In New Jersey, folks get married on the opening day of the college football season. Why they do that, I just don’t know.
But there I was anyway, under the bugs buzzing in time to the parking lot streetlamps, interrogating my father by cellphone. Even the relative grandeur of ESPNU remained far, far away from my location — but he was my conduit. The New Jersey crickets heard but did not understand: How is Todd’s arm? Is the line playing sharp? What does our offense look like? While the DJ played and the reception guests danced, I pressed my phone into my head like some feverish mariner trapped far inland, clapping a shell to his ear for any echo of the sea. The glimmers that reached my ear weren’t good. The Bulldogs had driven the length of the field and, aided by a costly penalty, were second-and-goal. Stand up Tigers, stand up Tigers, stand up Tigers. I was recalled inside and could not even hear how our goal-line defense performed, no one recognizing the oar on my shoulder.
The wedding reception recommenced. Music blared, dancers danced, and food was served, but in the hours that proceeded, I would follow by text message our first victory of 2009.
Such has been my lot for as long as I can remember, and also — I suspect — the lot of most Auburn fans. Being that we aren’t the media darling like some teams, I have watched our teams progress from afar, reading post-game recaps and hoping to glean some expectations for the games that I could actually watch. I’m grateful to say that this is changing, thanks to ESPN and their parade of niche-related stations. Had we been at home, I could have certainly caught the La-Tech game.
My most recent trip to Mecca was, coincidentally, for the Louisiana Tech game in 2001. I stopped off in Blacksburg to pick up a buddy, and then we drove down 81 through Tennessee towards Prattville, where my kinfolk live.
This was a memorable trip for a whole host of reasons. First off, we were eagerly anticipating the shining storefronts that dot northern Tennessee. You know them — fireworks. Growing up mostly in Virginia meant that the Fourth of July was a yearly exercise in the smuggling and guerrilla-style detonation of Black Cats and bottle rockets. We were both running low and looked to replenish our arsenals. But we were so late getting out of Blacksburg that it seemed impossible to stop, lest we reach my granddaddy’s house in Prattville at some outlandish hour. So we decided to forgo that aspect of our trip. However, we did have to buy gas, and I will never forget our satisfaction to find that our chosen BP shared a parking lot with a huge, inviting and thoroughly explosive fireworks store. We loaded up with plenty of contraband.
Later, when we arrived in Prattville, we eagerly displayed our goods to my granddaddy. He was impressed, mostly by three huge skyrockets. Immediately, it was decided that we could not rest the night without settin’ those babies off. So we walked out into the warm, humid Alabama night, bringing a couple of cinder blocks, the skyrockets, and a long-neck lighter. We set up one rocket, aiming for a long trajectory over the nearby field and — as is tradition — my buddy and I paper-rock-scissored for the chance at the first ignition. I won, and when I lit that sucker it shot out over the dark grass a good 50 yards, exploding in a shower of green sparks. We were all really impressed. My buddy shot his off and whoosh! it shot even farther into the night, reappearing as a sudden, bright cloud of white stars. There was one left. I looked at my buddy, and he looked at me. I turned to my septuagenarian grandfather: “Granddaddy, do you wan-” “Gimme that” he replied before the words were out of my mouth, already reaching for the lighter. His skyrocket bloomed red in the thick air.
It would be a good game for a number of reasons. We got the full game-day experience, minus the flight of our eagle (a serious rookie mistake that I’m still kicking myself for.) We cheered at the Tiger Walk. We got Toomer’s Corner lemonade. I ate a delicious large cupful of boiled peanuts. When we arrived back in Prattville, exhausted game-day warriors, we spied an armadillo, winking in the headlights from behind the tool shed. We blitzed that creature around both edges and damn near caught him by the tail. The trip was complete.
I still remember the game being fairly unexciting, despite what was ultimately a high score. “Too bad we couldn’t see ‘em play a real team,” I told my buddy. Maybe I just didn’t know the game as well back then, or maybe we were just an awful football team — we did go on to lose to LSU and UNC. But it just wasn’t an exciting game. I figured that Coach Tuberville didn’t need to do anything special to win. We could just play solid football and let the depth chart do its dirty, grinding work. The sun was warm, the team was on the field, and the Tigers would be victorious. If the game plan was dialed down and the second string was playing, it was simply good enough to watch our blue-jerseyed warriors on the field.
This game was different: McCalebb was explosive; Tate was mean; Receivers caught balls; Todd slung it around; and the lines were effective. This was Auburn, taking it to the enemy. Auburn, leaving it all on the field. Auburn, going for the throat, landing the haymaker, blowing the opponent off the ball — against a team who looked to pull off the likely upset.
And that’s why this game means so much to me. Maybe this is merely a win over a great-for-the-WAC Bulldog squad. Maybe this game won’t win us any national respect, maybe it ultimately won’t even mean any respect within the SEC.
And in this age of digitization and mass-distribution of more and more games, it’s even more impressive. Chizik easily could have dialed back the game plan, saving the real genius for the later games. He could have decided that, since this game will be scrutinized by all our opponents and parceled out into DVDs for the players to pore over, it’s best to do exactly and only enough to escape with a win. He could have played the game with the whole season in mind, cards held close to the chest.
Not Chizik, and not this Auburn team. On Saturday, the Auburn Tigers made a declaration, a message, beamed out from Jordan-Hare Stadium to all the Tiger faithful whether they could see it on ESPNU or simply catch the echoes through our cellphones: The Tigers are here to play. All the things we have told you are true. We are here to hit them in the mouth, every game, every down, every yard.
So late in the evening, as I watched the New Jersey folks gobble up candy and dance to the B-52’s, my dad texted me a wild series of scoring drives and I breathed easy. My beloved Tigers stood up. Our team is ready to play.
War Damn Eagle, Coach Gene Chizik.