Friday, October 2, 2015

Special Football Edition: Heartache & Hope

Passing back papers to the bleary-eyed first-year writers in Tuscaloosa on the Tuesday following Alabama’s most recent loss to Ole Miss sent a surge of nostalgia through my body.  One student said, “I feel like someone I love broke up with me this weekend.”

We all reconcile losses from our favorite sports teams in different ways.  During the game, I’m the fan who never feels safe.  Bama can be up by three touchdowns and I still have an aching fear that we are going to lose.  After a loss, I’m inconsolable but try to remain positive.  Why is that?  Well, as I told my students, I went to Alabama during a different time.

My first recollections of Alabama football games include walking up the steps of Legion Field and sitting on the blistering hot bleachers, waiting for the 2-hour game clock to start ticking.  My Dad has since taken more of a liking to tailgating but when I was a kid, we drove from Chattanooga to the games and he insisted we get there at least a couple hours before they started. 

I remember seeing the passion back then but not quite understanding it until I got older.  My first flare of vivid emotion for the Tide happened in 1992 when we won the national championship.  My Dad always told me that Alabama was special and like most kids, I thought my Dad’s word was sacred.

When I started school at the University of Alabama in 2002, it wasn’t just the allure of adulthood that had me excited, I couldn’t believe I was a student where so many great athletes and spectacular games had taken place.  I was beyond ready for football season.  Though Alabama hadn’t exactly been racking up the championships for a few years, each season is fresh and new and there is a sparkle in the eye of every fan across the world.

As I said, my first football season as a student was in 2002, when controversial head coach Dennis Francione was in charge.  That year, Alabama barely escaped Middle Tennessee and lost to Auburn, Georgia and Oklahoma. 

After that season was over and coaching adjustments were made (including the Mike Price strip club drama) and yet again, hope was renewed.  Shula’s first season and my sophomore year (2003), Alabama lost to Auburn, LSU, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Georgia, Arkansas, Oklahoma and even Northern Illinois. Ouch.

Okay, okay.  It was Shula’s first year and he came in to what was clearly a messy situation.  2004, my junior year, was bound to get better.  In some ways it was better.  Alabama managed to scrape by enough wins to get to a bowl game against Minnesota (which they lost) but they still lost to Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, LSU and once again, Auburn.

There are a lot of things Alabama fans can take but if you can’t beat Auburn, your time as coach isn’t going to last very long.  My senior years (I say years because I was actually there 4 and a half years, or 5 football seasons), Shula was given his final chance.  2005 was better because Bama only lost to LSU and Auburn but in 2006 they lost to Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi State, LSU, Auburn and Oklahoma.  What’s even worse is that all the wins Bama managed to accomplish during 2005 and 2006 seasons had to be vacated due to sanctions from the NCAA.

In mid-December 2006, I graduated from the University of Alabama.  On January 3rd, 2007, Nick Saban announced he would be the head coach of my beloved Crimson Tide.  I’m not sure if I was just bad luck for Alabama during my tenure as a student or if it took those bad years to make the good ones so fantastic but students these days don’t quite have a grasp on what it means to be bad.

Those years weren’t all terrible.  We got to see a miraculous catch from Tyrone Prothro and a last second winning kick from Jamie Christensen in the Cotton Bowl.  The most encouraging silver lining during the “dark” times was that true Alabama fans still showed up, wore crimson and hoped with all hope that next year would be better. 

You see, it’s not just football.  I tell my students to go to every game, no matter how the team is doing because they will have the time of their lives.  For me, when I step into Bryant Denny in Tuscaloosa or when I travel to other stadiums or when I watch it on TV, football is more than just a game.  It represents my past, present and future.  My childhood was better and my relationship with my father is stronger because of football.  For those few hours, everyone is a united front.  If football wasn’t important, it wouldn’t hurt so bad to lose.

Every year won’t be our year.  The cards won’t always fall into place, we won’t always have everything straightened out but the players should know that we always support them even when they struggle to make kicks, hold the ball and have busted coverage.  If we lose again this season (and we may), we will move forward, as a unit, and in a week, we will have recovered and start our game days saying, “Roll Tide.”


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