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Swept Away by the Tide

Sept. 20, 2004
Sept. 20, 2004

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Sept. 20, 2004

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Swept Away by the Tide

One man's season spent reveling in--and coming to terms with--his passion for Alabama football

RAMMER JAMMER YELLOW HAMMER

This is an article from the Sept. 20, 2004 issue

by Warren St. John.

Crown, $24.00

If, a thousand years from now, archaeologists unearth Robert Robinson's casket, painted bright crimson, with an A embroidered on the satin lining inside, they might conclude that the occupant belonged to a religious cult. They wouldn't be entirely wrong. Robinson was one of those ultrafans who spend the football season in an RV chasing his team from game to game, barbecuing in stadium parking lots, sipping from long necks and never pausing to wonder if he has his priorities right. Robinson's coffin symbolizes his devotion to Alabama Crimson Tide football, a fealty those archaeologists will better understand if St. John's unique and hilarious book survives that long--as indeed it might.

St. John, an Alabama-born reporter for The New York Times, is almost as Tide-crazed as the crimson-casketed Robinson. He reports that once, when 'Bama beat Notre Dame, he leaped so high in celebration that he caught his hand in a ceiling fan, and that while attending college in New York he once called his parents to listen to a Tide broadcast over the phone. Later, St. John became so distraught after a Tide loss that he got drunk, sobbed himself to sleep and, he says, "woke up on my dorm-room bed, fully clothed and in the fetal position." It occurred to him then that blubbering "over the failure of a group of people you've never met to defeat another ... is not rational." And yet, "the world is practically brimming over" with fans like him. St. John decided to find out why. Returning to Alabama, he bought a used RV and set out to learn what makes the extreme fan tick.

What he found was something like a religion. St. John discovered an extraordinary congregation of Crimson Tide fans, beginning with a guy named Chris Glass, who gets so wound up before Alabama games that he literally vomits with anxiety. He also encountered a married couple who skipped their daughter's wedding to attend an Alabama game, and a fan who boasts that when his wife was hospitalized with a gall bladder condition, "they got her eased up on Demerol, so ... I dragged her out of there and we made the kickoff!" And he met Don Cole, who repeatedly risks getting bumped from a heart transplant list so that he can follow the Tide. "If I can't go to Alabama football games," he reasons, "what's the point in living?"

These are not necessarily the people you would want making decisions about school curriculum, but you couldn't ask for better company in a stadium parking lot. Whether stopping by a newcomer's RV to deliver freshly microwaved Tater Tots or protecting their community from the pranks of enemy frat boys (with firearms, if necessary), obsessed fans make great neighbors. On a good day--say, when Alabama beats Florida--their joy is so unbounded that St. John finds himself dancing in ecstacy with hundreds of friends, "all with beer bottles in our hands, swaying and commingling like the tentacles of an anemone in a brisk current."

Despite St. John's often wicked humor, his book is a serious search for a more balanced life. He wants to enjoy victory parties without falling to pieces when the Tide loses. Each sports fan, like each Buddhist monk, must find his own balance. But St. John has three excellent pieces of general advice to pass along to fellow travelers: 1) Root for no more than one team per season; 2) don't get too caught up in off-season stories about recruiting and such; and 3) never, ever climb onto the roof of a stranger's motor home because there is a decent chance he will shoot you.

COLOR PHOTOCROWN PUBLISHERS (RAMMER)COLOR PHOTOMICKEY WELSH/MONTGOMERY ADVERTISER (CROWD)ROLL WITH IT Once 'Bama fans begin celebrating, the author found, it's hard not to get caught up with the crowd.