Roll Tide Roll

by

I wonder. How did this moment arrive? I’m in an Alabama football bar, “Big Al’s,” located in an upscale enclave of Richmond, Virginia, where my older daughter, Pari, lives. It’s the day of the Alabama-LSU game, and the bar is packed with Bama fans. And two LSU Tigers fans, who happen to be sitting right behind my daughter and me. Our beloved Crimson Tide is finally pulling away from LSU early in the fourth quarter, and the Tigers appear to have fumbled again. Pari and I jump up yelling, trying to determine which team has recovered the ball. Suddenly from behind, one of the LSU fans—who before the game had seemed so innocuous and even told me how much he likes Alabama and knows that we’ll win the game—begins shouting at us:

“Sit down already! What more do you want? You’re already winning!”

I’m fifty-seven years old, but I can still be shocked.

“What?” I yell back. And Pari turns to him, too.

“Oh, sit back down you b—-!”

And there you have it. We’re about to get into it: my twenty-three year old daughter and I, with a complete stranger, over a football game. When sanity returns—thanks to the other LSU fan who at least understands how the numbers are stacked against them—and we all calm down, Pari waits a beat, turns to the LSU provocateur, and calmly says, “Roll Tide.”

Yep, that’s my daughter. It’s surprising what we pass down through blood, what we inherit.

***

How do you know that you’re a bona fide Alabama football fan? The number of red elephant stickers on your car? The Houndstooth apparel? The number of past Bama quarterbacks you can name who wore the numeral 12?

Or is it the way you declare Roll Tide in the face of friendliness or animosity?

I learned to holler Roll Tide from my normally mild-mannered, soft-spoken Dad. Generally he was an even keeled man whose most accomplished vocal skill was his whistle. He could whistle “Stardust” while getting dressed in the morning, “South Rampart Street Parade,” while filling orders in the stockroom of his wholesale jewelry store, or “Moonlight Serenade” in his scalding hot nightly shower.

I found out, though, that this educated, precise, and definitely OCD man, had another kind of voice. I heard it when I was nine years old on the fall afternoon when he took me to my first Alabama football game. As the Crimson Tide lined up to kick off, the crowd began: “ROLLLLLL….” And when our kicker connected with the ball, “…TIDE, ROLL.” Though it was 69,000 people chanting as one, the loudest voice of all came from right beside me. My own Dad, and his smile, his gleaming eyes, more than matched this voice that I had never heard before.

Our first game in 1965 was played against the Tennessee Vols. The game ended in a tie, and Dad threatened he would never take me to a Tennessee game again. Though Bama should have won the game—look it up and you’ll read about the tragic ending—what occurred to me only years later, was not so much that I thought I was a jinx, but that even with this setback, Alabama went on to win the National Championship that year. Despite me.

Dad didn’t make good on that threat and he took me to at least one Bama game a year during my high school years. We saw mainly Alabama victories—partly because he took me from then on only to potentially lopsided games: Bama versus Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, or Virginia Tech (a game we won 77-6 and d*** them for scoring). But I sort of outgrew him when I entered college. As a college student, I had too many other cares, too many other passions. I discovered the depths of literature–Faulkner, Kafka, O’Connor–and the complexity of college girls. Things I just knew my father would never understand. His gift of Alabama football seemed so simple to me then. We did make it to another Tennessee game after I enrolled at UT for graduate school. And Bama vindicated itself with a 56-28 win.

During my childhood, I don’t think I understood yet how adults can act like kids, how a sport played basically by people you don’t know who wear a uniform you have loved for decades can thrill you like a double Ferris Wheel ride. Though maybe I should have realized that, at least where Bama was concerned, all kinds of otherwise unacceptable behavior became entirely appropriate.

From the age of three, I watched “The Bear Bryant Show” every Sunday afternoon with my Dad. A one-hour replay of the previous day’s game narrated by Alabama’s legendary coach: you’d think Dad and I were worshipping some visionary savior the way we sat rapt and cross-legged before our black and white screen. Today, when people ask how someone like me—a college English professor whose greatest literary gods are Faulkner and Joyce—could become such a football fanatic. I tell them that it all started here. The team could have been Georgia or Tennessee or, ugh, even Auburn. But, in our house, it was Alabama, and it was my Dad, like I’m sure it is and has been for boys and girls all over the South (and maybe other parts of our nation too).

Or there was the time I made the mistake of suggesting to Dad that it would be OK if one of Bama’s more hapless opponents—Tulane, I think—scored a touchdown or two after the game had been rendered meaningless. You might have thought that I had just suggested it would be OK if the Russians took over Vermont or Delaware, or one of those other inconsequential Northern states.

“NOOOOOOO,” he shouted. I was only five at the time, so Dad calmed down, put his hand gently on my shoulder and suggested, “Don’t ever say that again. We never want the other team to score.”

And so, forty years later, I still react with complete dismay when Southern Mississippi scores a futile touchdown late in a game to make the final score 56-7.

But during those childhood years, two other aspects of Bama games stand out. The first is the fact that since most of the games we attended were truly over by early in the fourth quarter, Dad would have us exit with a few minutes left so that we could beat the traffic home. As we left, he’d take my hand and start, well, not so much walking as a slightly-subdued sprinting. This is the pace I adopted and use today whether I’m mall-shopping, walking my dog, or leaving my class building late on those autumn football Fridays.

***

After Bear Bryant died, Alabama went through several years of relative mediocrity. Though I kept up with them, I had other interests and loves: a wife and in 1990, a baby girl. Dad and I had not attended a game together since that year in Knoxville, and as 1992 rolled around, we started talking more about the Crimson Tide as it fought on to victory after victory. When we beat Florida in the inaugural SEC Championship game, Dad and I celebrated from afar, he still in Alabama, I in South Carolina. And the night of the National Championship game against Miami, I called him prior to kickoff.

“Dad, you don’t really think we’re going to beat Miami, do you?”

Kindly, but firmly, that voice answered me, “Sonny, I ALWAYS think we’re gonna win.”

And we did, 34-13 in a game that will live forever in Alabama lore. After the game, I assumed it was just too late to call home. The next morning when I called, my mother asked why I hadn’t called right after the game:

“I thought you would have. Your Daddy was expecting it.”

Though Dad and I relived the game then, it wasn’t the same. And so I decided Dad and I would begin going to games again. That next summer, I bought our tickets, and for the rest of his life, we made our annual pilgrimage to Tuscaloosa.

Unfortunately, not every game was a win. I remember the Arkansas game of 1997. Alabama led for most of the game, but in the final seconds, Arkansas drove down the field, and on the very last play—a play that from our end zone seats Dad and I could see perfectly unfolding—the Arkansas quarterback lofted a beautiful spiral to a wide open receiver. The two Arkansas fans sitting in front of us—a perfectly nice young married couple—went crazy then yelling “Go Hogs,” as they should have. But it was too much for Dad. I have successfully blocked his words—they were definitely not Roll Tide–from my memory, but I remember the tone, and I remember how this poor couple winced and hunkered down.

Two years later, our last game together, as we made our getaway after Bama avenged itself against those same Hogs, I made Dad stop for a minute because in a store window, I saw something I wanted: a white sweatshirt emblazoned in Crimson with the University of Alabama logo, just like the one Dad had bought me when I was a little boy. I paid $30 for this treasure. It was all-cotton, and when I bought it, I had no idea of its true worth.

***

In those last years of my Dad’s life, besides Alabama football, his greatest treasures were his granddaughters. He had the benefit of knowing Pari longer than her younger sister Layla. Those four extra years were good ones because he hadn’t begun slipping away from us yet. And while both daughters are precious, Pari truly won his heart because she is so loving, and because, as a little girl, she was so precocious.

Pari acted like a little adult almost from birth when her deep brown eyes picked me out while she was cradled in the nurse’s arms. One of her endearing acts of love was directed especially at me. I’m a lifelong Yankees fan, and while Pari couldn’t stay up for those late night World Series games back in the 90’s, the first thing she, and her sister, would ask the following morning was whether the Yankees won. She couldn’t have cared less about baseball. Her love was inspired by me. So when the Yankees would go on a minor losing streak, Pari devised a “spell,” as she called it, to get them winning again. She told me after she had practiced her art a few times successfully that it was her spell, which seemed to be a chant, “the Yankees will win,” that had done it. I listened to my little girl and smiled inside.

I successfully hid my passion about Alabama football from Pari, and from everyone else during this era. Maybe because Alabama just wasn’t so good in her childhood; maybe because of the sport’s brute violence. Or maybe because after my Dad died in 2000, I lost heart. But then something funny happened. Warren St. John wrote a book called Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer about the dedicated Bama fans that follow the team all season in their RV’s. The craziness of fan behavior clicked with me, for of course I had been raised on such craziness, though without the RV. So I started paying attention to the Crimson Tide again, and as the sort of daughter she is, Pari asked me why I loved them. By this time she was in high school and had attended her share of high school games. I told her about my being raised a Bama fan, sitting in front of that TV, and going to games with my Daddy.

And then I gave her a copy of Rammer Jammer. After reading it, she wanted me to buy an RV so that we could travel to Pasadena that January and watch the Tide take on Texas in the Rose Bowl. Quite a drive from upstate South Carolina. Sadly, I had to decline.

So you’d have to ask her what did it: her love for her Granddaddy, whom she called “Pa;” her love for me; or the book. But I assume it was all of those. You’d also have to ask her and her sister why, of all my possessions, it’s that white sweatshirt they covet most. Even I wonder about that.

I took Pari to her first game in that championship season of 2009. A minor game which Bama won handily. But it was the atmosphere, the nearly 100,000 fans crammed in and around Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Jumbotron blasting the mascot Elephant’s trumpeting. The inheritance of family tradition. In any case, she made me promise to take her back every year: “This has to be our ritual,” she demanded. And who am I to deny my child?

She also demanded one other thing: “But we have to stay till the very end, Daddy. We can’t leave early. We’re Bama fans and we only get to do this once a year.” If I’ve learned anything about tradition, about my daughter, it’s that when you pass something along, you have to be prepared for the inheritor to modify it in her own way. This is now her tradition too. Her right. Her birthright.

So, ever since then, we go decked out in our gear: Bama jerseys (for Christmas last year we got each other matching white jerseys, hers with number 42 with Eddie Lacy’s name on it; mine with number 3 with Trent Richardson’s name on it). Pari buys a new shaker for every game, paints her nails crimson, and garnishes it all with Bama necklaces, earrings, sunglasses and beads. And God knows what all I’m forgetting. We’ve managed to watch all three most recent national championship games together, even though she’s lived away from home for the past several years.

And when she moved to Richmond for grad school—she just completed her MSW last May—she found the one true Bama bar in that city. She thought she was their jinx at first, for when she walked in that first night, Bama immediately fell behind LSU. But in a glorious last minute drive, Bama won 21-17 on a pass from AJ McCarron to TJ Yeldon. Since then, she has been asked by the outgoing president of the Richmond Bama Alumni association to be its new president.

“Daddy, can I be the president if I’m not an alum?” she asks.

But I just smile. I’ve learned over these years that she can and will be whomever she wants to be. And I learned at that game we watched together in Big Al’s last year that no one better mess with her when it concerns Bama football, or her Daddy.

Just a few weeks ago, Pari, her boyfriend Taylor, my other daughter Layla and I attended the Alabama-Southern Mississippi game. The game itself was a rout, though none of us minded sitting there in the end zone upper deck. It never ceases to be amazing just being there. But what I loved most was the drive down, winding through the hills along the back roads. I felt my Dad with me then since this was the route we used to take too, eschewing the interstate. It truly felt like going home.

***

Pari called me last week. It seems that Big Al’s is selling raffle chances for two tickets to this year’s Iron Bowl. “Roll Tide, Daddy! We bought some chances on the Iron Bowl, and Daddy, Taylor says that if we win, he’ll give his seat to you so that you and I can go.” Somehow, I know she’s going to win, too. Maybe she’ll even work her magic, like she did with me and my Dad almost twenty-five years ago. Like she does every time she says “Roll Tide,” which for her, is just another way of saying “I love you.”

And don’t worry, sweetie. I’m saving that sweatshirt for you.