: unexpected loud noises or visuals still make me jump. Fortunately for me, the worst had not yet arrived. My condition had never been diagnosed, so I was frequently unable to identify illness and separate it from self. At worst, I was an overly sensitive child. I romanticized the fact that I was different, thinking of myself as a virtuous, misunderstood loner.
Children in similar straits often display the same coping mechanism. That was how I handled the pain. I wish I’d have found someone my age who felt the same way I did. Though the feelings of angst and anguish I felt were especially tenacious and long-lived, they had not yet reached the status of crisis. Instead, I lived with them and tried to manage the best way I could.
I haven't cried at the results of a football game in years and I'm not sure I'm even capable of it anymore. Now I'm more inclined to rant at the screen or scream my displeasure alongside 100,000 others and millions more on television. I don't deceive myself. It's true that the stakes are far too high. I live in a country still dominated by racial separation, as recent events have proven, but curiously most of the players are black. Provided they can make tackles and score touchdowns, their race seemingly makes no difference.
Once they move on, their eligibility exhausted, they are no longer treated as special. They find that being an ex-football player means that you've become relegated to a nostalgia piece, no longer the target of mass adoration or frustration, depending on the performance from game to game.
African-Americans make up 13% of the population of our country, and probably 75% of college and professional football players. I visualize a Roman Colosseum full of gladiators from the lower ranks of society, being overseen by emperors and average citizens alike. I think of Ralph Ellison's battle royal, the opening passage of Invisible Man. I think of the way it takes sports or entertainment success for the lower classes to strike it rich, be they Irish or African.
I could be more critical. Like some, I might find it disturbing that men twice the age of the players on the field are vastly concerned with sprained ankles and esoteric statistics. But in a working-class state, I figure it's worth giving the mechanic or the plant worker something to look forward to besides a hum-drum existence. As college football fans know, two football teams from the state of Mississippi are now simultaneously in the top 10. This is unprecedented, because Mississippi teams have a long history of mediocrity and unfulfilled promise.
In the pecking order of Southern states, Mississippi usually rates below Alabama. It has no large city of its own to speak of, whereas Alabama has Birmingham. Those from Mississippi who move to Alabama often display their own peculiar and unique inferiority complex. For this reason, I support the University of Mississippi (usually referred to as Ole Miss) and Mississippi State, its own cross-state rival. Nothing would please me more than to see their gridiron success continue, though later in the season I will cheer for Alabama against Mississippi State, even if it goes down to defeat.
I've exchanged my tears for annoyance and worry. I remain sober when others consume adult beverages. When Auburn loses, I celebrate nearly as much as when my team wins. It amazes me how much feeling and intensity can be packed into a few short hours, the way that six days prior to the game builds upon itself with plots and sub-plots. I think that players should be paid, for the sole reason that it is obscene that players who come from poverty are manipulated by universities and college that make millions of dollars from their unpaid labor.
Lincoln noted the below about war, but he could have just as easily been speaking about football.
It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.
It is said, without much exaggeration, that football in the Deep South is a religion. Count me among the throngs who are believers. It is supremely important and vastly popular, enough that it has created a few hostile naysayers who are in active rebellion against the status quo. The rejected want nothing to do with it. What often goes unreported are the anti-fans, those who leave the Sports section unread, be it on paper or a computer screen and block out the loud cheering and the boos.
It is my opinion that their minority view speaks more to personal rejection than any substantive criticism of the game. I admit that I strongly dislike intoxicated hockey fans when I have to stand next to them on public transportation. They are often crude and offensive, their behavior shameful. Enough negative experiences like these are enough to turn some against sports forever. Every game I've personally attended back home is a microcosm of Alabama society, the good and the bad intertwined. We should take this as a life lesson, but lessons are for those willing to listen.