Why Even Go to the Game?

We live in a modern age, a glorious age of convenience where the onward press of technology is almost entirely aimed at making us comfy. And we are. We can look at Mother Nature and simply not be bothered: why be cold or hot or even moist when we don’t want to be? This technology is making not only entertainment, but our very lives, more interactive. We’ve largely proved that we like to stick our noses into the business of everyone we’ve ever met since junior high, as well as let them all know had for dinner, but we don’t actually want to be anywhere near these people.

So why are we willing to cram ourselves into a large concrete bowl, on hard seats, smooshed up against people we don’t know and probably wouldn’t like if we did? There is nothing even remotely interactive about you, me, and a football game in which neither one of us is playing.

The mere act of pulling a blaze orange blazer over your shoulders, putting a hound’s-tooth hat on your head, or wearing the team jersey doesn’t make you look like one of the team. It makes you a target. We say we do it to support the team, but that isn’t exactly true, is it? The real reason, and you’d never say to anyone but a confirmed True Believer, is that you think it will improve the performance variance of a bunch of people who don’t know that you are alive.

Wearing your lucky underwear is a little more discreet, but unless you have a correctly calibrated laundry day, you could run into issues of hygiene. The problem is that divining the source of luck is not so cut and dry as finding, say, the source of the Nile or who gave you the clap. The search for the source of your team’s mojo, or lack thereof, will never take you off the field of play. And that’s hard for most sports fans to accept.

I was in a bar in New Orleans for the 1992 Sugar Bowl for the National Championship pitting The University of Alabama against the favorite that year, University of Miami, with Heisman trophy winner and media darling du jour Gino Toretta.

Since we’d been in New Orleans my habits had become…let’s call them “Faulkneresque.” And those of us without tickets went to find a bar in the French Quarter to find a television. Drinking whisky and water as I was, it was obvious to me that I was nearing that crook in the hockey stick of drunkenness. A switch to something more sociable was crucial in order to see the end of the game.

This was met with wild gales of disapproval and ribbons of profanity. Not only was Alabama wiping the floor with Miami, we (read: The Alabama football team) were also about to prove that every sportswriter in the country was suffering a breathless, thoroughly unjustified, puppy-love crush on the University of Miami. None of us, True Believers all, could exactly pinpoint the source of our success against the odds makers. It just may have been happening through the mercies of some pre-Christian Celtic god of “value” whiskies. We didn’t know, so no one was to make any sudden changes of habit, diet, clothes, or seating.

My friend Mike explained to me that he had his lucky boxers on, and no, he had not properly calibrated laundry day, but it was the National Championship. If he had to live in his underpants, I had to keep drinking the sort of Scotch the Brits saved for blinding troublesome colonists. Mike’s logic made complete and perfect sense. It still does.

My brother, who’d had the good sense to get his tickets beforehand, was in the stadium that night, sitting near a fraternity brother I’ll call Chuck. Although there is no data to back this up, Chuck was almost certainly the only one in the place wearing a 12-year old blazer of “Augusta National” green. It was the blazer that he had vowed, way back in 1982, to wear to every game until Bama won a national championship. And after ten years, whatever sympathetic magic that sodden blazer held finally kicked in. The game ended with Alabama’s 12th National Championship.

In the end, that game wasn’t won by St. Columba’s lucky brown water-of-life, or Mike’s not-so-fresh drawers, or a blazer in that shade of green for which – save winning the Master’s – there is no excuse. It was because the Crimson Tide football team in 1992 was, literally, unbeatable. It was Alabama’s eighth perfect season (if you count 1897, and no one but the alumnus do. The squad played one game against a local high school). The National Championship was won by the players executing coach Gene Stallings’s stratagems down on the field: crashing into the opposing line, running around each other, passing, gasping for breath. There was that beautiful, sublime, incredulous play where Alabama’s George Teague ran down Miami’s Lamar Thomas to strip him of the ball from behind in mid stride, turn around, and start back down the field. Teague didn’t run that fast for you or me. He told a reporter that he ran that fast because Coach Stallings told him to cover Thomas, and Teague was terrified of what Coach would do if Thomas scored on his watch.

My brother had great seats, close to the field. “The Strip” happened nearly on the sideline, so he never saw it. Chuck’s blazer may have blocked him. In a bar a few blocks away, I saw the moment over and over again on the TV. All of us cheering louder with each replay, as if the same feat grew more amazing with repetition.

The players were interacting. The rest of us were just observers. Which is okay…I bruise easy. What I was doing a few blocks away was contemplating my tactical advantage with the ladies over Mike and his dirty underwear.

Ritualized team sports, historians tell us, were started to teach boys how to rough each other up as a unit. What about the onward progress of humanity itself? Aren’t we – as a society – supposed to be above this sort of violence-as-leisure? Evidently not. If we can’t take part in the combat directly, we the fans desperately want to take some ownership in our team’s victories, and that’s hard to do from your living room. Henry V warned that all men a’bed on Saint Crispin’s Day, would feel accurs’d for not being on the field of battle. Even today, my “I was there, the night of the championship” story has to be qualified because I wasn’t in the stadium. I got to see the Strip from every conceivable angle, but I wasn’t There. I was in New Orleans, sure, but watching it on television I might as well have been in Nebraska.

Then came the rest of the nineties. Alabama fans were becoming gracious losers, but only because we were getting so much practice at it.

Ancient history. Alabama paid up for a deluxe model coach and fortunes turned again. The Tide has won three national championships since then and I’ve missed all of them dealing with all the things that don’t happen a year out of college. Still, I felt accurs’d that I wasn’t there. Even with HD television – a contraption of such undeniable power not only can we see Nick Saban not smiling, we can seen the wind being knocked out of a quarterback as he’s sacked, hear the grass burns forming on the lineman’s forearms, and actually smell the fear on the marching band trombonist as a hurtling wide-receiver knocks the glasses off his grimaced face.

What this means is that, at home, the view is always better. It never rains, you actually know what you are eating, the drinks are better and cheaper too. The company is always hale and custom fitted. There is no traffic. The bathrooms, well what can you not say about the bathrooms at stadiums? Old habits die hard, true believers still paint their faces and wear the colors in their own living room, as if their favorite players could possibly see or hear beyond the field, much less the stadium. Do we really want to be uncomfortably hot or cold, or wet, or pressed against a total stranger cheering still another perfect stranger’s success?

Why…why?...in an age of instant and virtual and generally obnoxious levels of communication, go to The Game? Why suffer the drunken fans? Or at least ones you don’t know. Why brave the worst that weather can throw at 100,000 people sitting in a big, open concrete bowl? Why buy a 25 cent hot dog for four dollars, and 50 cent beer for seven? Why suffer the attention of the police who don’t think your drunken enthusiasm is as funny and boyish as you do?

Why would a sane person ever, ever, go to The Game?

Because it is The Game, dammit.

Excerpted from Gridiron Voodoo: SEC Football, Mojo & Luck (Burnaby)

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