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The Crossover: Lifelong Bama fan completes Auburn conversion at 2010 Iron Bowl

At last year's Iron Bowl, Emory Blake helped baptize Isaac McKeithen in the name of Shug, Dye, and the holy Chizik.

November 26, 2010 is of special significance to me. It means a lot to Auburn fans, of course, because it marks the date of “The Comeback,” when Cam Newton led the Tigers back from a 24-point defect to beat Alabama in Bryant-Denny Stadium, 28-27. But it means even more to me, and that’s not because of some big event that happened. I didn’t get married, propose to anyone, celebrate a birthday or mark any anniversary. I didn’t do anything. Something happened to me: a switch was turned. It was the first time in my 23 years I cheered against Alabama. It was the date of the crossover.

I was born into an Alabama family. My mom isn’t a Bama fan, but my dad certainly is. He’s an Alabama fan because his dad was, and I’m pretty sure his dad was and his father before him. He didn’t attend the University of Alabama, opting to earn his degree from the University of South Alabama, but he has actively rooted for the Tide for as long as he can remember, and that’s all that matters. His blood runs crimson, as they say. He’s never questioned his allegiance and never had a reason to do so. He never made a choice to be an Alabama fan; it was made for him, and he’s never cared about that distinction.

One of the first memories I have is sitting with him, five years old, watching the 1993 Sugar Bowl. It was the de-facto National Championship game between the Tide and the hated Miami Hurricanes. They were hated because the players liked to talk smack (a defining characteristic of Hurricane teams in the 1980s and 90s), and that’s not what Alabama stood for. Well, that’s what Dad said at least. All I remember from the game is Alabama’s George Teague chasing down Lamar Thomas in the 4th quarter and stripping the ball out of his hands, stopping a sure touchdown. I remember seeing a painting or photo of the play in every Bama fan’s law office, barbershop and home in the years that followed. It was as sacred an event as the parting of the Red Sea or Daniel’s encounter with the lion, as far as Bama fans were concerned.

The first time I had the bitter taste of a bad loss was watching Oklahoma come back and beat Alabama in 2002 in Norman.  It was built as a gigantic game between two of the biggest programs in NCAA football history. ESPN announced before the game Alabama fans brought more RVs to that game than any other fan base had to a road game in history, and I was proud of that. Gameday was there. It was big … and “we” lost. Bama had the game sealed. I swore they did, up 27-23 late in the game. But after the Sooners took a 3-point lead in the 4th quarter, OU’s Eric Bassey picked up a fumble from Bama quarterback Tyler Watts, ran it back 45 yards to score and clinched the win. I was devastated. I wanted to cry. Bama won and lost in the span of a few seconds. I looked at my dad, confused. He gave me the life lesson: You don’t always win. We’ve all had that talk. You learn to pick yourself up and get on with life.

I experienced the highest of highs and what I thought were the lowest of lows. For the next few years after that, I was content with my Bama fandom. Why wouldn’t I be? “We” were Alabama, and if you didn’t root for the Tide, you were lesser. We had houndstooth, Bear Bryant, Denny Chimes, Hollywood Joe, Stallings, all 12 of our championships and everything else that set us apart. “Y’all” couldn’t amount. We expected to win every game because we were entitled to.

Then something happened or, rather, a few things did, all of which are important in understanding the crossover.

During my senior year in high school in 2005, my parents and I took a road trip to Tuscaloosa. It was time for me to decide where to go to college, and the first thought that came to mind was Alabama. To be able to live and go to school where the greats did. To see every home football game. It sounded perfect.

It wasn’t. Nothing crazy happened. No shocking events turned me away. The three of us arrived, took tours of campus, learned about the history, made a schedule and did all the other things aspiring students do before enrolling and taking classes at a normal college.

At the end of 2 long days, though, my father and I sat down in the then-brand-spanking-new student center cafeteria for lunch. I was nibbling at a sandwich without much of an appetite, my head lowered. My dad could tell something was up. He could tell the stars weren’t aligning, like they should when picking a college to attend. He said, “You don’t like it, do you?” I didn’t. I couldn’t really explain why, and I still can’t – except it didn’t feel like home. It didn’t feel right, and I knew, deep down under all that Crimson love and pride, I wouldn’t be an Alabama student.

So I followed in Dad’s footsteps and enrolled at South Alabama. I picked communications, but I wasn’t married to the major. I floated through my first months there, depressed that I was living at home – just a continuation of high school. One of my good friends, Adam, took another path. Instead of settling for home, he chose Auburn as his next step. Before leaving home, Adam was never a huge fan of sports, except boxing. He watched it with his dad. Football was never something he watched or, like me, absorbed.

That changed for Adam on September 3rd, 2005. He and his girlfriend Bryn went to their first game at Jordan-Hare Stadium. They arrived 10 minutes before kickoff because they were freshmen and had no sense of the game day traditions in Auburn. Showing up at a home game 10 minutes before kickoff ensures you a spot near or even at the top row of the student section. Not a bad seat, mind you, but not near the band, near the sideline or near, you know, the game. The game ended in defeat, 23-14 to Georgia Tech, but it didn’t matter. They were hooked, just like the thousands of others in the stadium. They went back to another game the next week, which ended in a victory, 28-0 against Mississippi State.

Adam and I became good friends my junior year of high school and kept in touch despite the distance. After he settled into his apartment at Auburn, he started to bug me about coming up to visit. I finally relented the start of the next school year. I remember hoping, before I left, that I wouldn’t hate Auburn. I didn’t like the team and never had, but never considered why. I just hoped I didn’t hate the city because I wanted to be able to hang out with Adam somewhere that wasn’t Mobile – after 20 years, I had grown tired of it.

I visited September 16, 2006, another significant date to me. It wasn’t quite the crossover, but it was close: a crack in my crimson colored armor. Astute Auburn fans will recall this as the date of the LSU game that year. I found a ticket on Facebook and paid an obscene amount of money for it because AU was ranked No. 3 and LSU No. 6, and both were 2-0 at the time. Adam told me it would be worth it. I packed a navy blue polo and khaki shorts. I told myself that I’d wear one Auburn color to blend in, but there was no way in hell I’d wear orange or anything with “Auburn,” “War Eagle” or “Tigers” on it. No way.

The atmosphere was electric. I had previously been to two Alabama games at Bryant-Denny and never felt such a spark. An hour before the LSU game at Jordan-Hare even started, I had goose bumps. The crowds at both Alabama games were only mildly loud, and those experiences came and went without much fanfare. Bama won both, but I barely remember anything about them.

I could tell this Auburn game would be different. I was in the middle of the student section, which was so packed, people were standing on the stairs and by the railings. Security and police officers usually ask people to find a seat, but it became such an issue, they just left the people alone. The game ended up being a defensive effort with big third down stops and a Brandon Cox interception. LSU kicked a field goal in the second quarter, and Auburn didn’t respond until the third with a goal line push from Cox for a touchdown. Most of the fourth quarter elapsed without a score, much less any amount of offense.

LSU had the ball at their own 20-yard line with just more than five minutes left in the game. Quarterback JaMarcus Russell completed 20-yard pass after 20-yard pass to put LSU at Auburn’s 5-yard line. Down four points, they needed a touchdown because a field goal would put them one point short. They had three seconds left on the clock. Russell took the ball in the shotgun formation, three receivers set to his left and the tight end right. He looked left and waited for senior wide receiver Chris Davis to break left down the sideline. Russell threw it up. Davis looked open, and everyone in the stands held their breath held tight until Auburn junior safety Eric Brock came across delivered a big blow just as the ball arrived. Davis had caught the ball at the 5, but after Brock’s hit, time had expired. Auburn won 7-3.

The crowd erupted. People were hugging, high-fiving, jumping up and down and, more than anything, making a ton of noise. I had never heard or felt a noise like that in my life, and I was part of it. I remember shouting, “Oh my God” and putting my hand over my chest like I was going to have a heart attack. After Adam and I got out of the stadium, we made the hike back to his apartment. I called Mom on the way back, excited, and when she answered I yelled, “We won!”

“We?”

I hadn’t even noticed how I phrased the sentence until she said it. “We” won? I thought “we” was Alabama and crimson and the Bear, not Auburn and orange and War Eagle. Adam was remorselessly giggling at my sudden existential crisis. I chatted with Mom for a bit, recalling the hysteria I contributed to. Being a good mom, she didn’t goad me about the mistake.

My dad got on the phone next. “How about those calls?” Calls? I didn’t understand what he was talking about. I just saw a great SEC defensive game. Apparently, he saw a bunch of questionable calls from the officials, including pass-interference call on Auburn on that final drive that was actually nixed because the ball was tipped. Dad was yelling that the Auburn defensive back held the receiver, so the tipped ball shouldn’t have negated the penalty. I tried to explain that sort of thing happens. He was still disappointed. I didn’t care.

After that weekend, I went home to Mobile, happy I had experienced such a great game day. I continued to pull for my Tide, but in the back part of my mind, I didn’t hate Auburn so much. I couldn’t – not after that LSU game. I didn’t hate Auburn so much, a new thought entered my mind: transferring. Adam, and even his mom, posed the question a few times during the next year or so as I continued to visit him once every few months. Why not transfer? I was tired of Mobile and home and needed a new setting. So after two years, I filled out the paperwork and officially became an Auburn man.

Transfer students get last pick for season tickets for students, so I didn’t get any, but I still went to a few games, despite still being an Alabama fan. I had to hide it those first years. Only Adam, Bryn, and my girlfriend Emily really knew. It felt like a disease. I was pulling for Auburn and Alabama at the same time, except for the Iron Bowl. The internal struggle was at an all-time high those first couple years.

Then the 2009 season happened. Alabama went undefeated, beating Auburn in a surprisingly close Iron Bowl, 26-21. The next week, Bama beat Florida, 32-13 in convincing fashion and earned a trip to the Rose Bowl for the BCS National Championship. My dad was happy, and, secretly, I was too. It was Alabama’s first shot at a championship since 1993, when Teague ran down Thomas and sparked my love of football. I watched the game with Adam and my co-worker, Brett. Bryn joked once that if she had an Auburn question that needed answering, she’d ask Brett (the biggest and most knowledgeable Auburn fan I know) for the biased answer, and if she had a Bama question, I’d answer with my own bias.

Being good friends, Adam and Brett knew I wanted Bama to win, so they didn’t cheer for Texas loudly. They didn’t cheer for Bama, of course, but remained relatively quiet throughout the game. When the game ended, and Alabama had officially won, I was overwhelmed with emotion. I walked back to my room, quietly, and lied down. I thought about my childhood, my dad and what winning this championship felt like. It wasn’t the sublime euphoria I expected. It didn’t feel like my championship. I wasn’t part of it, just like I wasn’t part of those two Alabama crowds I experienced at Bryant-Denny.

The emotion I felt wasn’t jubilation, but finality. The process, which started with me watching my dad watch Alabama 17 years ago and ended with me on my bed in Auburn, felt complete. I didn’t have any more connection to that university or that team. My dad’s team had won that championship, not mine. I don’t know if that was God telling me that, but it all felt divine. I took it as a sign.

See the guy with the "All In" sign? Our protagonist is the dude wrestling with them angels just below him to the right.

Before the next season started, I told myself that I wouldn’t root for Alabama anymore. I wouldn’t be a secret traitor to my own school. I would go to every Auburn game I could, wearing orange, and cheer as loud as I could, free of the crimson chains that held me back before. Again I was hit with a divine sign. This time, though, it was a sign that lasted all year: a 12-0 regular season, including some of the best home games Jordan-Hare has ever seen: Clemson in overtime 27-24, South Carolina 35-27, Arkansas 65-43, LSU 24-17 (including Cam’s 49-yard, Heisman-clinching run), and seizing the West with Georgia 49-31. Every game seemed sweeter than the last, especially finally beating UGA after four straight years of losing.

Then November 26, 2010 happened: The Iron Bowl at Bryant-Denny Stadium. I went with my girlfriend Wallis and had to buy my ticket from a co-worker. I paid an obscene amount for it; the seat was at the top row of the stadium. It was cold and wet, but I didn’t care. I was there for a big game, and I was there to cheer against Alabama. But I didn’t have anything to cheer for at first. Bama stormed out to a 24-point lead early with touchdowns from Julio Jones, former Heisman-winner Mark Ingram and Darius Hanks and a field goal from Jeremy Shelley. The crimson-clad were alive and well, screaming with happiness, surprised at their own good fortune.

In the upper deck, the visiting Auburn fans were surprised too, but in the worst way possible. We were damp and freezing and wondering what the hell was happening. I thought about the signs I had gotten after watching Bama win the BCS title and seeing all those fabulous Auburn home games and wondered what this sign meant. Had I made a wrong turn somewhere? It was my first time not happy at an Alabama lead, and the sky was black.

And then. Emory Blake caught a beautiful pass from Cam at the end of the second quarter and gave Auburn a life-sustaining touchdown, which put the score at 24-7 at the half. The traveling Auburn faithful took a deep breath, sat down, bundled up and hoped the second half would be better. A few moments later, the sky slowly, ominously, forebodingly started to change. The gray clouds started to roll outward and a blue- and orange-soaked sunset came into view. The temperature warmed up a bit. The rain subsided. What looked like hell one moment turned to heaven the next. It is as inexplicable an event as I’ve ever seen. It took my breath away.

What transpires next, every Auburn fan already knows: 21 more points for Auburn to Alabama’s 3. They had one final drive to try and win the game, but Ted Roof’s defense stepped up and took the Tide down. For the first time in my 23 years, I was happy – no scratch that – ecstatic that Alabama lost. We had won. The crossover was complete. I was an Auburn fan, an Auburn man forever. I had chosen my path, transferred to Auburn and become a Tiger by my own will. Instead of letting that fandom be passed down like a family heirloom, I elected to blaze my own trail. And I never looked back.

In the following months, Auburn blasted Carolina 56-17 in the SEC Championship in Atlanta and was invited to the BCS Championship in Glendale, Ariz. Much to my surprise, I won the second student lottery and got a ticket. I used about a thousand dollars of my savings, all total, to travel with Brett and Wallis and see the game. It was, as expected, incredible: the perfect epilogue to my crossover.

War Eagle.

Emory Blake photo via; crowd shot by Phillip “@WarDamnPhil” Smith.

Isaac McKeithen studied History at Auburn University and graduated in 2011. He has done a fair share of freelance writing, reviewing everything from movies to concerts, and currently works in the Opelika area. On Twitter, he frequently rants about college football, movies, technology and video games—follow him: @IsaacTM.

Related: Bama youth switches sides because “Cam Newton is the Best.”

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