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Celebrating a championship alone in Kosovo with an expensive cigar

National Guardsman, Auburn grad, and TWER reader Walt Austin poses with a Cohiba Siglo VI cigar at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo following Auburn's win over Oregon.

I’ve made a lot of frivolous purchases in my life.  I’ve bought things I didn’t really need.  I’ve spent more money than necessary to get the “name brand.”  I try to be careful with my money for the most part, but sometimes you just have to treat yourself to something nice.

In early December, shortly after the SEC Championship game, I was at Film City in Pristina, the headquarters of the NATO Kosovo Force (KFOR).  And for those trivia buffs out there, the location is referred to as “Film City” because it is located on the grounds of a former adult film studio.  I was there to give a briefing that ended up not happening, but I decided not to waste my day away from wonderful Camp Bondsteel (CBS).  So, I perused the Post Exchanges (PX) of the various other NATO countries taking part in the KFOR mission.  In the German PX, I purchased one of those luxury items.  For €20, I purchased a Cohiba Siglo VI.  That cigar was placed in my humidor in my room immediately after I arrived back at CBS.  I had plans for that cigar.

2 a.m. is early.  I’m sure most are aware of that.  But this wasn’t the first morning over the past few months that I’ve gotten up at that hour because of football.  The Mississippi State, South Carolina, and Kentucky games come to mind.  I missed the Clemson game entirely due to an overnight hospital stay.  But the nurses can attest that my first words when they woke me in the morning were “what was the final of the Auburn/Clemson game?”  I’m thankful for Auburn having played in the afternoon for the majority of the second half of the season.  It’s much easier to stay up late and then sleep than it is to sleep early, wake early, and then go about the normal day afterward.  Unfortunately, that’s just the nature of the time differences and when the game is played, and I was not about to miss this game.

So, I went to sleep somewhere in the neighborhood of 9 p.m. on the night of the 10th, and got up at 2 a.m. on the 11th to get dressed and walk into the building that I work in.  I could have watched the game on the American Forces Network (AFN) in my room, but I acknowledge my inability to remain quiet and still during a big football game and I’m courteous enough to not want to annoy my roommates, so I watched the game at work.  And what a game it was.  I don’t think I’ve ever been as nervous during a football game as I was that morning.  I won’t recap every little thought I had on the game.  If you want to know what I thought, you can always find the game day thread here on TWER and read my constant comments on what was happening during the game.

I’ve been through my team winning national championships before.  My father graduated from Georgia Southern College (now University), and I grew up watching the Eagles constantly dominate 1-AA (now FCS) football.  It often pains me to say it, but GSU is truly the Alabama of FCS, even down to the uniforms, which only differ in color.  Both boast a legendary coach who led them to greatness and who is worshiped by their fan base.  In GSU’s case, though, it is an Auburn man: Erk Russell, the last four-sport letterman in the history of Auburn University.  Erk may be best known in the SEC as the Defensive Coordinator for Vince Dooley at UGA.  For me, I will always remember him as an Auburn man, and as the man who started the GSU football program and led it to greatness.

National championships are nothing new to me when it comes to Georgia Southern.  Close calls and constant disappointment at being so close are the norm for me when it comes to Auburn.  I remember the 1993 season and Jim Fyffe’s call on “Nix to Sanders” and “Eleven and Oh!  Eleven and Oh!  E-LEVEN AND OH!”  I recall the disgusted feeling at the end of the 2004 season, my first season as an alumnus.  So when Wes Byrum’s kick sailed through the uprights shortly after 6 am local time on 11 January 2011, I collapsed in my chair with my head in my hands.  I could not believe it.  I’ve dreamed of this moment all of my life, and it was finally here.  Now my Auburn Tigers, my alma mater, are the best football team in the country.  After years of coming so close, the Tigers are the No. 1 team in the nation when it counts — when all the games are finished.

I watched the presentation of the trophy and the shots from Toomer’s Corner with a bittersweet feeling.  My brother and his wife were in Glendale for the game, having bought tickets immediately following the SEC Championship victory when they were still reasonably priced.  I knew my father — a lifelong Auburn fan himself and the reason why my brother and I both ended up attending and graduating from Auburn — was at home watching on TV.  And here I was, alone at my desk.  Sure, I had other soldiers from the night shift here with me.  But they’re from the Puerto Rico National Guard, and know little and care less about college football.  I sat in my chair in silence. Alone. There was no one here to celebrate with.  I could not raise a glass or bottle of beer in triumph.  There were no other Tigers to join me in screaming “War Eagle!”  There are other football fans around this base, but so far as I know I am the only Auburn Tiger.  So, for me, this victory, while so very sweet, was also missing that connection with the Auburn Family.  It is for that reason that I am so thankful for TWER and The Auburner.  They have allowed me to stay connected with the Auburn Family even though I’m thousands of miles away.  I watched the celebration in Glendale and at Toomer’s Corner and I would give anything to have been there.  But I was there in spirit — through many of my friends on these fantastic Auburn sites, I was with them, yelling “War Eagle!” to my family, and throwing rolls of toilet paper deep into the January morning.

For me, another day immediately began.  I carried my Auburn car flag to breakfast, holding it high.  But not many here cared.  We have a contingent here from Arkansas and Iowa through the aviation unit.  Many of the Arkansas troops were with me in Iraq during my first deployment.  The Army truly is a small world.  I ate breakfast with one of those, a CW5 from the Arkansas Guard, with my Auburn flag attached to the napkin holder on the table.  The looks of disgust from some of the Iowa soldiers (many of whom are Iowa State grads or fans) warmed my heart a bit after the lonely feeling immediately following the win.  Upon arriving back at my desk at 7:30 a.m., my phone rang.  It was my boss, calling me to his office to help him prepare for a briefing to our battle group commander.  Though I awoke at 2am for the game, the mission continued with the beginning of the day.  I was at my desk working until shortly after 5pm.

I did not get a chance to read Kenny Smith’s wonderful piece “We’ll Remember too, this season of great joy and hope” until late in the afternoon.  It was published shortly before I fell asleep on Monday night, and I didn’t get around to reading it until after the game.  I read it with tears in my eyes as he described this scene: “It is a great sadness that Jim Fyffe could not see this and that Dean Foy could not lead one more Wah Eghul from the field. But it would not be surprising, in some idealized hereafter, to imagine Shug sitting alongside them with his Coke and peanuts, watching the boys play.”  I can remember commenting to my supply sergeant during my last deployment that I missed Jim Fyffe calling Auburn football games.  His response still resonates with me to this day: “He still calls ‘em… just now he calls ‘em for the Almighty.”  As I read Kenny Smith’s words, I could imagine Jim, Dean Foy, and Coach Shug together in Heaven.  I know Jim’s “TOUCHDOWN AUBURN!” for Kodi’s touchdown was loud enough for all in the hereafter to hear.  I can imagine the “It’s GOOOOOOOOOOOOOD!” when Wes Byrum’s final field goal as an Auburn Tiger hit the net behind the goal posts.  And, similar to the 1993 season, the call of “Fourteen and Oh! Fourteen and Oh!  FOUR-TEEN AND OH!” at the game’s end.  Rod Bramblett has become a fantastic voice for the  Auburn Tigers, but there will always be the part of me that remembers the voice of Jim Fyffe and wishes that he could have seen this team, seen this day.

After work, I was finally able to relax.  The game had been over for almost twelve hours.  I had been awake for close to eighteen hours.  I walked back to my room, opened up my humidor, and removed that €20 Cohiba.  I attached my Auburn car flag to the awning support beam outside my room, and lit that wonderful cigar.  Ironically, it is warmer here in Kosovo right now than it is back home.  But it is still fairly cold.  I sat outside in my chair for over an hour savoring the flavor of that cigar.

I try my best to be careful with my finances.  But sometimes, you just have to treat yourself and enjoy the little things.

Like victory.

War Eagle!

Walter Austin graduated from Auburn University with a B.A. in History and a minor in Military Science in 2004.  He was commissioned into the Alabama Army National Guard through Auburn’s War Eagle Battalion in May of that year.  He spent the 2006 football season in Iraq with the 1-131st Aviation Regiment out of Montgomery.  Now in the Georgia Army National Guard and with the 221st Military Intelligence Battalion out of Ft. Gillem, GA., he is currently serving in Kosovo as a part of the NATO KFOR mission.

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