Crimson Ride: One man's trip into Alabama football's heart of darkness
(The Cauldron cannot independently confirm the accuracy of this report, but the author's name has been withheld to ensure his safety.)
It’s not even 6 a.m., the hour Gamma Gamma Gamma’s basement roosters typically rise to screech forth the Tuscaloosa sun, and Smithwesson Jenkins is already jamming a beer funnel into my teeth.
“This wut we call the Reb-Day Redeye!” Smithwesson growls as I try desperately to bat the contraption away. It’s no use; before I can so much as remember where I am, he’s planted all 275 pounds of him square against my lungs.
“Just do four beers and I’ll let you up!”
Like a baby rhino that’s been whelped far too long, I give in, choking on the lukewarm, skunked swill flowing through the makeshift device. We’d jury-rigged it the night before out of nothing more than a milk jug, the official house gasoline siphon, and a wad of duct tape someone found in the freezer. The instant the tube clears, I turn my head and vomit into the nearest container: a large, half-filled Chick-fil-A fry box nestled beside the pile of straw I had slept on.
“You Yankee p----!” Smithwesson yawps. “Get your ass downstairs for armadillo ‘n eggs. Kickoff’s in 15 hours!”
I’d met him the day before, when I first arrived on the campus of the University of Alabama—a bushytailed East Coast sports reporter sent by my publisher to write the ultimate story. I had already thought of the title during the flight down:
Saturday In the SEC: Hanging out with the greatest college football fans on earth!
“Hanging out with fans.” It seemed like such a ripe, festive idea. Meet the Crimson Tide faithful; imbibe a few wholesome game-day customs; indulge in some tasty Southern grub; get home with my story and adrenaline gland fully intact—that was it. S.L. Price could’ve done this with half a head, I had thought.
But from the moment I set foot upon the cardboard porch of the Gamma Gamma Gamma ("GGG") house, and rapped that Auburn-colored human skull astride the door, I knew the “local color” I was seeking—crimson, deep and dark—was far more colorful than I had bargained for.
We’re out the door by 6:30. Along with Smithwesson and me, there’s Wade Bramblebee, Dallas Flintlock, Jed Levy (“Jed the Head,” they call him), Branch McDurfee, Bear-Denny Bryant, Gage Chilton, and Houston Houston. GGG seniors all, and all of them trigger-itching to make this Saturday one for the books.
“I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no books, but Grampa Joe says we’re gonna beat Ole Miss’s ass,” Dallas confides on our way to the tailgate.
I long to know more about Grampa Joe—a retired deputy sheriff, I imagine, with a pack full of bloodhounds and a glass eye earned in an ax fight—but more pressing matters arise. Namely, the rest of the group trying to convince Branch not to shoot a rival fraternity house's transformer. Wemake it another couple hundred yards before the next distraction mushrooms into view: an early morning lawn party in front of one of UA’s most exclusive sororities, Lambda Omega Lambda.
“Who ‘ants some early-mornin’ action?” Smithwesson offers.
“Uh, Smithy, we shid’ prolly be careful,” Levy replies, sheepishly. “Ain’t we on probation ‘n stuff?”
“Aye,” cackles Gage. “Get a load of Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane over here!”
This barb delays our advance a solid three minutes. Almost immediately, Levy’s brethren are doubled over in the middle of the street, choking back laughter as a throng of sputtering pickup trucks voice displeasure with airhorns hung out the driver’s seat window.
Branch, that clear-eyed Caesar, eventually manages to rally the troops and throw us back on the scent, a colony of one-winged vampire bats beelined to something we can’t even see.
What made our descent onto the grounds of Lambda Omega Lambda so incredible was that, despite half our group being either shirtless or brandishing loaded firearms, not one partygoer—be they resident sister or moonshined booster—so much as looked at us sideways.
The next six hours unfurled in a crimson-cream haze of barbecue smoke, spent shotgun shells, and strange, viscous-looking spirits. At one point, a group of male students could be seen hauling a flat-tired wheelbarrow filled with brown, sediment-heavy liquor, gently considering each step so as not to disturb their precious cargo. Sadly, the entire haul was lost when one of the porters accidentally tripped over a muffler—in the middle of the lawn, for no reason at all—causing the group to hit the ground like plebe Marines on the first day of basic training, slurping up whatever booze they could before eventually giving up and disappearing into the revelry.
“Them’s from that made-up frat,” Bear-Denny offers, already half-finished with his drink, which he sips from one of his shoes. “Think it’s called Davis Lee Booth or somethin’.”
I’d never seen anything like it. This wasn’t your standard-issue pregame tuneup; this was 1979's movie Caligula, only rebooted in 2015 and set in the Talladega infield. The vignettes were almost too much to process, let alone moor to memory. There were a few, however, that registered so violently, with such neuron-rewiring aggressiveness, that they were impossible to forget.
- An old Gibson refrigerator converted into a self-smoking pig spit
- One of Alabama’s sitting U.S. senator—Richard Shelby—selling $5 tooth pulls
- Three pistol duels, two of which centered around contentious tractor auctions
- A pipe-whittling competition
- Toby Keith blacked out on a pile of tires
- At least four canvassers distributing literature for the McCain-Palin campaign
I tried my best to keep an eye on my GGG charges, but they quickly scattered throughout the premises. Some, like Smithwesson, seemed content making small talk with his female peers, which quickly deteriorated into a kind of social-rejection assembly line. Others, including Gage and Branch, seemed to believe the oxygen required to conduct conversation was more efficiently used shoving gallons of beer down their throats.
Then there was Jed the Head, who wound up being the only one interested in talking about what we’d all ostensibly come here to celebrate: Alabama football. Given the atmosphere—an unfathomable brew of booze, barbecue, wild women and weapons—I worded my questions very carefully.
“Given its history and role within the state’s greater consciousness,” I began, noticing for the first time Levy’s two (plural) lazy eyes, “what does it mean, for you, to be a Crimson Tide fan?”
Jed thought about the question. The way his temples twitched, like Moses beholding the Commandments for the first time, I surmise he thought harder about this than he’d ever thought about anything—ever. Jed thought, and he thought, then he thought some more. He thought until he could think no more, his brain having sewn the data points into a single discursive tapestry, to hang for all to see. He stroked his week-stubbled chin, lifted his head and, with his misaligned eyes raised as if to trace a pair of fast-diverging angels cross the sky, spoke his truth:
“I, uh ... I think I s--- muh pants.”
We could hear the kickoff roar clear through the corridors of Bryant-Denny Stadium. I could hear it, anyway. Everyone else in our party—now swelled to include two more people: Colton Cash and Jefferson Jeremiah Barnaby—was far too intoxicated to grasp things like sound’s relationship to time. Simply walking to the student section had become a kind of Homeric epic, as every five feet or so one of them would peel off and careen to the side, a helpless metallic fiber beckoned by some invisible magnet.
It was a Mary-In-the-Toast miracle we’d even made it that far. In the nine hours since leaving LOL for the Crimson Tide tailgate scene, it'd taken every string of my being not to abandon the story entirely. I'd actually heard a voice, white-bearded and booming and accompanied by diamond-heralded trumpets, and that voice clutched my face by the nails and wailed: Flee, you fool! Flee into the foggy-hot distance! Flee so that you may be rescued and flown home on an emergency medical transport ... or, conversely, found drowned in the runoff from a catfish farm decades later!
Truth told, I'd have welcomed either. But I squelched the plea all the same. The corporeal was calling, and calling louder.
By the time we reached the student section, Ole Miss had parlayed a 65-yard return on the game’s opening kickoff into an early field goal.
Ole Miss 3, Alabama 0
Either the guys hadn’t noticed, or they simply didn’t care. This was a revenge game, after all—in Tuscaloosa. For the fans in attendance, it wasn’t a matter of if the Tide would rise to blend the Rebels into polyester bonemeal, but when—and to what extent the vanquished would be unrecognizable to their own mothers. A destiny so self-evident even the church janitor sucking empty air through an Andrew Zow commemorative triple-tube moonshine helmet could feel it.
The Tide were forced to punt on their next possession. A few seconds later, Smithwesson tapped me on the shoulder from his seat directly behind mine.
“Aye Yank,” he mustered, eyes fluttering in alcoholic seizures. “Where’d I get this?”
In his hand, outstretched as if presenting me with an Easter egg, was a live grenade. I knew it was live, or anyway remembered as much, because the man who’d given it to him—Elroy Slade, a self-described “goat-breeder and part-time Oath Keeper” donned in full Alabama camo gear—told him it was live. The two had got to talking over a couple of Bama Bombers (equal parts rye whiskey, Cherry Coke, and nail polish-remover) at one of our stops on our tailgate tour. Turns out they were long-lost half-brothers. And cousins.
“Tell you what, cuz,” Elroy had bellowed, arms braced upon his brethren’s shoulders, forever solidifying their sacred family stump. “I want you to have this.”
Elroy unclipped the grenade from his breast pocket and handed it to Smithwesson.
“I found this in a urinal at Beef 'O’ Brady’s during the ’09 championship game,” he said, a single tear cascading below his wraparound Oakleys. “It’s brought me good luck. Now it’s your turn.”
It’s hard to know whether Smithwesson understood what he’d just been given. Particularly with Elroy having to demonstrate how to clip the thing to his belt loop. Still, Smithwesson seemed genuinely appreciative of the gesture, which he demonstrated by firing his .45 into the sky 15 times—one round for every 'Bama title.
So when he suddenly remembered, during the game’s first nervy moments, that he had a live explosive hanging from his hip, I did my best to bring him up to speed.
“That’s a grenade!” I yelled above the din, which drew no ancillary response whatsoever. “Whatever you do, do not pull that pin!”
“Aye, I ain’t no dummy!” Smithwesson retorted. “I seen Rambo before!”
And so we settled in, just a gang of good old boys riding the Tide, the stadium lights aglow in a mist of nerves and noxious fumes. Everyone had their own way of sneaking in booze, of course: bendy straws glued together and fed into hidden colostomy bags; mini kegs planted into pre-sawn holes in the cement; elaborate fishing lures cast down stadium ramparts; circling falcons trained to drop six packs upon hearing its owner’s whistle.
Say what you will about the genus of human gathered in the depth of Bryant-Denny, they are neither dumb nor bound by any human law—save the sole commandment of their crimson stock: Roll. Towards what, nobody really knows. Wins, yes, and lyrics laid in scores to Tidal lore ... but mostly into ever-amplifying states of indescribable drunkenness.
Which is pretty much what happened as the game’s ebbs and flows continued trending in the wrong direction. By the middle of the third quarter, Ole Miss had extended its lead to 24-10—nowhere near insurmountable, but not exactly conducive to cheery vibes, either.
By now all 10 of the GGGs were shirtless. Of those, seven were no longer wearing pants, and at least three had taken to angrily trying to watch the action on the jumbotron behind them and—believing they were in a bar—yelling at the people in front of them to move. Jed, who had managed to remain fully clothed, was nestled up against the backs of the seats in front of us, asleep.
As Alabama mounted its furious fourth-quarter comeback, the mood meandered briefly into blithe. When the Tide got the ball back on their own 31 with as many seconds on the clock, the 43-37 score jumbled enough to look like a tie if you were drunk enough and squinted soft enough, the bedlam seemed bent on miracle. But four straight incompletions from first-year slinger Jake Coker, the much picked-over transfer from Florida State, put the game on ice.
The stands, and what its scores begat in the minutes and hours afterwards: That? That was the opposite of ice.
Instead, there was fire. So much fire.
I noticed the first one minutes after the final whistle: a man—easily 95 years old— so distraught by the loss, he’d self-immolated. With a lighter and a solo cup full of moonshine and no one offering anything (save two or three military salutes), right there in the same seat he’d probably been sitting in since the Tennessee Valley Authority first brought the Edison light to Tuscaloosa in 1935.
“That there happens all the time,” Jefferson Jeremiah Barnaby confided as we proceeded down the stadium stairs, the mood in Bryant-Denny portending evil double the moon’s. “Got a special cemetery for ‘em at the back of the parkin’ lot. Call ‘em Bama’s Blazes of Glory.”
“Oh,” I said. “Like the Bon Jovi song?”
There was no reply.
Having zero interest in pursuing this conversation further, I focused instead on the task at hand: How to exit a building filled with 100,000 very drunk, very angry people in a way that didn’t involve leaping 90 feet to my imminent death, hiding for three days in a fertilizer shed, or paying someone named Burf $1,000 to tunnel me out of the stadium through a series of Chickasaw burial grounds.
Just then, the mass exodus ground to a halt. From the corridors below us, the echoes of a once-piercing din, followed by a few electric-guitar strums and one, unmistakable voice:
“HEY, Y’ALL!” boomed the baritone drawl. “I’M KEITH TOBY. WHO ‘UNTS TUH START SOME FIRES?”
The second the first song began—Shazam says it was something called “Red Solo Cup”—panic seized me. And I wasn’t alone. Even my 11 comrades, by now so pickled with poison you could see slivers of empty space between their eye sockets and skulls, knew there would be no getting out. Not tonight, and possibly not ever, so long as Satan had sicced to the masses his most trusted Cerberus: Toby Keith, blitzed and enraged, wielding a guitar, an audience unhinged, and the planet’s angriest stage.
As the doom-dulcet sounds wound their way through the stadium, all hope for a peaceful crowd-dispersion was quickly abandoned. In its place, an ever-unfurling nightmarescape, punctuated by the following vignettes:
- An entire battalion of Civil War-era cannons and their attendant officers emerging from the player tunnel to fire at the scoreboard.
- A hologram of John Wayne’s death scene from The Alamo.
- A hologram of Forrest Gump, clad in crimson uniform, running back and forth across the field.
- The turf quaked in half and split open at the north goal line, at which point Mola Ram appeared in a cloud of smoke to scoop out the heart of an Ole Miss booster before throwing him into the molten sea below
- A soot-covered Jim Nabors, Alabama alum, walking around in small circles, looking confused.
Right around the time the crescent moon began hemorrhaging blood, I became wholly convinced I would die on those stadium stairs. The only dangling question was which would do me in: an errant Dixie cannonball to the skull, or John Wayne’s holograph hands squeezing my last breath—and possibly my tongue—out of my face and into the sky.
Sensing my terror, or perhaps because he’d genuinely come to like and accept me, Smithwesson Jenkins put his hand on my shoulder.
“I gotta say,” he brayed, voice somehow rising above the fray. “I don’t think I ever seen it this bad.”
“Is that right?”
“If we make it outta this thing ... you scribble us proud.”
Like everyone else in our booze-beaten brigade, Smithwesson and I gazed across the chaos. If it wasn’t Armageddon, some successor race would surely rewrite the end, the skull-strewn grounds of Golgotha trumped by a staid coliseum in the middle of—
“Is that Joe Namath flying a helicopter?”
“Grampa Joe!” screamed Dallas Flintlock. Forget the mind-bending Hieronymus Bosch parade; it was these two words—“Grampa Joe,” summoned forth with Christmas morn aplomb—that very nearly gave me an aneurism.
“Wait,” I implored as the rope ladder dropped, the boys frantically grabbing hold two by two. “Joe Namath is your f------ grandfather?!”
“Oh, you bet! How ya think I got into school?”
“You make a good point!”
Thirty seconds later, with Smithwesson and Gage the last to grab the bottom rung, our chariot began its ascent. As we climbed steadily higher, it became clear the anarchy was no longer confined to Bryant-Denny’s steel-borne walls. Even beyond its boundaries, fires belched and bloomed like ripples in the rain. For the first time that weekend, terror retreated, supplanted by something else entirely: sadness—that this ancient football structure, for decades a totem of titles and pride and lineage, would wear this badge no more.
“You know they rebuild Bryant-Denny every year, right?” Houston Houston inquired.
“Oh s--- yeah—we burn this thing to the ground every season. Sometimes twice!”
“I had no idea.”
Just then, I remembered who was in the cockpit. Summoning one last adrenal drip, I launched myself into the unoccupied copilot’s seat. Namath, trademark mink and aviators throwing off a sage-wry warmth, toothed a smile through the snapping gum.
“You a friend of Dallas?”
“Yeah. Yeah, you can say that.”
“Those are good boys he runs with. Solid boys. Like oak.”
“Yeah. They are, aren’t they?”
I had no idea where we were going, or how long the ride would be. At that point, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Namath had sprouted wings through his back and morphed into Icarus, tilting us ever upward ‘til the sun swallowed us whole. But on we flew, straight and true, into the widening night. For a time, all you could hear was the whir of the blades above, cut every so often by the pop of rubber rung through those impossibly chiseled jaws.
Then, without warning, we began to descend. Recognizing my time in this country was coming to an end, desperate to cull some meaning from the mayhem I’d experienced, I turned to Namath and, with a Russert’s resolve, asked the only question capable of tilting that windmill down.
“You ever get that kiss from Suzy Kolber?”
“Son,” he said, teeth white enough to swaddle a cherub, coif so cocksure I swore it wore its own smile. “Bear Bryant once told me that when a grizzly gets to fishin', ain't no stream could steal his salmon."
“So are you the bear or the fish in this scenario?”
“Son, I don’t know,” Broadway Joe quips with a snicker. “Say, you know how to land one of these things?”
(If you haven't figure it out by now, you just read a truly glorious parody. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Or is it?)