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TOC On The Road: Catching A Game In SEC Country

Texas Vs. Alabama

Texas v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Now that the dust is beginning to settle on the headlines of this past weekend surrounding the MSU football program, we are going to resume our usual articles. Well, except this article is not really that usual. In fact, I would wager that rarely, if ever, has TOC posted an article about a game not involving MSU, other than an open thread type article. This past weekend, I checked off a bucket list item of mine, catching a game in SEC country. For those of you who have caught a game down there before (and we can include the southern ACC schools and probably the Texas schools in here too), then you already know. If you have not experienced this yet, I will simply say that it is truly on a whole other level from games up here. I will do my best to document my weekend, but I know my words won’t do it justice.

To start off, I need to begin by telling you that in the southern United States, there is a culture about RVing that simply does not exist in the north. I will assume it has to do with the warmer weather and having more of the year in which you can enjoy it. Whatever the reason, people take their RVs to a whole new level down there and I was about to get indoctrinated in it. My weekend began around 2 PM Central time when my buddy Kevin picked me up from Huntsville Airport in northern Alabama. Kevin is a good friend of mine from my time living in Los Angeles; we met at a Hollywood sports bar that played host to both MSU and Alabama alumni groups for game watches. Years later, and with both of us living back in our home states, we have remained close. For years, I told him I need to come down and catch an Alabama game with him; I have become a fan of theirs through my friendships with the Tide crew I met out west. So when I saw Texas on their schedule this year, I called him up and told him I was coming. He told me he has season tickets and I could take his second ticket for that game. So that worked out.

Back to the story, Kevin picked me up from the airport at 2 PM... in his RV. He had secured RV parking for the weekend which meant our tailgating was going to begin Friday evening. After a couple of stops to stock up on food and drink, we entered the RV lots around 8 PM. Now these lots were about a mile away from the stadium. I wondered in advance why they were so far away, but when I got there, I understood why. There were two massive lots, one on each side of the road. By the time we got there, just two hours after they opened on Friday evening, they were both already packed with hundreds of RVs each.

And there were some massive RVs there, some that dwarfed the 34’ Sunseeker we were in. I had not been in an RV in a while so I had no idea about the advancements they have made in this industry. Some expand wider, some expand up. I saw one with a back porch! And apparently all of them have a panel on the side that opens up to reveal a television screen that you get to watch while outside your vehicle. The RV lots were numbered in a way as to give each party plenty of room on the side to set up their tailgate. As we rolled in, everyone had tables and chairs set up, barbecues were fired up, and at least every other spot had cornhole boards out.

We found our numbered spot, parked the RV, got the generator going, expanded the walls, flipped down the awning, set up chairs and our cornhole, and cracked some beers. After taking a walk around the RV lots, complete with my buddy Kevin shouting “Roll Tide” at everyone we walked past (including the Texas folk) and stopping to chat with the owners of some of the more impressive RVs we came across, we made our way back to our spot and sat down to enjoy the pleasant late summer night. Now, I need to say that Kevin and I can both be pretty loud and boisterous, especially when beers get flowing. So admittedly after a few rounds, our laughter began to drift toward our neighboring Friday night tailgaters. Next thing we know, some middle-aged woman from nearby came over to see what was going on, only to be astonished that it was just a couple of guys making that much noise. Regardless, she stuck around and started talking to us. Minutes later, her friend rolled around looking for her, the first one introduces us to the second one, and now there are four of us. And then maybe a beer later, two more of their friends pulled up to see where the first two had vanished to, so now Kevin and I have these four middle-aged women (all of whom are there with their RV-owning husbands) hanging out and drinking beers with us.

Next thing I know we start playing cornhole and one of these four women absolutely was the queen of throwing bags, and she wrecked every single one of us, including beating her one friend 25-0. Next thing I knew, it was almost 3 AM and these women decided it was time to go back to their husbands. I was glad to get to bed myself; big things were in store for the next day.

We each woke up around 9 as the sun began to make sleeping impossible. After eating some breakfast burritos (frozen ones, not anything we can be proud of) and some fruit, we slowly made our way to the bus stop to take us over to the Quad where ESPN’s Gameday was taking place. The Alabama Quad is similar to many a quad found at other American universities, a large grass expanse between a number of buildings and zig-zagged by several sidewalks. I’ve been to a few of these, and maybe it was because on this Saturday morning the Alabama Quad was jammed with tailgate tents from one end to the other, but I feel confident in saying that this was the largest quad I have ever been to.

Okay, so remember earlier in this article when I mentioned that I was in the central time zone? Yeah, well I was not thinking about that this morning and I failed to compute that Gameday would be wrapping up at 11 AM instead of noon as I am accustomed to. It wasn’t until we were on the bus and Kevin got a text from a friend telling him that the special guest picker for that day, a certain Joe Namath, was now making his way to the set that I realized my gaffe. The duration of that bus ride was spent with me staring at the clock on my phone and growing sadder and sadder as I realized that I was not going to catch the picks from Lee Corso and company. At 10:58, we got off the bus on the edge of the Quad. I could see as we approached that the stage was completely on the opposite end, so as soon as we hit the sidewalk, we took off running. At first, we were zipping past a bunch of empty tents - everyone was over by the Gameday set - and then we were weaving our way through the mob of people who would soon go back to all those tents. By now we could hear over the speakers; Corso was getting ready to make his pick for the Alabama game. This means we missed the picks for all the other games and we missed everyone’s, including Joe Namath’s, picks for our game. We actually were able to run up pretty far and we were pretty close to the barricades when we stopped to listen to Corso make his selection. Of course, he began by making everyone think he was going to pick one way before giving his patented “Not so fast” and putting on the other mascot head.

As they went off the air, one of the hosts informed all of us in the crowd that they had some live entertainment for us now. I don’t know where this came from but suddenly there was a raised platform maybe ten feet away from me in the middle of the crowd and on that platform stood country music duo, Dan & Shay. They played a pair of songs for us; as a recently converted fan of country music, I was totally getting into it, especially since I recognized their first song, “Tequila”.

As they were getting to the end of their second song, Kevin tapped me on the shoulder and told me to follow him. We moved over to the side of the crowd, made a sharp turn right and started heading toward the road behind the stage, walking along the barricade surrounding the backstage area. But, as if Kevin knew it would be there, there was an opening in the barricade and the person standing there was not paying any attention, so we just slipped right through and started heading toward the steps leading down from the back of the stage where, wouldn’t you know it, Joe Namath was descending. We got close and watched as Joe started taking pictures with some other people and shaking hands, all while two police officers stood closely by. After a few photo ops, the two officers began trying to guide him off to his awaiting vehicle. I turned to Kevin and told him to go get next to Joe. We started walking after him but it did not seem like there would be any more pictures being taken with the Super Bowl III MVP. But I am relentless and I instructed Kevin to “be aggressive.” His southern manners were going to need to be put on hold. My directions worked and Kevin hustled, placed a hand on Mr. Namath’s shoulder, much to one of the officer’s displeasure, and pleaded for one more picture.

After we left the Gameday scene, we headed over toward Bryant-Denny Stadium so I could appreciate it prior to the fans showing up. This stadium is enormous. On one end of the exterior, there is a collection of statues of each Alabama coach who has won a national championship. Wearing my MSU t-shirt, I stopped and posed for a picture with the Nick Saban statue. A dozen or so Alabama fans were standing close by and I joked about him coming back to East Lansing. They did not like my joke. Who knew that that plea would take on a whole new level of sincerity about twelve hours later?

As midday arrived, we hopped on a bus back to the RV lots and escaped the sun for a few hours to nap in the comfort of our air-conditioned vehicle. It was around this time that I realized that I want an RV in my life. Walking across the lot, everyone was sitting outside their RV watching the early games on their exterior televisions. Clearly these southern folk were much less affected by the heat than I was. At around four, we got ready to head back toward the stadium, me now wearing one of my friend’s extra Alabama shirts, but still my Spartans hat. We returned to the Quad (which was now twice as crowded as it was that morning), bought some beers off some college students (we drank our roadies on the bus), and made our way to the stadium. Turns out that it takes longer to get into a stadium with a capacity over 100,000 than it does to get into Spartan Stadium.

Reaching our seats about fifteen minutes prior to the scheduled kickoff time, I could immediately feel something different about this venue. I’ve been to games in the Midwest and out west and have witnessed some frenzied crowds. But this, this was more than a sporting event. This felt like a religious occurrence, like 100,000 plus divine practitioners of (insert faith of your choice here) gathered to bear witness to an impending miracle. Alabama football is a way of life; I fully understood that now. The undivided attention that seemingly everyone had toward the field would have been eerie if it wasn’t also smile-inducing. The synchronized pumping of pompoms, the memorized words to several songs, the without-exception standing and removing of hats for the national anthem, and the deafening cheer as the anthem ended and a B-52 Bomber glided over the open stadium, let me know I was in for a treat over the next few hours.

But then the game happened, and well, this wasn’t the Alabama I was used to. Texas pushed their way around on both sides of the ball. They prevented Alabama’s offense from getting any run game going or for their quarterback, Jalen Milroe, from getting comfortable in the pocket while also preventing the Crimson Tide’s defense from disrupting the Longhorn’s offense. Somehow, Alabama was able to take the lead briefly late in the third quarter, but that dissipated promptly as Texas scored early and often in the final quarter.

As the game wound down and the inevitability of a defeat sank in, the crowd still cheered and sang, led by the constant appearance of pockets of the student section being displayed on the four jumbo monitors in each corner of the stadium. Leaving Bryant-Denny, there was certainly a palpable shift in the mood of the crowd as compared to that on the way in, but for as football-obsessed as these people are, they all took the loss in good stride. I guess, for them, what matters was being there to support their school and their team.

After walking back to the RV lots - the bus line was thousands long - it was promptly evident that there would be no partying tonight. Everyone was breaking down camp, ourselves included as I had to get to the airport back up in Huntsville on Sunday morning.

Sure, I did not get the game result I wanted, but this was still an amazing game, weekend, and experience. I encourage you all to make it do a game down there someday. The only thing that could have made it all better was if I did not get that message from a buddy of mine around midnight Saturday night with some breaking news coming from East Lansing...