The Auburn Miracles: Two games, two weeks, two spectacular plays
More than most of us, Alvino Porter has an appreciation for toilet paper. A former Army officer, Porter served tours in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. When he patrolled in mountains, deserts and war-torn countryside, locating a roll of two-ply was a critical mission. "It's a raw necessity of life," says Porter, 32, now co-manager of a Walmart. "It's a little different in Auburn, but lately people here have really, really needed it."
That's putting it mildly. In the past month Porter's store has sold more toilet paper than any other Walmart in America. On Nov. 15, the day before Auburn hosted Georgia, a battalion of Tigers fans marched into the Walmart on College Street. "People packed their buggies full of 12 and 24 packs of toilet paper," said Porter, standing in aisle 23 on a recent morning and pointing at the stacks of Great Value tissues ($6.47 for a dozen rolls). "Little did we know what would happen next."
What happened was this: Auburn fans celebrated two of the most improbable victories in the history of college football -- in the span of a fortnight. Since at least 1972, after Tigers running back Terry Henley promised to "beat the number two" out of second-ranked Alabama, fans have commemorated victories by gathering toilet paper and heading to Toomer's Corner -- named for Toomer's drug store (established: 1896) -- where two 30-foot trees used to frame the main entrance to the school. The 130-year-old oaks were removed after a Bama fan poisoned them in 2010, but Auburn backers continue to revel at College Street and Magnolia Avenue by slinging rolls of tissue over the streetlight wires and the limbs of the dozens of oak trees still standing.
As the Tigers prepare to face Florida State in the BCS championship game on Jan. 6 at the Rose Bowl, those celebratory moments from November are worth savoring. Because the two miraculous plays against No. 25 Georgia and top-ranked Alabama that led to the TP-ing of Toomer's weren't just about winning and losing; they were about the lives they touched.
The Prayer at Jordan-Hare
Nov. 16, 2013
With 36 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Georgia leads Auburn 38-37. The Tigers face a fourth-and-18 on their own 27-yard line.
Tigers coach Gus Malzahn calls a timeout. On the sideline he instructs his offense to run Little Rock, a play he designed in 1998, when Rhett Lashlee was a quarterback at Shiloh Christian School in Springdale, Ark. "We hit it for a long touchdown that year in the playoffs," says Lashlee, now Auburn's offensive coordinator. Before sending his team back onto the field, Malzahn says into the headset, "We need to get Ricardo [Louis] in," and summons the sophomore receiver, one of Auburn's fastest, from the bench. On the sideline Lashlee tells quarterback Nick Marshall, "Look for Sammie [Coates] on the dig route."
Louis locks eyes with Marshall in the huddle. "I'm ready to make a play," he says. "Give me a chance." He lines up in the slot on the left side. After the snap Coates is open on a 20-yard route across the middle, but Marshall doesn't see him. Instead he flings the ball 60 yards, toward Louis who is running a deep post blanketed by two Georgia safeties.
At his home in Rainsville, Ala., Jason McKinney, 34, sits on the edge of his couch in his living room. The lifelong Auburn fan was moping. "I was already in defeatist mode," says McKinney, who works as a paralegal in Huntsville. "It was over."
Buddy Davidson, 74, stands next to the chain crew on the 25-yard line. Davidson attended his first Auburn game in 1957, when he was a freshman and one of the team's water boys. Since then, he has been to 654 consecutive games, both home and away, an unofficial Auburn fan record. He serves as a sideline marshal at Jordan-Hare, and as soon the final whistle blows, he delivers a stat sheet listing the game's penalties to both team's coaches. Now, as the ball spirals through the sky, he sees that it is overthrown by 10 yards. "It's going to be intercepted!" he shouts.
Across the field Malzahn is yelling too: "Oh, he threw the post."
Louis judges that the pass is overthrown, but instead of slowing to prepare to make a tackle, he sprints full speed. The two Bulldogs defenders -- Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray -Matthews -- collide as they rise to the ball, and the stadium goes quiet. In the relative silence, Louis hears the thump of the pigskin hitting Matthews's left shoulder pad, which prompts him to look over his left shoulder. He spots the deflected ball floating toward him. He reaches out his left hand, taps the ball twice, then hauls it into his body just past the 10-yard line. The crowd thunders. Louis feels as if he is in a dream, advancing in slow motion. After crossing the goal line, he drops the ball, more out of disbelief than relief.
Back in Rainsville, McKinney leaps off his couch and runs around the living room like his socks are on fire. "I can't believe that just happened!" he screams over and over for five minutes. McKinney's reaction is so over-the-top that his wife, Sheena, tells him, "I'm going to start videoing you after games to show everyone how crazy you get."
Auburn alum Charles Barkley, in his Scottsdale, Ariz., home, jumps so high off of his couch "that I nearly broke my ankle," he says. Davidson, the sideline marshal, gazes into the crowd of 87,451, letting the loudest roar he has ever heard in 56 years at Auburn wash over him.
In the front row of the south end zone 15-year-old Hayden Hart, a native of Perry, Ga., who painted his bedroom the Auburn colors of orange and blue, is in ecstasy. He slaps high fives with strangers next to him and jumps up and down. "Beautiful women were hugging ugly men," he says.
Eight-year-old Kace Whaley listens to the Hail Mary over the radio in his dad's four-door truck on Interstate 85 outside Auburn. Kace, an Alabama fan whose grandfather played for Bear Bryant, loves great plays even when the Tide aren't involved; he bangs on the dashboard as soon as Louis scores. "Oh, my gosh, Daddy," he says. "Oh, my gosh!" His father, Kennon, reminds his boy that he'll take him to the upcoming game against unbeaten Alabama.
Eric Kleypas, Auburn's director of athletic turf, stands at the 10-yard line as Louis scores and immediately fears the students will storm the field. With the Iron Bowl only 14 days away, he worries what they'll do to his grass. "You can see it in their eyes if they're coming," says Kleypas. "It was a relief that they didn't."
Minutes later the game ends 43-38. Davidson jogs onto the field and hands Georgia coach Mark Richt the penalty sheet. "Thank you," Richt says. Then Davidson hustles into the Auburn locker room, puts Malzahn's copy in his briefcase and leaves the stadium, hoping to beat traffic. But when he gets outside, the sidewalks are empty. No one wants to leave Jordan-Hare. As Davidson drives home through the deserted streets, he is gripped with one feeling: Nothing will ever top that.
The Kick Six
Nov. 30, 2013
With one second remaining in the fourth quarter Alabama and Auburn are tied at 28. The Crimson Tide have the ball on the Tigers' 39-yard line.
In the locker room before the game Barkley gives a pep talk. "Everybody is talking about Alabama playing for the national championship," he says, his voice rising. "But you can be the greatest team in Auburn history!" After his speech, Barkley watches from a private suite above the student section.
As the game clock expires, Auburn senior safety Chris Davis drives running back T.J. Yeldon out-of-bounds. Yet there is no signal from the refs. Davidson, in his normal sideline position with the chain gang, asks an official, "Why aren't they tossing the coin for overtime?"
"[Tide coach Nick] Saban is lobbying to get a second back," the official says. "He wants to try a field goal."
After a video review, a second is put on the clock. Saban sends his backup kicker, freshman Adam Griffith, onto the field. Davis, who is still panting from the previous play, stands on the right edge of the line of scrimmage while safety Ryan Smith drifts back into the end zone. No one instructed Smith to drop deep, but, he says later, "I wanted to return the ball."
"Let's freeze the kicker," Malzahn says into his headset. He signals for a timeout. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, sitting in the press box, tells coach Rodney Garner, who oversees the field goal block unit, "We need to put one of our return guys deep." Malzahn agrees and tells Davis, who leads the SEC in punt return average, to stand with the back of his cleats on the end line.
As the teams lined up, a friend nudges Barkley in their suite: "Bama has just got big offensive linemen in there with no athletic ability. Wow. We might have a chance to return this." On the field Davidson playfully punches a member of the chain gang in the shoulder and says, "If the kick is short, Chris has got a shot to knock it down because he's got a great vertical leap."
McKinney, in his living room, hops onto the floor and presses close to his television. He is a jangle of nerves. Father-and-son Alabama fans Kennon and Kace Whaley stand in section 35, row 11, seats 1 and 2. And Hayden Hart rises from his front-row seat in the end zone and leans over the railing, screaming as if trying to raise the dead.
The ball is snapped, and Griffith gives it a boot. The kick sails toward the goal posts and fades slightly to the right. The try comes up short, falling into Davis's arms, prompting an ahhh of relief from the home side. Davis runs three steps forward then makes a slight cut to his right. The move right signals to the rest of the Tigers' special-teamers that the return will actually go left, as it would on a punt return. In a heartbeat every Auburn blocker sprints to the left sideline to form a wall, and the Alabama players -- most of whom had watched the kick rather than run toward the ball -- are slow to react.
As Davis gathers speed and blows past the only Bama defenders who have a chance to push him out-of-bounds, pandemonium erupts. In his suite, Barkley screams, "Don't fall down! Don't fall down!" Kace Whaley frantically asks his daddy, "Why don't they tackle him? Why don't they tackle him?"
Davis crosses into the end zone and collapses, then disappears under a dog pile. The student section bull-rushes a fence, pushes past security, tramples a flower bed and charges onto the field, some jumping onto the dog pile. Special teams coach Scott Fountain sprints to the pile and lifts fans away. "Chris couldn't breathe," says Fountain. "It looked like Bourbon Street out there."
In the far end zone Hayden Hart leaps out of the stands, losing his right shoe, and runs toward Malzahn. Hart has a collection of gloves and wristbands Auburn players have thrown to him, and he wants to add to his trove. He squeezes through the crowd, slips past Melvin Owens, the university police officer assigned to Malzahn -- "People were high-fiving me just because I was close to Coach," Owens says -- and lunges over several people to grab Malzahn's visor. Putting the visor around his neck, Hart turns and weaves back to his seat to find his shoe.
Fans keep pouring onto the turf. Dozens of students cannonball into the prickly-leaved holly bushes that ring the field. Others lock arms and, three- and four-wide, plow a path into the heart of the celebration. Reportedly one fan tears an ACL, one breaks an ankle and at least three lose their cellphones. Within minutes thousands of fans make it onto the field, jumping for joy on the grass. Kleypas, the director of athletic turf, is one of them. "I couldn't help myself," he says.
Barkley watches the eruption of joy from his suite. The NBA Hall of Famer and a two-time Olympic gold medalist has never seen such a spontaneous, large-scale explosion of raw emotion. Chills sweep over his body. "The elation was something I'll never experience again," he says.
Davidson charges onto the field and hands a penalty sheet to one of Saban's assistants, then dodges fans on his way to the Auburn locker room. He puts Malzahn's copy in his briefcase and realizes he's one of the only ones in the locker room. He closes his eyes and drinks in the triumph, reminding himself to never forget how delicious this feels after the years of devotion, the million-plus miles he has traveled by planes, trains and buses. He is at the pinnacle of fandom. "Best game ever," he says to himself. "Best game ever."
The CBS cameras come to rest on Kace, standing in his Alabama sweatshirt with tears leaking down his face. Kennon, a youth football coach, sits his boy down on the bleachers. "You can't win every game," he tells his son. "When you lose like this, remember the feeling. And then the next day you use that feeling to work harder to get better." Before kickoff Kennon had been weighed with worry about the five businesses he owns and his 100 employees. But those concerns have disappeared for now. Later, at the family's tailgate, father and son play catch and Kace climbs magnolia trees.
At a nearby campground Hayden rejoins friends, Malzahn's visor glued to his head. He'll sleep in it that night and wear it to school the following Monday, before hanging it in his bedroom from the tip of a Japanese sword. He'll email Malzahn, offering to return the visor, but hear nothing back. "I try not to wear it," he says, "but sometimes I just can't help myself. Maybe its power will wear off on me."
Fifteen minutes after the game Sheena McKinney posts a clip on YouTube. After the touchdown Jason grabbed their 11-year-old son, Bradley, who was sitting in a chair, and tackled him to the ground. Jason screamed like he was experiencing rapture, which Sheena gets on video. Within a week Jason and Bradley will appear on ESPN's College GameDay, and their postgame antics will garner more than 68,000 views. "My biggest thrill," says Jason, "was seeing everything through the eyes of my son. He was so happy. It brought us closer."
Three hours after the Iron Bowl, Barkley walks into Hamilton's, a restaurant on Magnolia Avenue, two blocks from Toomer's Corner, where students and fans and players are hurling thousands of rolls of toilet paper onto every oak tree that lines the block. At the moment of the TD four people at Hamilton's dropped their drinks onto the concrete floor and another threw his into the ceiling. Now Barkley stands behind the bar in front of 60 patrons. "It's time to celebrate," he bellows. "A round is on me!" That the tab comes to nearly $1,000 is of no significance to the man who is drunk with joy in a village that, for one evening, surely is the loveliest, happiest place in America.
Two weeks later it still feels like the day after in Auburn. At Walmart, Alvino Porter continues to marvel at how much toilet paper has been sold in the previous month. "Auburn wins are very good for business," he says, smiling. At Byron's Smokehouse on Opelika Road an image of Chris Davis's 109-yard dash repeatedly flashes on a flat screen. "No game will ever touch this Iron Bowl," says 78-year-old Byron Gulledge, the father of the owner. At Toomer's Corner small strips of toilet paper still cling to wires and branches.
At Jordan-Hare Stadium the reminders are everywhere. Dozens of fans used pocketknives and keys to carve up slices of the field. More than 1,000 fans had broken off twigs from the holly bushes as souvenirs. One well-lubricated soul, a bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand, jumped up and down on the 40-second clock, leaving it dented. A flower bed was destroyed and large sections of fractured hollies have been removed.
At one of the 37-yard lines along the Auburn side lies more evidence that the two plays had stirred something deep in the Tigers' faithful. In the chaotic aftermath of the Iron Bowl a fan dumped the ashes of a loved one on the field. Kleypas -removed the remains two days later, but now, on a wintery, windy early evening, he notices something in the grass.
"Look," he says, plucking a tiny piece of bone from the ground. "I guess we didn't get all of it." Kleypas drops the fragment back onto the field and walks off into the gathering dusk. The sliver of bone nestles deep into the grass. For that Auburn fan and every other one, all wishes -- final and football -- were granted this autumn.