Some of my family and friends like to say that my first words were "Rammer jammer yellowhammer, give 'em hell Alabama." This is obviously nonsensical.
My first words were just "rammer jammer."
It is worth noting that when people tell this anecdote, they're usually not talking about me—they're talking about my dad. Someone has to teach a kid his first words, and my dad is among the legions of Alabama Crimson Tide fans who consider it a duty to start indoctrination early. An unlikely sports fanatic, Dad's a very mild-mannered guy, a journalist without an ounce of overtly macho tendency, a guy who never pushed his kids to play competitive sports. He's just about the furthest thing from the red-faced buffoons screaming at the TV in your local sports bar.
But his—and my—family roots are in the hard clay of south Alabama, and the sugar sand and mottled marl of the state's gulf coast. More to the point, he went to school at the University of Alabama during the long reign of Bear Bryant. Bryant's 25-year tenure included six national championships and 13 conference championships; he was also a constant during a period of convulsive change in Alabama. I have heard that people treated the coach's weekly radio and television broadcasts like Roosevelt's fireside chats, hanging on every word Bryant uttered in his deep bass drawl.
On a bookshelf in my bedroom, I have an unopened 31-year-old Coca Cola commemorating Bryant's time at Alabama. The coach's silhouette, complete with houndstooth hat, is displayed underneath the school's logo, a bold crimson "A" with an inexplicable rampaging elephant. This bottle has been with me since I was a little kid living in north Florida, which is really an extension of south Alabama with all the attendant college football fanaticism, and it has held an important place in every bedroom and dorm room I've occupied since then. It looks a little odd on a bookshelf filled with the works of ancient Greek philosophers and dramatists, but I suppose that is fitting. I'm not a likely college football fan. I was clumsier than most, and self-conscious about it, so I always hated playing sports. I spent plenty of time playing backyard football with the neighbors, where I was the equivalent of a tackling dummy. I loved books and music more than most sports throughout my youth and adolescence, and attended a college with 400 students and no NCAA presence, where the biggest sporting event was the annual croquet match against the naval academy.
As a journalist, I often reported on small-time corruption and hypocrisy, and while I never reported on sports, I could always see the similarity between crooked developers and politicians and their counterparts in college football, the agents and boosters whose scams and schemes littered the college football landscape.
But I never stopped rooting for the Crimson Tide. My affection for the team is admittedly childlike, willful and stubborn. I refuse to see the meaninglessness of the endeavor, and I just don't care much about 'Bama's (relatively frequent) NCAA violations. This may have to do with the immutable nature of SEC football. People in Chapel Hill, for instance, seem to think they care about their football team. They tailgate, they cheer, they rant and rave on sports talk radio.
They don't have any idea.
Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama, balloons in size during preseason scrimmages. On actual game days, a flotilla of generators cranks up early in the morning and the city hosts a couple of hundred thousand guests for the day. Half of those people cram into the massive Bryant-Denny Stadium, one the country's largest. The rest are happy to watch it on generator-powered flatscreens in the tents and tarps that comprise the temporary crimson city that springs up intermittently throughout the fall.
UNC football fans have rivalries. Alabama residents have a blood feud. You're either an Auburn fan or an Alabama fan, and every year a few overwrought fans get too deep into the bourbon and manifest their allegiance with a knife or a gun. In its mildest form, the rivalry can cause familial discord. At last year's Thanksgiving celebration, a black day which will be remembered more for Alabama's blown lead to Auburn than for the fact that I was able to introduce my 1-year-old son to his extended family for the first time, I stood in the kitchen trying to talk to my cousin while listening to my father howl like a wounded animal from the television room. Before the game, he'd been talking with my wife about opera tickets. By the time it ended, he had moved from panic to anger to a sullen silence. I'm not sure I said goodbye to him that night.
For his part, my dad has become exceedingly superstitious after a bad streak of turning on the television or radio during games Alabama was winning, only to witness a game-changing interception or fumble. At some point, he decided that the act of his observation was causing the problems, and since then he has recorded games, only watching them after they have concluded.
People all over the country wear college sports gear. It's an external signifier for everyone from the hipster in a Bernard King Knicks jersey to the lawyer jogging in a Yale T-shirt. It's different in college football's heartland. In places like Oklahoma, Texas and Alabama, the gear is not ironic, nor is it worn solely by the young. Whether it's a Bama T-shirt on a 10-year-old or a carefully pressed golf shirt with a crimson "A" on the left breast, worn by a corporate VP in Birmingham, the uniform is a serious statement of intent and allegiance. I was at RDU airport with my Dad once, when a college-age guy walked up to him, pointed at the Alabama logo on his shirt and said, "Sir, I hate to tell you, but that's an ugly shirt you've got on." He was an Auburn fan.
Of course, the shirts and hats and beer cozies and paper plates embossed with the Alabama logo are a constant reminder of the cynical side of college sports. In most other contexts, this would be disillusioning, maybe even infuriating, to me. But, as with the team's occasional NCAA violations, my concern is far outweighed by my enthusiasm for the team and the game. Yes, big-time college football is the last stop before the mega-business of the NFL, and as such it is under economic pressure. Some of that money makes its way to players and coaches in very unseemly fashion. There may be small fixes to compensate players more fairly and increase compliance, but I don't think there is any way to fairly approach a middle ground between college stipends and multimillion-dollar NFL contracts, and as long as that disparity exists, there will be some scandal and corruption.
I'm OK with suspending my disbelief, while reserving my outrage for more meaningful issues. All sports require a little of that—we don't know what our sports heroes and their associates are really like, the truth may hurt. And yes, I'm sure that some kids are getting money and cars, and that doesn't particularly hurt my feelings.
Even the merchandise can have meaning. I remember sitting in my grandmother's kitchen in Dothan more than a decade ago, waiting for my cousin. He was an excitable and eager 9-year-old at the time, and upon hearing about my affection for Alabama football, he told me, "Wait here." Through the kitchen window I saw him hop on his bike and pedal off. When he came back, he handed me a tissue-wrapped coffee mug from a local gift shop. It was black with a scarlet "A," and I still drink my morning coffee out of it some days.