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There are some statements that still baffle my Yankee brain’s language processing center such as “Merry Christmas,” “can I fix you something,” and “did you watch the game?”
Which game? What sport?
I grew up with a father who, at any one time, had about 3 different jobs in sports-related media and every screen in my house was usually showing a hockey game, basketball game, and a tennis match on split screen and between breaks. I used to take my father’s notes for him when he needed to take a nap before boxing matches. I am no stranger to sports. I have the Eagles and the Raiders to thank for my education. My interest in sports faded probably when I realized I was bad at them. Very bad. My brother is the catcher at Tennessee-Martin and can tell you any obscure fact about any figure from sports history. I play 7 instruments (not simultaneously) and mostly know all of the US presidents in order. It’s just how life worked out.
This lack of sports immersion later in life resulted in the daily shock of SEC culture. College football is a language I would have to have learned as a child to understand. I don’t understand why Auburn’s mascot is the tiger but the battle cry is “war eagle” and does the elephant swim? Does the elephant have a loose tusk? These are questions no one has taken me seriously enough on to answer but I don’t know that I can blame them. But like the other things about my life I can’t entirely grasp, I have learned to navigate this rolling tide enough to blend in. So how can one be a stowaway on the SEC Football.
For one, you must understand that the sport and game is nice, but is pretty much irrelevant. Team loyalty, like all aspects of Southernhood, is about roots. Geography, blood, passion, and struggle present themselves through the medium of t-shirts and phone cases. It was confusing to me as to why people supported colleges they hadn’t attended. I know I wear my Princeton gear because my father was the voice of the Princeton Tigers from the mid-80’s to the 90’s and continued to contribute to WPRB for decades after. It was family business. In the South, family isn’t so narrowly defined. An orange or red “A” is as good as a family crest.
Beyond that, it is sacred. That the sun will rise tomorrow is uncertain, but darkness won’t stop practice. People err and doubt, but there will always be Auburn big gulp cups and earrings for sale at any gas station in the state.
There is a story about a Jewish musician, Shlomo Carlebach, that says he was late to play a show and decided it wouldn’t hurt to stop and help a man broken down on the side of the road who was wearing a kippah (one of those Jewish hats). He started talking to the man and found out he wasn’t Jewish to which the man responded, “my Jewish friend told me if I was ever in trouble, put on a kippah and someone will help you.” Jewishly speaking, there is every ounce of truth to that. The sense of obligation to community Jews (I’m one of ‘em) feel is within the same plane of existence as the Southern sports bond. If you need help on the side of the road, hounds tooth can’t hurt. And after the guy in the pick-up truck has jumped your car for you, “roll tide” is better than a thank you.
There are also ways for non-sports fans (and out-right haters) to appreciate the culture of SEC life. Bama gear makes great gifts for your out-of-town guests. It is very fun to wear an Auburn shirt to the bar in Philly. I have no team, so guessing what team a person roots for is as much a conversation starter as figuring out their Myers-Briggs type or star sign. I don’t meet a lot of Aries and I don’t meet a lot of Gamecocks fans.
And without knowing a thing about football, admire the showmanship of the production that are playoffs. There is glitz and glitter in every corner from the trumpets to the pom-poms. This is not high-school anymore and these are not professionals. These are kids pouring their hearts into a few hours of air time. Plus, going to watch a game means beer and probably biscuits.
Perhaps my hesitation to embrace college football came from the perpetual disappointment endured by coming from a family that supports the Mets. Or maybe it was just my desire to retain a healthy distance from going native. But nestled here in my pocket of Birmingham, the orange and blue flag my neighbors fly are as comfortably a part of the landscape I can fondly call home as the fall leaves over Shades Mountain. So if you speak to me about the championships and I seem distant and callous, know that it is all an act. I am a sucker for the stories and the legacies, the rituals and the victories. The cynical say in the south, football is a religion. Religion is still religion, football is family.