Time to take a break from the political articles. Christmas break is coming up, and I’m soon going to be visited by beloved relatives from a distant land— namely Florida, where all old people go to play golf— and I’ve decided to plug up the ceaseless maelstrom of economic populism and liberal tripe spewing from Tie Dyed and Deep Fried. Political discussions over Thanksgiving were remarkably tame— Trump voters hate the establishment, lobbyists, and the FCC as much as you do, you lefty, tree-hugging freaks— but I’m starting to feel like I’m pushing my luck. That chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the subtle dry humor in the Communist Manifesto will have to wait until a later date, like a few years from now, when I’m not spending every December under my parents’ roof and mooching off of their health care plan.
So, worn out as I am with my own vague criticisms of a machine too big to destroy, I return to the only other current event I know anything about: sports. As an adopted Alabamian, of course, that mainly includes stock car racing and college football. The Ghost Dance of Dale Earnhardt was a success, earning a few hundred views and a snarky remark from the man who drove NASCAR into the ground. Maybe this time Paul Finebaum will leave a nasty comment insisting that the Alabama Crimson Tide are still the best team in the country and that Jalen Hurts had his shoes on too tight and that Kerryon Johnson is a cheat code from NFL Street so he doesn’t even really count as a player. A starving college student can dream.
On the drive down from Richmond to Auburn, I listened to The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved by Hunter S. Thompson. I wish I could write such a beautifully crafted essay, complete with hidden symbolism crafted into a (basically) non-fiction story, but alas, the 2017 Iron Bowl was neither decadent nor depraved. It was a celebration of tribalism, a rivalry game that made Michigan-Ohio State look like the Geller Bowl from The One with the Football, and a colossal misuse of toilet paper that definitely killed more trees than Harvey Updyke. But it was also a holiday bigger than Christmas, a passionate love affair with a state and a school, and the greatest day in Auburn sports history since Chris Davis RAN THE MISSED FIELD GOAL BACK. HE RAN IT BACK 109 YARDS! THEY’RE NOT GONNA KEEP OFF THE FIELD TONIGHT!
So here it goes. I’ll try not to turn this into a sappy article that ought to be published on the Odyssey Online and re-titled 20 Reasons Why Auburn is The Loveliest Village on the Plains, With GIFs from the Office To Prove It. But I’ve been feeling pretty elated since Saturday, so no promises. You’ve been warned.
From the perspective of the DMT machine elves that constantly observe our primitive consciousness— or from the perspective of anyone outside of the Southland–– the ritual that occurred in Auburn, Alabama on November 25, 2017 most likely appeared completely ridiculous.
The nation is in a state of turmoil— probably unmatched in intensity since 1969, definitely unmatched in morbid hilarity since Alexander Hamilton was shot by the sitting vice president. For one thing, the mainstream media has been screaming for nine months about the threat of nuclear war and some sort of Russian coup of the United States government, and nobody believes them, much to the increasing frustration of Jeff Bezos and Anderson Cooper. But that’s just the headliner.
In 2016, a fully-grown Oompa Loompa migrated from The Celebrity Apprentice to the Oval Office. Furthermore, he does not seem to have noticed, and he continues to behave as though his primary job is to unleash sick burns on Hillary Clinton and Rosie O’Donnell. (Not going to lie, at least they’re pretty funny. Dude can meme like no other 70-year old man in existence). Now, millions of people are boycotting the National Football League, and no one knows why— some are mad that no team will sign Colin Kaepernick, some are mad that the Raiders won’t fire Beast Mode, and a good portion are probably just mad that the Cowboys are an unsightly train wreck and are currently watching the Lakers or scouring Stubhub for spring training Yankees tickets.
I digress. Meanwhile, the national debt is now projected to exceed GDP by 2024. I’m no economist, but I don’t think that’s good. The global temperature is skyrocketing and will eclipse the point of no return by 2050. I actually pretend to be somewhat of a scientist— at least that’s what my diploma will say— and I’d wager that the human race is probably doomed. The Fermi Paradox seems to have one reasonable solution— advanced civilizations have a tendency to destroy themselves. Of course, the heat death of the universe would take care of that in a few trillion years even if the Paris Accord actually made legitimate strides to stop climate change.
So on November 25th, in the midst of this nonsensical comedic tragedy, 89,000 people packed into Jordan-Hare Stadium and left these disturbing dilemmas behind. A bird flew in circles around the crowd, landed on the 50-yard line, and everyone cheered. Then a bunch of Alabama natives in blue lined up against a bunch of Alabama natives in red. They squabbled over an ovular pigskin for approximately three and a half hours. After the allotted time period, thousands of people dressed in church clothes trampled a line of security guards and rushed onto the field, then headed toward the northwest corner of town and hurled a product typically used to dispose of feces at oak trees. After the trees were satisfactorily covered with paper, all of the rabble-rousers stormed downtown and became so collectively drunk that they puked their brains out, fell asleep on the sidewalks, and woke up totally broke. On Sunday morning, most of these people called their parents and grandparents and told them that November 25th had been one of the greatest days of their entire lives.
And just past twilight on Saturday night, in a blanketed forest of oak trees, as gorgeous as a rare Southern snowfall on low-hung Spanish moss, 25 thousand people found peace. Maybe that matters. What do I know?
For those unfamiliar with the history of the Auburn-Alabama rivalry, the odyssey began during Reconstruction, when an occupant army of Radical Republicans allocated property for a state university to a podunk town in Lee County, much to the chagrin of the landed gentry from Tuscaloosa. In the 1870s, once those pesky Yankees and freedmen had been removed from office by Jim Crow, the state legislature mismanaged Auburn’s endowment in a thinly veiled attempt to return the remaining land scripts to the University of Alabama. Thanks to Isaac Tichenor, then-Auburn president, the effort was unsuccessful.
Perhaps a fortune-teller warned the representatives— mostly Alabama graduates— about Bo Jackson and Cam Newton. Or maybe it’s just that former plantation owners are greedy-ass dudes. Either way, the state legislature continued to withhold money from the college in Auburn while fully funding the University of Alabama through the State Board of Education. This kind of corruption and generally obnoxious behavior proceeded until the Second World War.
In 1945, the state legislature kindly explained to Auburn president Luther Duncan that Tuscaloosa had a responsibility for education in Alabama. All other examples of state funding for universities—the creation of higher education for blacks, the funding of a state women’s college, and the founding of Auburn— had resulted from “the illogic inherent in the evolution of a democratic government.”
“Y’all were founded by a bunch of Yankees,” one of the legislators probably said. “This great state ain’t got no business funding colleges for blacks and women and yokels. Roll the damn tide, Paul.”
The animosity was so great between Auburn and the University of Alabama that the football teams refused to play each other for 49 years. Wallace Wade and Mike Donahue were probably worried that allowing gargantuan farmhands from arch-rival ends of the state to meet in a glorified gladiatorial contest would inevitably end in a flurry of bloodshed and gore.
The tepid peace ended in 1947 only after a bizarre series of events in which the Alabama House of Representatives threatened to withhold funds from both schools if they did not play an annual football game. By then, Auburn was fully funded and a legitimate threat to Alabama both in the classroom and on the field. Still, the Tide refused to travel to Auburn until 1989, insisting that the series be played at Alabama’s de facto home field in Birmingham.
And for the past eight years—not including this year, which will be the ninth, barring some sort of miracle from the over-matched Georgia Bulldogs— the winner of the Iron Bowl has gone onto the college football postseason with a shot at the national championship.
The hatred runs deep. Ohio State and Michigan fans claim they have the best rivalry in football. That’s all good and well, but the fact remains that there are normal fans and crazy fans in every rivalry, and our crazy fans claim the further distinction of being from crazy-ass Alabama. Just last week, an Alabama fan shot an Auburn fan in the leg after what must have been a thoroughly aggressive argument about the Heisman candidacy of Kerryon Johnson. In 2013, one Alabama fan killed another Alabama fan because she was laughing good-naturedly about the Kick Six. In 2010, Harvey Updyke poisoned Auburn’s most famous live oaks with Spike 80DF after watching Cam Newton lead a comeback against Alabama.
It is not a joke. I learned that after meeting Gene Stallings in a Mobile bathroom around age thirteen— I told him, “War Eagle,” and my dad overheard and warned not to say things like that, or I’d end up getting my ass kicked. My grandfather once said that he wouldn’t root for the Crimson Tide unless they played Al-Qaeda. Future ESPN analyst and notorious Auburn homer Jack Kidd said that he’d rather see Georgia win every game for the next twenty years than see Alabama win once.
On a more personal note, my roommate Stone made the questionable decision to invite a few of his high school teammates, Bama fans all, to our house for the weekend. After the game, they drank up Stone’s mango juice, smoked my last pack of Marlboros, and ate Michael’s ice cream, all in a fit of vindictive rage, then drove back to Birmingham like a modern day Bonnie and Clyde.
An entire state, already maligned by the other 49 states in the Union as some sort of treacherous wasteland inhabited by the inbred descendants of Foghorn Leghorn and Yosemite Sam, is bitterly divided against itself because of a game that occurs once a year. It’s probably caused several heart attacks. It’s almost definitely torn apart families. It’s claimed the lives of two old trees and one young woman in the past seven years.
Isn’t this all a bit silly?
At the risk of sounding like a writer for the Odyssey, gushing about the Auburn Family: no.
Albert Camus argues in The Myth of Sisyphus that there is a fundamental conflict between our expectations of the universe and the reality of the cosmos. We expect—we desire—we crave—meaning, order, reason, truth. Instead, we find formless chaos. Nonsensical randomness. The big, all-encompassing void.
Camus looks at the life of Sisyphus, tragic hero of Grecian myth. His punishment is to push a rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down again at the end of the day. Each time, Sisyphus gets closer and closer, and if he can justpush it over the edge, he’ll be released from the Underworld— but he cannot get the rock over the hill, and he never will. It’s impossible.
Camus insists that Sisyphus is content. Sisyphus accepts a world devoid of meaning and purpose, and creates meaning by embracing absurdity. There is no inherent meaning in life, other than that which we imbue with our conscious experience. Read the Sparknotes, believe me. You’ll fall asleep if you check it out from the library, but the philosophy was (and is) groundbreaking.
I could not help but think of Sisyphus this past Saturday. The Iron Bowls of years past are forgotten; next year, if Alabama beats Auburn, this win will be forgotten, too. Already, the trash talk from the 2013 Iron Bowl, arguably the greatest football game of all time, is readily dismissed by Bama fans as “living in the past.” The eight-game win streak Auburn owned over Bama in the 2000s has been erased by four national championships won by the Crimson Tide.
Coaches and players will come and go. Eventually, they will turn into dust, as will the fans, and the stadium, and the Cam Newton statue. The winner of the Iron Bowl has a chance to play for the national championship and a big trophy. As loyal fans, we get— what? Bragging rights? A good laugh at the annoying neighbor that roots for the other team? A cool T-shirt for Christmas? Then the seasons starts over again the next fall, and we stand there like Sisyphus, watching the rock roll back down the hill.
In the fourth quarter, an old woman behind me stands up out of her wheelchair and gives me a high-five. “WAR EAGLE!” she screams. “WAR EAGLE!” I’m not sure she’s supposed to be standing, but she does not seem to care in the least.
After the game, thousands of people stream onto the field, ripping clumps of grass out of the ground as mementos, weeping openly as they hold onto each other.
At Toomer’s Corner around 9 o clock, we waltz through a wonderland of toilet paper and tears, our minds quiet, our souls serene.
Jarret Stidham, star quarterback of the Tigers, stands with his family under the oak trees. Three giddy children come up and cry “War Eagle!”— he gives them high-fives and they run off to tell their parents, brimming with unencumbered delight.
A good-hearted Bama fan, grinning in spite of his wretched defeat, hands out beer and tells everybody, “Good game.”
At Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity house, an old friend, once made a pariah for his penchant for cocaine-fueled decadence, is welcomed back with open arms, clean and sober for 14 months now, smiling brilliantly and embracing friends he had forgotten. He brought victory cigars for everybody to share.
And then more and more fraternity brothers and classmates, many of whom know each other only tangentially, pour into the parking lot behind the house, where a fire is roaring and David Allan Coe is crooning through a rinky-dink speaker and Wild Turkey is being passed around with reckless abandon.
Auburn is going to Atlanta next week. You can bet your ass that game matters.
“Vanity, vanity, all is vanity,” says the philosopher, as he sits cross-legged on top of a mountain. “There is no justice— there is no law— there is no God. O, how fools create meaning from chaos— O, how they worship false idols and cling to forgotten tradition! If they free their minds, they will find truth. Stare at the void ’til it stares back at you— everything else is a chase after wind!”
“Just wait ’til Ohio State beats Wisconsin,” says a Bama fan to an Auburn fan, as they share a beer at a million bars all across the Southeast. “Then we’re back in it.”
“Back in it?” answers the Auburn fan. “You’ve got to be kidding me. They’ll take the Buckeyes before they take y’all.”
“I’ll see you at the Sugar Bowl,” says the Bama fan, grinning. “Roll the damn tide.”
“War eagle,” the Auburn fan replies with a smile. “Roll the damn trees, baby.”
The philosopher cannot see himself for what he is— a fool. Political articles and existentialism be damned. It’s the most wonderful time of the year— bowl season. You can bet that my Trump-voting, churchgoing relatives and I will be talking about Auburn football a lot more often than we’ll be debating the meaning of life or the veracity of the vacation to Russia that Donald Trump Jr.’s fourth cousin probably took in 2016. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in four years at an accredited university, it’s that college football is the one true source of meaning in life.
And, as long as Auburn is knocking off #1 team after #1 team, that’s just fine with me. War eagle.