Instead of watching kickoff of the LSU versus Arkansas match up on the Friday after Thanksgiving, I was boarding Southwest Flight 132 for Birmingham, Alabama – the Pittsburgh of the South.Shortly after wheels hit BHM tarmac, I shoehorn myself into rented wheels for the weekend, a silver Chevy Cobalt.My 6’2” frame presses cozily into the tiny car and I hit the road for the two hour jaunt down to Auburn.
I’m in town for the Iron Bowl, the annual contest between Auburn University and the University of Alabama.Easily one of the most heated rivalries in all of sports, the intensity was recently featured on an hour long ESPN documentary “Roll Tide/War Eagle”.Devoid of any professional sports, the entire state of Alabama is defined by this annual showdown, embedded into its very culture.Brothers fight, spouses squabble.Lines are drawn, and sides are chosen.Everyone has a stake. Apathy is not an option.The pinnacle of college football fervor, this game had been atop my bucket list for years.This weekend, I was finally going to be a part of it.
Making my way Southeast out of Birmingham on highway 280, the roads are thick with Friday evening traffic all heading the same direction, crimson or orange team flags flapping from car windows as they pass.Hungry from the plane ride, I make a pit stop in Alexander City, pulling into an abandoned strip mall for a barbecue joint tucked discreetly into a dark corner.Sho Nuff’ BBQ (yes, that’s the real name), with roots dating back to 1990, was founded when owner Gerald Atchison opened up a small concession trailer beside his bait shop.Once the demand for BBQ took off, Gerald abandoned the bait shop business for smokier pastures, moving into this larger location in the dilapidated Alexander City Shopping Center.Despite the charming story, the barbecue is underwhelming.I shovel down a few mouthfuls of the dry chopped pork and fried okra before hitting the road again.
After another hour I arrive in Auburn, promptly pulling into Mike & Ed’s BBQ.In addition to another round of uninspired pork, I’m there to meet Tim, a senior in the Animal Science program. I’d found him a few weeks ago on Craigslist offering up his student ID for 100 bucks.There are no paper tickets issued to students at Auburn.Instead, the magnetic strips on the plastic ID cards are swept at the entrance gates, checking off the students electronic account.A transaction like this requires a bit of mutual trust.I’m forking over $100 cash for the ID, hoping the light turns green when the agent swipes it at the turnstile.If the light blinks red, I’m left with a worthless piece of plastic.On the other hand, Tim is entrusting me with his entire student account, hoping I bring the ID on Sunday morning, lest he get nailed with a $60 replacement fee.After trading a few pleasantries, we agree to the exchange, setting up Sunday morning for the return.I fork over a stack of crisp twenties, admiring the slick, glossy plastic; my pass to one of the toughest tickets in college football.
After a night in the rickety Super 8 in Opelika, I wake up early for a quick BBQ breakfast at Byrons Smokehouse before heading into campus.The smell of smoke wafts throughout the restaurant, and I ogle the ribs emerging in great charred slabs from the brick pit.
“I’ll have the half slab of ribs plate” I request to the cheerful counter girl, noting a “starving college student” tip cup strategically placed next to the register.
“I can’t sell you ribs yet”. She replies, matter of factly.
“Excuse me? I just saw two guys walk out of here with bags of ribs to go”.
“Yes, those were call in orders for take out.We’re only serving take out right now for BBQ.You can have eggs if you want”.
“Okay, I’ll half a half slab of ribs for takeout” I reply, ignoring the egg suggestion and attempting to thwart their silly rule.
“I can’t sell you a half slab right now, the minimum order is two pounds”.
“Two pounds is the minimum order for ribs in here?”
“No, we sell half slabs for lunch.”
“Well when do you start serving lunch?”
I glance at the watch a few ticks past 8:30, my patience wears thin.
“So let me get this straight.You’re selling ribs right now, I want some, but you won’t sell them to me unless I order two pounds. But if I come back in two hours, then you would sell them to me in a half slab just like I want them?”
“Ummm, yeah I guess…”
“That’s stupid.”I retort.
Frustrated from our little exchange, I motion the manger over.Surely an agreeable, take charge fellow with a grease stained apron would understand my case, scold the insubordinate cashier and order her to get this man some ribs.Instead, he repeats the same inane policy speech as the waitress.It takes a brave man to get between me and some BBQ, some would say foolhardy.For a moment, the thought of a choke slam flashes through my mind, leaving the hapless pitmaster lying in a broken pile of plastic trays and Styrofoam plates.Instead, dumbfounded and defeated, I settle for a few eggs, leaving the tip jar as barren as I found it.Shoveling the eggs down begrudgingly, I hustle to the Auburn campus shortly afterwards and tuck the Cobalt into a free spot on a side street.
Walking over to campus, my first stop is Toomer Drug, a drugstore in operation since 1896, and the anchor of Toomer’s Corner.I fall into the serpentine line for one of their signature fresh lemonades, splashed over crushed ice and served in a Styrofoam cup in true southern fashion.Across the street the two iconic Toomers Live Oaks stand meekly.Swarmed by admiring fans with cameras in tow, a few lingering strands of toilet paper hang from the last Auburn victory on the outstretched limbs of the great trees.The trees are smaller than they look on TV, perhaps 35 feet at the top of the crown, but bear the magnificence and history of ancient Oaks.Sadly, they are visibly withering, dying from the widely publicized dose of “Spike 80” tebuthiuron poison that a lunatic Alabama fan doused them with last year.
I stroll through the pristine Auburn campus, patches of grass claimed with ribbons of orange surveying tape mark out the tailgating plots.Blue and orange tents are erected, spread out across the manicured lawn beneath Samford Hall, the icon of Auburn University.A few trails of blue smoke begin spiraling into the damp morning air whileAuburn and Alabama fans co-mingle warmly, huddling around table spreads and flat screen televisions.The rivalry is bitter, but cordial.Free of the vulgarity that pervades their Big 10 counterparts.Though cheering for opposing sides, there is a solidarity shared among all Alabamians, shored by the past two BCS National Championship victories of each school.Above all rivalries, Southern dignity and decorum prevails.
Kickoff still a few hours away, I circle around the Southwest corner of Jordan Hare Stadium assuming a place in the mob of fans already stacked ten deep for “Tiger Walk”, the famed entrance of the Auburn football team on their march into the stadium.Many other schools have since duplicated such a greeting for the players, though Auburn claims to have invented it.Within thirty minutes, the street is mobbed with 10,000 Auburn fans flanking both sides of the roped gauntlet, exchanging shouts of “War Eagle” as the marching band bellows away.During the procession, I munch on a BBQ pork sandwich from the Fat Boys BBQ Trailer, the best cue’ I’d find all weekend.
Shortly after the final brassy notes sound, I scramble to the black iron gates of the student entrance, filing in behind the orange and blue herd.With nary a glance from the ushers, I slide the glossy plastic credentials through the card reader, the light flashing a few pulses of triumphant green.Wedging into a spot in the thirtieth row, I find a seat next to a few amicable coeds draped in short dresses, their hair and makeup primped, neatly presented in typical SEC fashion.The kickoff clock buried at 90:00, players are still warming up in t-shirts and shorts.The student section entertains itself by snatching footballs from the Alabama kicker thumping them through the uprights during warm up.Each time one falls into the stands, the students toss it back and upwards, progressively higher until it is flung victoriously out of the stadium, to the delight of thousands of cheers.
A while later, Nova, the seventh Golden Eagle of Auburn University takes its customary pre game flight around the stadium, the outstretched wings of the magnificent raptor signaling the crowd to its feet.One of the best pre game traditions in all of college football, the eagle is the inspiration for Auburn’s battle cry “War Eagle”, a greeting exchanged by alumni everywhere.Unfortunately that would be the energy high for the day in the raucous student section around me.Without Heisman winner Cam Newton this year, the Auburn attack floundered against the suffocating Alabama defense, barely managing 100 yards of total offense on the day.Alabama pounded the ball unmercifully.Heisman hopeful Trent Richardson trotted for 203 yards as the Crimson Tide cruised to a 42-14 win.For the third year in a row, the home team has lost this fierce rivalry.Regardless of the dominance on the field, the Auburn student section stayed in the fight.Boisterously cheering on their feet for all four quarters, it’s one of the better student sections I have encountered, and certainly worth the price of admission.
Waking up on Sunday morning, I have one final, critical stop to make; Momma Goldbergs Deli.Atop any list of Auburn recommendations from my esteemed alumni friends, Momma’s has been a staple of the Auburn campus since 1976, reflected in the worn, rough sawn pine floors and walls strewn with grainy team photos.A simple menu of deli sandwiches, I order up the signature “Momma’s Love” sandwich, a classic combo of roast beef, ham and turkey.More importantly, the sandwich is paired with a side of “Momma’s Nachos”, a universal must-do from any Auburn alum, and come free of charge with an Iron Bowl ticket stub.Watching intently, the counter girl plucks a fresh bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos directly from the rack, disappearing for a moment before they reemerge as the iconic gooey Auburn delicacy.Brilliant in their simplicity, I don’t know why the concept of Dorito inspired nachos hasn’t taken hold in sports bars across the country.
A few minutes after my meal, I get a raspy phone call from Tim to arrange the return of his leased student ID.We meet in the same Mike & Ed’s parking lot, empty on a Sunday morning. Tim arrives disheveled, haggard after a solid shift the day before.With partial envy of the carefree life on an undergrad, I hand the ID back to him.Next time around, I think I might have to join him for a few cocktails.
Leaving town that Sunday morning I drive back down Magnolia Street, the sidewalks humming with folks dressed in their Sunday best, emptying out of the brick arches of St. Dunstans Episcopal Church.The moment reveals a symbolic clarity of life in Alabama: Saturdays are for football, Sundays are for church.Just pick your side accordingly…
Thanks to my colleague Megan, for a handful of great recommendations and her insider SEC knowledge.
Special thanks to my friends Russ and Alan, both diehard Auburn alums who each gave me fistfuls of amazing recommendations.Hopefully one of these years I can meet both of you in Auburn and hoist a few alongside you. Until then, WDE!!!
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