No one grows up in Birmingham, Alabama, without drinking in the city's mania for football--intoxication is part of the heritage. It's part of mine.
It all came back to me Saturday night as I watched the CBS game of the week--the spectacular showdown between the number one Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn Tigers. There were the frenzied Southern fans who had filled Birmingham's Legion Field to its 70,000 capacity--as they always do. They were jubilant, chaotic and totally drunk on the spectacle of Southern football--as they always are. I know, because I've been there.
So when the CBS announcer told viewers, "We're in Alabama, where football is a way of life," I knew that he was right.
My father and I went to every Alabama game between 1964 and 1969(in 1970, I came to Radcliffe), and each incident of Saturday night's contest flashed me back to the days when football was my sustenance. I remembered writing worshipful fan letters to my favorite players, getting autographed photos from them, and plastering the 8-by-10 glossy treasures all over my bedroom wall. I remembered spending every Saturday afternoon with my father--a transistor radio between us--clinging to each play in "our boys'" life-or-death struggle with their weekly opponents.
But most of all, I remembered attending my first Auburn-Alabama game. It was 1964--the year of Joe Namath, Jimmy Sidle and Tucker Fredrickson. All three of them were All Americans. Both teams were ranked in the nation's top 10, the game was sold out months in advance, and scalpers were getting about $75 for a single ticket. So I felt duly honored when my father invited me to accompany him to Legion Field for the occasion.
Dad and I rode to Legion Field that Saturday on a chartered bus, since no mortal could have braved the flood of football traffic that always took over downtown Birmingham on Auburn-Alabama day. Our fellow travellers were a wild assortment of banner-waving, horn-blowing, bourbon-swigging Alabama fans. Along the way, the men had cursing battles, sang obscene fight songs, and bet themselves into insolvency over the outcome of the game.
Legion Field was like the bus--only more so. Saturday night's television version of the crows was just as I remembered it. There were banners spanning whole rows of the bleachers, rolls of toilet paper sailing up into the sky and down, glamourous blond cheerleaders leaping high into the air, and inebriated fans everywhere. A full minute before each of Saturday night's kickoffs, the Alabama rooters began a deafening ROLLLLLLLL TIDE, equalled only by the Auburn fans' competing WAAAAAAAR EAGLE. The thunderous roar of that cheer didn't reproduce well over CBS, but I remembered it well.
The most memorable fans from the 1964 game were the lovey-dovey couple that sat in front of my father and me. After each Alabama first down, they went into a terrific necking scene that ended just in time for the next. I thought they were glamorous: he carried a pennant and she wore a white carnation with a big red A in the center. And both of them were--to say the least--very involved in football. "This is what it's all about," I would tell myself after each first down.
That memory faded out and another took over when Saturday night's cameras cut to the sidelines for a glimpse of Bear Bryant, Alabama's supercoach. A whole cult has grown up around the Bear, and I was part of it. He was such a hero that everyone swore he could beat George Wallace if he ran for governor. And rumors held that he could walk on water. (Dime stores still sell huge posters of Bryant walking across an endless sea. The picture shows him from the back, but you can tell it's the Bear by the trademark tweed hat, sloppy sweater, and a certain down-home air.)
I remember watching the Bear with binoculars throughout that 1964 game. He scowled masterfully when the Tide missed on runs or passes, yelled orders in exasperation, and occasionally rejoiced. But the best times were when he'd put his arm around Namath or one of the other giants, and give him a play like a father sending his son out into the world to make good.
None of that has changed, either. The CBS cameras showed me a group of fans who held a huge banner reading "Fire Nixon, Hire the Bear." (Nixon, Wallace--it's the same principle). And each shot of Bryant on the sidelines caught him in a gesture or expression that matched my nine-year-old memories. They even showed him once in the great fatherly pose; and within his paternal embrace was one of my childhood heroes--Pete, my own classmate, who had fulfilled our high school's wildest collective dreams: he had earned a spot on the Bear's varsity.
The quality of Alabama football in Saturday night's game was spectacular--as always. The Tide refused to be stemmed. The offense worked with the perfect efficiency of a precision machine. Even the 35-0 score doesn't do justice to the conquering majesty of the Alabama players.
The machine rolled on from beginning to end without a halt. And just as they always did in my day, the crowd began its chanting countdown a full 60 seconds before the game ended. (At Harvard, we usually wait until the last five). When the gun went off, the 'Bama behemoths lifted Bear onto their mountainous shoulders and paraded him across the field as fans massed around him and finally blocked him from my vision.
For a moment, I wanted to chase after him. I didn't want the CBS announcer to cut in with the information I already knew--that Alabama was now the nation's undisputed number one team for 1973; that the Tide was undefeated and untied in 11 games; that Bear had just won his 140th game with Alabama, and was taking them to their 15th consecutive bowl game. I didn't want to hear his glib platitude: "I think we'll have to say that Southern football is something to behold." Who was he telling?
If this had been 1964, my Dad and I would have spent the next week talking about the brilliant plays, the near-interceptions that might have changed the outcome, the necking couple and the Bear. The whole town would have had a hangover--more spiritual than physical. Even my sixth grade teacher, who always insisted over our protests that Birmingham was more famous for steel than for football, would have allowed us to write our Friday essays on the Auburn-Alabama game--if we had been lucky enough to attend. The final gun would not have been the end.