When it comes to having extreme bias regarding the importance of the Iron Bowl, the annual battle for bragging rights in the state of Alabama, I readily throw myself on the mercy of the court and plead not guilty by reason of insanity.
The 365-days-a-year rivalry between Alabama and Auburn fans has been at the epicenter of my career for 30 years. I've seen it all during that stretch, but nothing compares to last year, when Alabama jumped out to a 24-0 lead at home, only to see it quickly vaporized by Cam Newton and company, with the Tide finally falling 28-27. This shocker, of course, likely led to Harvey Updyke allegedly poisoning the Toomer's Trees on the Auburn campus. More importantly, it propelled the Tigers to the BCS title, their first national championship in 53 years.
Trying to explain the ferocity of this rivalry to outsiders is challenging. I have caught a lot of criticism recently for comments made on the subject during the recent ESPN documentary,
Of course, that comment didn't draw nearly the ire as one made later in the film in which I said, "It was the biggest and most important rivalry in sports, including the Yankees and the Red Sox.''
Beano Cook once described the annual bloodletting, to be played for the 76th time Saturday in Auburn, as "Gettysburg South."
I will spare you the gritty details. Plenty of books and documentaries have been done. Many fans really do hate each other, and say so all year long. But for others, the extreme feelings are saved for this week.
Part of it is the geographical proximity between the schools, and part of it is that there is little other sports to talk about in the state, except for NASCAR. The closest professional franchises to Birmingham, the state's largest city, are three hours away in Atlanta. Mixed marriages in Alabama mean only one thing: an Alabama fan and an Auburn fan living under one roof in holy matrimony. But there is also the superiority complex some Alabama fans seem to possess and can't help but show off. There is still a sense of superiority based on football prowess and a feeling of Alabama being where the doctors and lawyers go to undergraduate while Auburn is the agricultural school. (Bear Bryant once referred to Auburn as "a cow college.''
To say this rivalry even goes beyond life and death would be ...accurate.
The week after Christmas last December a close friend of mine passed away. He was in his mid-50s and a lifelong Alabama fan, who while in college, had worked for Coach Bryant. The most important thing in his life, aside from faith and family, was seeing Alabama win and Auburn lose. Before his health failed, he would take flowers to Bryant's grave every year on the the coach's birthday, Sept. 11.
Two years ago, barely able to walk without a cane and the help of friends, and carrying his portable oxygen tank, my friend made the pilgrimage to the Rose Bowl to witness Alabama beat Texas for the BCS championship.
A year later, Alabama had just lost to Auburn. The buzz in the state in late December was about Auburn meeting the Oregon Ducks in a few days for the BCS championship. To put it mildly, Alabama fans were beside themselves.
At my friend's funeral, I was the second of two eulogists and quite nervous before I was to deliver my speech. The first speaker was wrapping up, and I was thinking about my own talk when my ears perked up as the eulogy was winding down. The speaker was talking about his friend's final moments spent with his sister.
"She knew it was near the end, and the hospice nurse walked out of the room so she could say goodbye to Bruce," the man said. "He could barely talk, and she moved in closer. He said, 'I love you' and she hugged him and started to move away. And he had two more words, which would be the final words of his life: '"Go Ducks!'''
Of all the stories concerning Alabama and Auburn, perhaps, the most divine comes courtesy of my friend, Archbishop Joseph Marino, who is currently the Papal Nuncio (ambassador) to Bangladesh.
Archbishop Marino grew up in Birmingham in a devout Auburn family and was working in the diplomatic corps in Rome in the 1990s for Pope John Paul II.
Alabama coach Gene Stallings was visiting Rome and Marino was asked to give him a backstage tour of the Vatican. Naturally, the Alabama-Auburn rivalry came up, and Stallings pressed the priest to declare his allegiance.
"I told Coach Stallings that I had applied to go to Auburn, like my father and two brothers," said Marino, "but then changed my mind to enter the seminary."
Coach Stallings replied: "That's when the good Lord really saved you!"