I was born in Tuscaloosa. My mother grew up there, and my dad's family was from the Tuscaloosa area as well, although he was an Air Force brat and moved around quite a bit in his early years. My entire family had at least a passing interest in Alabama football, but as a small child you can't really appreciate much about a 3+ hour football game. My father was a bi-vocational Southern Baptist pastor while I was growing up, and between his two jobs we were obliged to move around some as well. My parents both watched and enjoyed Alabama football games, which never seemed strange to me growing up. Now though, I find it pretty interesting.
See, my father isn't a sports nut by any means. He doesn't really enjoy any other sport than football. He doesn't watch the NFL. He will watch other SEC football teams, especially Auburn, mainly hoping that they lose. My mother likes to talk about the team with me, sometimes asking questions, sometime telling me things she's heard. She watches Alabama play, but she might get agitated when the games are close or if 'Bama isn't playing well. Sometimes she gets too nervous to watch. My parents both went to school at Alabama, but neither of them have been to a game in at least 15-20 years. So I'm not really sure why Alabama football became an important part of their lives or mine. Maybe it became a link back to Tuscaloosa when we moved away from family and friends. Maybe it was a way of latching on to a cultural identity. Maybe it was just a matter of cheering for their alma mater. In any event, my first football memory happened over 30 years ago.
When we moved away from Tuscaloosa the first time, we weren't gone for very long - just a couple of years. Then when I was about five, we moved away for good, right into the heart of enemy territory - Opelika, Alabama. My earliest football-related memory occurred around the holidays. My uncle Bill, who is five years older than me, played football with me in our front yard. The football was a small white plastic one, the kind that you see nowadays at high school pep rallies. It had red stripes and Alabama logos, and I remember pretending to be Alabama as we prepared to watch the Tide face Penn State in the Sugar Bowl.
During my early childhood, Alabama was one of the most dominant teams in the country. I was born a few months before Alabama won the 1973 national championship. Paul 'Bear' Bryant led the team to two more back-to-back championships in 1978 and 1979. The Tide won eight SEC titles in the 1970s. Bear Bryant became the winningest college football coach of all time in 1981. I remember getting a coke bottle with his picture on it and a cup with '315' on the side. Then it all came crashing down.
I guess I was aware of Auburn before the 1982 season, but my hatred for them started on one particular day. That day was November 27. I was nine years old and Auburn had never beaten Alabama in my lifetime. Then came "Bo Over the Top," a 22-23 loss, and Auburn fans tearing down the goalposts at Legion Field. Bear Bryant had already announced his retirement and then had to suffer the indignity of losing his final game to a team he had beaten 19 times in 25 years. I cried. Barely two months later, I was at school in Mrs. Owings class and Jennifer Oliver came up to me and told me that Bear Bryant had died. I laughed at her. Jennifer got upset and told the teacher that I laughed because Bear Bryant had died. Mrs. Owings reprimanded me, and I was stunned. I had laughed at Jennifer because I didn't believe her. It was crazy. How could the Bear be dead? I continued in disbelief until I got home and learned that it was all too true. I blamed Auburn football, Pat Dye, Bo Jackson, and every other Auburn fan I knew.
The decade of the 1980s was a difficult time to be an Alabama fan. We lived in Tallassee, Alabama, a small town 25 miles from Auburn, so I could more or less count on my fingers and toes every Alabama fan in my class. On top of that, it was the golden age of Auburn football. Pat Dye coached the Tigers to four SEC titles, and won four games in a row over the Tide. He also succeeded in getting the game moved from Birmingham to Auburn in 1989. It's easy to be a fan when your team is on top. It's harder when your team is terrible. Hardest of all, though? It's being a fan of a team that was once mighty and isn't any more. Those few Alabama fans at school that I knew took comfort in each other's support. It became so much a part of how I perceived my classmates, I can still tell you the team affiliation of people I haven't seen or spoken to in 20+ years. My Alabama pride was hardened in the crucible of those fall days. I wore my Alabama T-shirts to school the Monday after an Iron Bowl loss to show that I loved the Tide anyway, enduring the jibes and taunts of Auburn fans who did not acknowledge their inherent inferiority. The Crimson Tide's adversity had, in a small way, become my own.
By the time I graduated from high school, Alabama had righted the ship under Coach Gene Stallings, who won a national championship my freshman year at the University. But those formative years shaped me and my fandom. They inspired me to learn about the history of Alabama football, so that I could refute the arguments of bandwagon Auburn fans. They taught me to believe in upsets (1984) and miracles (1985). They showed me that I could live through a loss, even when it was hard. And they forged my identification with a group of college athletes I didn't know and would probably never meet. When I talked about Alabama playing well, I said that "we" did it. When facing another team's fans, I would tell them that they wouldn't beat "us." Although I would never play a snap of college football at Alabama (or anywhere else), I felt as much a part of the team as the players on the field.
I'm doing my best to raise my kids the same way.