Beauty between the hedges: the author discovers passion, pageantry of SEC football
I went to a basketball school, UCLA. It's on the quarter system, so by the time classes start near the end of September the football team has already played three or four games. (In the first half of the '90s, when I was an undergrad, we had usually lost a couple of them.) Worse still is that there is no on-campus stadium. In fact, the Rose Bowl is in another city, two hours away with game-day traffic.
The old stadium may look lovely on New Year's Day, or whenever the Rose Bowl game is now played, but half-empty on a regular-season Saturday it's a charmless mausoleum. When I was a Bruin everyone I knew considered it way too much hassle to make the schlep more than once or twice a season. No joke, my strongest memory of attending football games at UCLA is the scorching afternoon when I made a makeshift hat out of a piece of powder-blue cardboard that was to be used during the halftime show, when the crowd would spell U-C-L-A; persnickety school officials expelled me from the stadium and sent a letter to the dean, charging that I had defaced school property.
Given all of this, I have always been wildly jealous of the traditions, pageantry and fanaticism that surrounds SEC football. The venues alone are so evocative—the Swamp, Death Valley, the Plains. Sure beats Pasadena. At UCLA, tailgating meant pounding a beer or two in the parking lot, but no one was that into it because we all had to drive to and from the game. Tales of the SEC's epic tailgating left me wishing that even one time I had imbibed enough pre-game Southern Comfort to puke on my throwback Aikman jersey. More than that, I pined to immerse myself in decades-old traditions—to develop an emotional attachment to oak trees, cowbells and bulldogs. Flip-flops, shorts and T-shirts were the standard uniform at UCLA games; I wanted to walk among undergrads dressed up in blazers and sundresses as if they're going to church, which in a way they are. I desperately needed to feel what it was like to truly care. And so last week I finally attended my first SEC game, as college football's marquee program, Alabama, visited what some consider the best college town in America—Athens, Georgia.
Hoping to better understand what I was in for, I interviewed the son of Italian immigrants who played squash at Yale and still lives in Connecticut but who nonetheless has devoted his life to studying the strange cult of Southern football.
"Here's the difference between the SEC and every other sports fandom in our country," says Joe Tessitore, co-host of SEC Nation. "With other passionate sports fans, such as Red Sox nation or Packers fans with their insulated Richie Cunningham Americana, they too are diehards who feel an obligation to be lifelong fans of a team, but in the South you're not just a fan, it's more than that—it's your very identity. Your team's colors, traditions and history is woven into your DNA as much as your height and male-pattern baldness. An SEC fan's chosen team isn't just who they root for, it's akin to your ethnicity, your religion, your family's heritage and legacy.
"The deep South spent many decades without the economic and cultural brag bag of big northern metropolitan counterparts, but they could kick ass in football and that meant something to many generations that made sure it meant even more to the generations that followed. The SEC is the only American sports entity truly comparable to European soccer clubs. Perhaps it's even more relatable to medieval kingdoms or, in some cases, Renaissance city-states. It's that level of loyalty. It's simply who you are. In the early '80s when a good Boston College team upset mighty Alabama a cartoonist best summed it up by capturing the image of a houndstooth-worshipping Bammer who was despondent after the loss and could only say, 'But they play football just for fun up north.' Kind of sums it up."
I was a stranger in a strange land.
Oh, gawd, the hedges. Really? As soon as I told folks I was heading to a Georgia game they started nattering on about the shrubbery. My first night in Athens I lucked into a dinner with Verne Lundquist, who would be calling the game for CBS, and hearing my tale he said, "Ah, your first time between the hedges. How delightful."
Even with his voice-of-god delivery I found the whole thing a bit off-putting. Who ever cared about the plants at a football game? I pressed Vince Dooley for answers. He's the coach who resuscitated Georgia football, leading Dawgs to the 1980 national championship and six SEC titles, and he now lives on as the program's patriarch. "They are our sentinels," Dooley said. "The hedges give the setting an air of elegance and formality. It tells everyone in the stadium, and those watching at home, this is a little more than just the usual football game."
I still wasn't sold, so the day before the Bama game I decided to investigate the hedges up-close, meeting at Sanford Stadium with Kellie Baxter, the grounds forewoman. She was a font of information. The hedges actually have pedestrian origins, a mix of English and Chinese privet. They were planted in 1929 only after a failed experiment with roses. (Bruin pride, baby! One thing we can do is grow roses.) Baxter trims the hedges two or three times a week and her toil is well known to the players; whenever one of them goes careening into the plants during a game they invariably apologize later.
"I tell 'em it's okay as long as the make the play," Baxter said.
The hedges serve as an upscale kind of crowd control—hidden within is a chain-link fence. But most of the fans who approach the hedges don't want to storm the field, they want to break off a twig as a souvenir. "We have women use them for their bridal bouquets, guys use them in their boutonnieres, all sorts of stuff," said Baxter. "I understand it—it's a way to reconnect with your past. For people it's like a living, breathing reminder of the best days of their life."
That certainly resonated. Why else would I have an oversized Joe Bruin headcover on the driver in my golf bag? Baxter then startled me by asking if I'd like to trim the hedges. How could I say no? I fired up the gas-powered Stihl trimmer and went to work. I have to admit, it was pretty cool. I took some of the clippings and arranged them to poke out of my shirt pocket, a kind of boutonniere I wore with pride for the rest of the day.
After that I set out to explore the rest of Georgia's iconography. There was the chapel bell, which students ring after every home victory. (If it's against Georgia Tech, tradition mandates that it be rung all night.) I visited the wrought-iron arch that serves a gateway between downtown Athens and the campus. It's a symbol of the school and subject to an unusual reverence—students don't pass under it until the day of their graduation.
A couple blocks from the arch I stumbled upon a parking lot that by Friday was already packed with motor homes. These were marauding Alabama fans, who are well known to colonize towns across the South on football weekends. I was disappointed I didn't spot one emblazoned with Crimson Express. Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer is author Warren St. John's anthropological study of a year spent traveling with Alabama fans, and in the book he recounts the story of the Crimson Express's owners, who skipped their own daughter's wedding in favor of a game against Tennessee. They had warned her not to schedule the nuptials during football season but she did so anyway. In the telling, Alabama fans weren't dismayed by the parents' decision but rather the daughter's thoughtlessness. As St. John writes, "When I told the tale to one hardcore fan I met in Florida, he shook his head woefully and said simply: 'Bitch.'"
According to St. John, up to 800 motor homes pop up at every Alabama game. "At big games," he writes, "motor homes are so tightly packed that a person could nearly circle the entire stadium by walking along their rooftops, although as I learned firsthand, you should never walk along the rooftop of a stranger's motor home because there's a decent chance he will shoot you."
I found the Bama fans to be much more convivial. By Friday night every bar in Athens was so packed the crowds were spilling into the street, with both school's team colors well represented. Given how passionate the fan bases are I expected the vibe would be tense, but the supporters were happy to drink alongside each other and cheerfully talk trash. This was explained to me by Paul Finebaum, another of the co-hosts of SEC Nation. "There's a special bond among the SEC schools," he said. "Of course they want to beat each other, but at the same time there's a recognition among fans that they're part of an exclusive club."
Indeed, on Friday night in Athens two Alabama fraternities had paired with their brothers at the Georgia chapters to co-host a party at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house, which occupies a prime spot on the edge of downtown. I kept hearing the unverifiable claim that it was to be the biggest party in school history. Naturally, I was compelled to wangle an invite. At 11 p.m. the front entrance to the SAE house was utter chaos, with kids relentlessly pouring in as two harried security guards tried to authenticate their wristbands. (Apparently, some future CEO was doing a brisk business on campus selling counterfeits.) The fraternity bros were uniformly outfitted in jeans and Oxford shirts, with the fresh-scrubbed looks of Abercrombie models. The young women were turned out in short skirts or short shorts and all manner of vertiginous footwear.
As packs of coeds streamed by, Georgia junior Lloyd Brown wore a slightly dazed look. "There's too many of 'em," he said.
I thought back to something Dooley had told me: "I can't explain why, but the South seems to produce the prettiest girls. When I was a scout, that was one of the perks of the job. And I can say that coming to Georgia was always something we looked forward to."
Inside the party a handful of pickup trucks had their beds filled with ice and cans of Natural Light beer. On the front lawn a band played. The crowd was estimated at 2,000, which is the size of many liberal arts colleges. Since I was twice the age and six beers behind pretty much everyone at the party I walked across the street to catch a midnight show at the 40 Watt Club, the famed live music venue. April 6, 1980 is a milestone around Athens because that's the day Herschel Walker decided to play for the Dawgs. But April 5, 1980 is just as momentous—that night, at an old church on Oconee St., R.E.M. played its first gig, for the birthday party of a friend of the band. The 40 Watt helped launch R.E.M. and another celebrated local act, the B-52s, to say nothing of Widespread Panic and others. Behind the bar are signed photos of the bands who have played there, a low-key rock and roll hall of fame. On this night, hip-hop artist Mayhem was prowling the stage. The air was blue with the smoke of medicinal-grade marijuana. Mayhem is a raucous performer, and Alabamans and Georgians danced alongside each other with abandon. The bass was so deep I could feel my eyeballs vibrate. It was time for bed. Game day was coming.
I stayed at a charming little hotel, The Graduate, where the rooms feature lamps in the shape of a bulldog. Saturday morning I opened the blinds and right outside the window, in the parking lot, were a quartet of people under a tarp in a pouring rain, drinking cocktails and firing up the BBQ. It was 8:47 a.m. and kickoff was still almost seven hours away. These folks were not screwing around.
At Georgia, tailgating is a way of life, as it is throughout the South. During my travels in Athens I met an alum named Rich Clay. He lives in Atlanta but a couple years ago purchased near campus what he calls a "tailgate house." It is used only five or six days a year as, you guessed it, a home base for tailgating. Clay reports that the house has some mold issues but because it's in the historic district doing construction is complicated. His solution? Buy an RV to park in the driveway to facilitate the tailgating. He and his family rarely venture inside of the house itself. I was flabbergasted but Clay assured me this is not that unusual an arrangement.
Unlike the celebrated Grove at Ole Miss, Georgia does not have one vast expanse for tailgating. No, people set up in every nook and cranny of the campus. Walking around on Saturday morning I was blown away by the extravagance of the setups: gourmet grub, entire tables covered in bottles of alcohol, real silverware. A couple contraptions could have been right out of Mad Max—one looked like a food truck and sports bar had mated, producing a towable trailer outfitted with a flat-screen TV, gas grill, refrigerator, sink and small appliances that included a toaster oven and blender (for making margaritas, natch). At UCLA, a styrofoam cooler with ice was as fancy as we ever got.
My favorite pocket of tailgaters were gathered in a meadow that abuts the cemetery just across the street from Sanford Stadium. This is reserved for former lettermen and their families. They've had up to 850 people on-site but plenty more would like to buy a space. "That wait-list is long as the one to get Masters tickets," said Gordon Terry, the captain of the '78 team.
He was sharing beers and chit-chat with Mark Hodge, the captain of the '79 team. "I've had season tickets since 1978," Hodge said. "That was also the last year I saw the inside of the stadium." He gives away or sells the tickets, preferring to hang out across the street and watch the game on TV. Sanford Stadium is alcohol-free, but that is only part of the explanation. The camaraderie amongst this band of brothers was so palpable it felt more like a family reunion than a football game.
The peaceful enclave of the old-timers was a far cry from the noisy, lively scene in Meyers Quad, where SEC Nation was filming live. As is the custom, fans crowded behind the hosts to display hand-made signs. Georgia kids are so darn nice they seemed to be competing to see who could be the corniest, not the meanest. A couple signs made me laugh:
Nick Saban owns a copy of the The Notebook on VHS.
Nick Saban listens to Nickelback.
One of my purposes for crashing the set was to get a visual on Uga. I had been trying to arrange an audience with the world's most famous bulldog for the preceding two days, to no avail. And suddenly there he was, arriving like a head of state, with handlers, security, and his own motorcade. (O.K., O.K., it was just a couple of golf carts.) People all around me lost their minds at the sight of the dog. One dude got down on all fours and chased after Uga, shoving a phone inches from his drool-covered jowls. (Baxter told me she's seen fans try to pull out tufts of hair as a souvenir.) Flashes popped, kids reached out suddenly for a touch and yet Uga was the picture of equanimity. I have to say, that's a damn good dog.
After the show finished taping I was swept on to an SEC Nation motorcoach, which criss-crosses the South every week. The whole back half of the bus has been gutted and turned into a TV studio. On the kitchen counter were breakfast burritos sheathed in foil and a basket with different kinds of cough drops. Someone opened a drawer, revealing a half dozen more bags of throat medication. And then it happened—Tim Tebow was standing before me. I have never seen a human being look so beautiful. I did an SI cover story on Tebow back when he was with the Denver Broncos, but even though the team was winning he somehow seemed diminished. He was harried and misunderstood, a golden god among secularists. As yet another co-host of SEC Nation he is now once again among his people, being worshipped properly. He wore it well, utterly at ease and brimming with bonhomie. "I understand the fans' passion because I lived it," Tebow said. "For me growing up, if Florida lost I would beg my parents, please don't make me go to church tomorrow because I can't face anybody. It was life or death."
I asked Tebow to assess Georgia's place in the SEC landscape. "This is the heart of the South," he said. "Georgia fans are really passionate, really loud. Playing games against them I got so sick of the chant, 'Go Dawgs, sic 'em.' The barking and all that. As an opposing player it drives you kinda crazy, which of course is what you want if you're for Georgia."
This is the perfect lead-in to maybe the coolest thing I experienced in Athens, the Dawg Walk. An hour and a half before kickoff the Georgia team arrives outside of Sanford on a bus, which is immediately surrounded by fans who pound on it like looters trying to topple a Brinks truck. With the cheerleaders and marching band leading the way, the players disembark from the shaking bus and run a gauntlet of delirious fans that stretches for at least a quarter mile, 10-deep in places. The noise and energy level is off the charts.
The Georgia fans sustained this enthusiasm all the way to kickoff but, alas, Alabama was simply too good. The only highlight in a lopsided loss came at halftime when a majorette in the band, Adeline Kennerly, was given her crown as the new Miss Georgia. She had been first runner-up but the reigning Miss Georgia vacated the position upon being named Miss America. Kennerly's boyfriend is Georgia's dreamy quarterback Greyson Lambert. The QB and the beauty queen? It's pure Americana. And it gets better. Kinnerly's father, Lex, was a walk-on on the football team and her mom, Joy, was Miss UGA in 1981, 33 years before she held the same title.
As Bama kept running up the score in the third quarter, and the rain continued to fall, the stadium emptied. That night all the local news shows had variations of same interview: "I've been a season ticket holder for 30 years and it's the first time I've ever left a game early." In the streets of Athens, gloating fans repeatedly sang "Sweet Home Alabama."
After the game, Georgia offensive tackle John Theus said, "We will wash it off pretty quickly. In this league you can't focus on one game for too long, so we will watch film, learn from it and move on."
It was sobering to hear that. For me, my first SEC game was an edifying, thrilling experience. But for these very lucky players and the fans who adore them, it was just another Saturday, and they get to do it all over again week after week.