When I was not quite five years old my dad took a promotion and moved us from Minnesota to Alabama. On the first day of kindergarten, a little girl marched up to me and asked me Are you for Bama or Awbrun? I had no idea. She made it sound like a big deal. A really big deal. I don't remember what I said. Maybe I just said I didn't know. I do remember that it was the wrong answer. I got kicked in the shin. At recess a rock flew from a pack of girls past my head. On the bus home a girl from another grade pinched me hard under my arm. The next morning she tried to give me an indian burn.
The Girl who lived across the street from us had a little black poodle named Bama. When Bama got hit by a car she got another dog and named him Bama.
On January 26, 1983 my dad and I were doing something out in the yard when we saw our neighbor, Mrs. Norwood, walking aimlessly in her yard. A couple weeks earlier we had found a neighbor with Alzheimer's wandering the neighborhood and I thought that was what was happening to Mrs. Norwood. She was staring into space in the same way. I followed my dad across the street. He said her name, Marci, and tried to take her arm. She backed away He's Dead...
A little later we saw another neighbor, Mrs. Silas, wandering in her yard with the same lost look about her.
Paul Bear Bryant, who earned his nick name for wrestling a bear when he was thirteen years old, played for Alabama against Vanderbilt with a partially broken leg, helped the Crimson Tide win the 1934 National Championship, was selected in the fourth round by the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1936 NFL Draft (although he never played professionally), took a break from coaching to serve in World War Two, coached the Crimson tide for 25 years, won 6 national championships, won 13 conference championships, died 28 days after coaching his last game and was posthumously award the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan.
A friend who grew up in an Auburn household told me that when he decided to go to Alabama because it had a better department for his intended major, his mother stayed up nights worrying and tried to talk him out of going because Baby, those people just aren't like us.
At a party at the University of Alabama I met a pretty girl with that hypnotic Old South / old money accent. Her name didn't stick with me, but I remember that she was getting an MBA in marketing and seemed smart and likely to succeed. I asked her what kinds of things marketing grads wrote about for their thesis. Hers was going to be about Bear Bryant. After an awkwardly held back laugh, I asked her something about how that would affect her job prospects. She told me she was going to work for the university's athletic department and specifically for the football program. She said this as if there was no question that it would happen.
A guy who worked in the kitchen in an Italian restaurant where I was a waiter had more or less the same dream. He got a degree in something to do with coaching, graduated and applied for the only job he had ever wanted. When the university didn't hire him to coach he said They'll be another, stayed in Tuscaloosa (so as to be near the team) and kept making pizzas. As far as I know he's still there holding on to the hope that he'll someday get the call to lay down his ladle and come coach The Tide.
When I was working in an upscale restaurant in Oxford, England a guy from Alabama who had met my roommates in a pub jerked open the restaurant's the front door, yelled Roll Tide Baby! as loud as anyone ever yelled anything, and walked toward me expecting a high-five.
About a month after that, in a pub in Belfast, I heard a Celtic band play the Roll-Tide-Roll version of Sweet Home Alabama.
A year or so later I was working in Birmingham, about sixty miles from the University of Alabama. The basketball team was in the sweet sixteen. When I got to work, someone had set up a TV in the kitchen. This was a big deal because this was at a corporate chain restaurant and represented a huge violation of rules that were sometimes followed to absurd lengths. Hardly anyone came in to eat. About midway through the lunch shift someone turned on a football game. Not even registering that it wasn't football season, I assumed that this was just what was on the sports channel before the basketball game. It turned out that we were not going to watch basketball and that this wasn't exactly a football game. It was the A Day Game. (Every football program has spring training which ends with the offensive and defensive squads scrimmaging against each other.) When I asked about the basketball game nobody knew what I was talking about.
When I was dating Linda, my wife, she would have me over to her parents' house for dinner and to watch the game on Saturdays. One year we watched the Tide struggle against Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Every few plays my father-in-law would jump out of his chair and yell C'mon Bama! After a while he was pacing and then at a commercial break he took off running upstairs and came back wearing a ratty old Alabama shirt. Had to put on my lucky shirt. Alabama won.
My wife's grandfather, R.P. McDavid III, was a close friend of Bear Bryant's and they are buried next to each other. When The Coach was coming over for dinner the boys were sent out in the front yard to throw a football around so he would know he was in the right place. It's not exactly public knowledge that when the Miami Dolphins tried to hire Bryant away the first person he called was R.P. A little old lady who's a regular at a place where I worked likes to talk about the glory days of Alabama football and things that The Bear (pronounced Bea-h) said or did. When I told her who my wife's grandfather was she said Oh yes, I remember McDavid. He kept The Bear in Bama.
Two days after Alabama hired Nick Saban away from the Dolphins and made him the highest paid coach in college football, I overheard a mother with a new baby telling a friend that the baby's name was Saban.
My wife and I don't live in Alabama anymore. When we moved away I looked forward to not having to think about football every other minute. Although I've never been a real fan, last night there were a lot of people in our living room watching the Tide skunk LSU in the championship game. My wife demonstrated how Roll Tide could be used in place of just about any word in a sentence and that simply saying Roll Tide Y'all brought a feeling of warmth and togetherness to any situation.