It’s happened only 22 times in the history of college football.A #1 meeting a #2 in a regular season game is an exceedingly rare event on the gridiron, the last occurrence in 2006 when Ohio State downed Michigan in a 42-39 barnburner.For you trivia buffs, Notre Dame has been featured in 9 of these clashes, the most by any team.
Despite their recent dominance, however, the SEC has never fielded the meeting of a #1 versus #2 game within the conference.Alabama versus LSU would not only be a historic match up in that regard, but given their dominance thus far this year, a defacto National Championship in many respects.With a game of this magnitude coming into the picture, there was never any question that I had to find my way into Bryant Denny stadium to witness it first hand.
Finding tickets would be a different story altogether.The student section would be the thrumming heart of the whole decadent affair, and precisely where I needed to be.I researched student ticket policy, and, for nearly a month, scoured Craigslist for students willing to upgrade their tickets to general admission for an $85 fee.Against my usual policy of scalping tickets off the street, I had learned a valuable lesson about student ticket supplies drying up for big games in Wisconsin earlier this year, and this was far from a usual contest.The piece of mind of having tickets in hand was worth the premium.
With some patience, I found a bargain for $200 bucks.Most were posted considerably higher than that, with some fetching $600 on Stubhub.Completing the transaction over Paypal, my elusive prize arrived next day air the week before kickoff.Tracking another ticket down for Dylan, my cohort in this adventure, proved a bit more challenging.Fifty emails and texts later, I tentatively locked one down for $280 with a girl who agreed to meet us in a Publix grocery store parking lot at 8am on game day to complete the exchange.Naturally, she overslept, showing up in sweatpants at 9:30 groggily rubbing her eyes and apologizing profusely.
The Friday flight down to Birmingham is cramped, as all Southwest flights are, and I settle in beside one of the few purple garbed LSU fans.Glancing down, I notice a massive LSU 2003 National Championship ring glowing on his hand.At about 5’8” and 150 lbs, the ring seems curiously out of place, so I ask him about it.A die hard LSU fan and retired private investigator, J.R. forked over $5,000 for the bejeweled trinket, originally belonging to former wide receiver Blain Bech.Cut from the same adventurous cloth as myself, J.R. now travels the country chasing huge sporting events along with his son, and was actually in attendance at the same LSU versus Florida game in Baton Rouge that I had hit back in 2009.
Stepping off the plane, Dylan greets me at the airport like a limo driver.A lifelong best friend, this is his first trip to the deep South.I toss my gear into the silver Chrysler 250 he’d rented, and we speed off into downtown Birmingham.An urbanite Manhattan resident, it’s Dylan’s first time behind the wheel of a car in over a year.The rust shows a bit as he nervously shifts across lanes, but it brings back memories of a few white knuckled rides we’d had growing up, navigating our way through New England blizzards crammed into his tiny VW Golf.After logging a few thousand miles behind the tiller this year, it feels good to be in the passenger seat for a change.
After picking up our ticket from the red eyed sophomore the morning of the game, we roll down University Avenue in the shadow of Bryant Denny Stadium, the sidewalks already humming with houndstooth.Massive white columned fraternity houses line the streets, pledges setting loudspeakers out on the manicured laws in preparation for the day.Other fans set up tents and satellite TV’s, claiming any piece of unoccupied grass they can find.
We hit the Waysider for breakfast, an Alabama institution, and wait forty five minutes before squeezing into a table in the cramped space.The food is hearty and filling, noted by their homemade biscuits.Wearing my Notre Dame sweatshirt in the brisk morning air, I’m chided by a few Alabama fans sarcastically inquiring if I’m lost.The LSU fans get it a little bit harder.The waitress silences the entire restaurant when the purple fans sit down, leading the entire house in a drawn out, communal “Rolllllllllllll Tide!!!”After the razzing, the Tiger fans are appeased with a frosted cake ball, a polite treat presented in good natured Southern fashion.Next to us a few fans work out a ticket deal, $650 for a pair of nosebleeds….
Peeling out of the Waysider parking lot, there is little time to digest, as we immediately head to Archibalds BBQ over the river in Northport.Breakfast followed by a barbecue chaser.I’d called the day before for their hours, planning our arrival as they unlocked the doors at 10:30 am to skip the lines.
An obscure concrete block shanty in the middle of a neighborhood, Archibalds is a quintessential ramshackle southern BBQ joint.A few Alabama fans wonder aloud how I’d even found the place.With only four stools lining the cramped, smoky interior, we take our brown bagged prize to the picnic tables outside.Unwrapping greasy butcher paper, the comforting waft of ribs and sliced pork greet my nose, accompanied by a styrofoam cup of spicy orange sauce, a generous stack of white bread and nothing more.Despite a full breakfast only 30 minutes before, my appetite roars to life.We devour the food as handfuls of fans began lining up at the entrance, thankful to have arrived early.
Following our second breakfast, we park at Tuscaloosa Central High School for twenty bucks and meet up with my friends Kevin and Lindsey who had also made the trip down from Saint Louis.They’re in Tuscaloosa for the game visiting their friend Caitlyn, a fellow STL native and Alabama senior hosting a tailgate for this epic contest.
It’s one of those perfect afternoons for tailgating – sunny, warm and surrounded by great people.We drop our case of Coors Light in the cooler and get the day underway, easing into a few cold ones before more serious drinking games start.Easily distracted by a plume of smoke, I intently observe Caitlyns father delicately rolling a few sausages across a charcoal grill.An experienced grill master, he’s already offered up some flawless ribs, and later in the afternoon would unveil a foil tray heaped with beef tenderloin that almost reduced me to tears.
Around 4pm, a full three hours ahead of kickoff, we begin preparations for the stadium.Filling handfuls of collapsible clear plastic flasks with rum and vodka, they are concealed beneath layers of clothing, hidden from the obligatory security pat down.Surreptitiously mixed with a few stadium sodas, we’ve got enough booze to party well into the third quarter.I stuff my pockets with a few extra walking beers, and we hit Paul W. Bryant Drive.
The scene outside the student gates at Bryant Denny is a borderline riot.A few thousand students mob the entrance, and we push our way into the din.The gates don’t open until two hours before kickoff, so we mill around the chaos waiting.The ground is littered with empty beer cans and liquor nips crunching underfoot, we crack a few cold ones waiting for the black iron gates to part.A cheer breaks out when they are finally flung open, we rush through the turnstiles like throngs of human cattle.The plan pays off, we find a row of open seats 20 rows up from the field in the student section behind the endzone, up close and personal to all the action.Those arriving later would find themselves in the second deck, or higher.
Two hours before kickoff and the first deck of the student section is completely full.The rest of the stadium still empty, we watch the players running pre game drills in t-shirts and mesh shorts.They practice footwork and long snaps, we sip rum and cokes.The anticipation hangs in the air like a haze, growing thicker with each minute ticking off the pre game clock.A few cocktails later, “Sweet Home Alabama” pumps in over the radio and the pack takes its feet. Tens of thousands of crimson and white pom poms shake to the music, the crowd growing louder and more restless by the second.Kickoff is a few minutes away.
After all the planning, hunting and preparation the moment is finally here.100,000 screaming bodies hang echoing on the edge of frenzy, waiting until ball is finally thumped high into the Alabama night air.
Both of these teams play beautiful football.No flash. No glamour. No superfluities.They win by attrition.Like boa constrictors, they squeeze the air from their prey with suffocating defense, tightening the grip with each desperate gasp.The offenses grind away methodically, punishing adversaries with bone crushing rush attacks.By brute force of will, Alabama and LSU methodically pound their opponents into submission.They don’t win by scoring more points, they win by breaking your spirit.Dominance in its most animalistic form…
The game played to this legendary billing.For four straight quarters the two juggernauts exchange blows like a pair of heavyweight prize fighters trading their best haymakers.Neither flinch.Neither yield an inch without blood sacrifice.And with the score knotted at 6 each after four quarters, neither one breaks.There are no touchdowns, no defensive lapses.The entire contest teases the precarious edge of euphoria, but never crosses over it.It’s tense, loud, thrilling.We yell ourselves hoarse when the Bama’ defense digs their heels in, the power of 100,000 collective voices willing them to victory.
In overtime the Tide eventually stumble, they don’t fall nor break, just slip ever so slightly.But that slip is all it takes.LSU kicks a chip shot field goal through the uprights in overtime, the equivalent of winning a 15 round title fight by split decision, skating away with a 9-6 victory.
Exhausted and defeated, we file solemnly out of Bryant Denny Stadium.A disappointing outcome to be sure, but a once in a lifetime experience.Quite simply the best of what college football has to offer…
Thanks to my friends Kevin and Lindsay, it was great to travel down to Tuscaloosa with you guys and made the experience all the more enjoyable.We need to plan out a few more games next year!
Thanks to Caitlyn and her parents for the amazing tailgate and wonderful hospitality.Very much appreciated, and hope to meet up with you for the Iron Bowl in a few weeks.
Special thanks to my friend Dylan.Always good to pry you out of NYC for a little adventure, and let me know when you are ready for the next one.Always a blast man.
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