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Bear Necessity Football is the only topic that matters when Alabamians talk sports

Nov. 24, 2003
Nov. 24, 2003

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Nov. 24, 2003

College Basketball Preview 2003-04

Bear Necessity Football is the only topic that matters when Alabamians talk sports

We'd been bird hunting all morning and had stopped for what my
uncle called a seafood platter--sardines, canned tuna, soda
crackers and a Dr Pepper. Rusting metal Nehi and Red Man signs
were nailed to the unpainted outside walls of the place, and it
had a shade porch where we sat and ate. There is probably a
convenience store there now, where you can rent DVDs.

This is an article from the Nov. 24, 2003 issue Original Layout

My uncle struck up a conversation with a leathery old boy in
overalls who sat in a rocking chair, delivering opinions. After
he'd explained what was wrong in Washington and told us about a
couple of little patch farms where he thought we might find
some birds, he started talking about football. This was
Alabama, after all.

The man in the rocking chair said, generously, that he thought
"Beah" was doing a pretty good job with the team that season. You
figured, from the way he talked, that Bryant would probably be
back next year. Undefeated was acceptable.

There was one thing, though. The old boy said he didn't see why
"Beah couldn't find him some Alabama boy to play quarterback.
Hell, he done all right with [Pat] Trammell. This boy he's got
now, he can play. But I still don't see why Beah had to go out of
state like that."

The quarterback, that long-ago season, was Joe Namath.

Ah, the purity of it. That is what most distinguishes the nature
of my home state's obsession with football. In a world that is
full of sports-mad people, the fans in Alabama are distinguished
by their monomania. Tune the radio to a local sports talk
program, and the conversation will be about football. This will
be true in the middle of the summer, before players have even
arrived on campus for two-a-days. It will be true during the
World Series. Or the NBA playoffs. Or Speed Week at Daytona.

Obsession is both grand and frightening. It is the source of all
great art, of course, but also of great tyranny. When the Iron
Bowl was played in Birmingham, Legion Field pulsed with wild,
atavistic passion. It was thrilling and scary at the same time.
Balanced right on the edge of mayhem.

When I was researching a book on the Alabama-Auburn rivalry, Bo
Jackson told me that he didn't understand the fans. Their
passion, he said, made him nervous: "I don't see how somebody can
get dressed up in an orange suit and howl like that for people he
doesn't even know."

Whole fields of academic enquiry have been built around the urge
to explain obsessions. In Alabama's case the list of usual
suspects includes a hangover from the Civil War, the old
Scotch-Irish tendency to feuds and love of a good fight, and a
need to see winning in football as validation. A way of getting
back at the people who have dissed you for so long as a bunch of
rubes.

In the minds of proud Alabamians, the Crimson Tide teams that
went out West and won Rose Bowl games back in the 1920s and '30s
were making a statement. The more you were despised, the better
it felt to win, which made the 1963 Orange Bowl victory over
Oklahoma--with President Kennedy sitting, conspicuously, on the
Sooners' side of the field--especially gratifying. In those days
football got regrettably and shamefully mixed up with race. But
when the color barrier fell, football seemed to go on, to almost
everyone's relief.

The rivalry between Alabama and Auburn wouldn't be imaginable in
any other state. Here it is inevitable and organic. Before a
single football game can become so fraught, the sport itself must
be vastly and irrationally important. Football is to Alabama what
food and cooking are to France. Nobody else understands it or
does it right because nobody else cares enough. Couldn't
possibly.

In that season when Namath was a suspect quarterback, he was the
rare 'Bama starter from out of state. Times have changed. Now a
lot of the players and coaches come from elsewhere. Indeed, if
another gifted quarterback from Beaver Falls, Pa., showed up to
lead the Tide to glory, that old boy on the porch (if he is still
with us) would probably say, "The Lord works in mysterious ways,
and it's by grace that that kid got to come and play football
here in Alabama."

Geoffrey Norman, who grew up in southern Alabama, has written 14
books, including Alabama Showdown.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY WESLEY BEDROSIAN