We'd been bird hunting all morning and had stopped for what my uncle called a seafood platter—sardines, canned tuna, soda crackers and a Dr Pepper. Rusting metal Nehi and Red Man signs were nailed to the unpainted outside walls of the place, and it had a shade porch where we sat and ate. There is probably a convenience store there now, where you can rent DVDs. � My uncle struck up a conversation with a leathery old boy in overalls who sat in a rocking chair, delivering opinions. After he'd explained what was wrong in Washington and told us about a couple of little patch farms where he thought we might find some birds, he started talking about football. This was Alabama, after all.
The man in the rocking chair said, generously, that he thought "Beah" was doing a pretty good job with the team that season. You figured, from the way he talked, that Bryant would probably be back next year. Undefeated was acceptable.
There was one thing, though. The old boy said he didn't see why "Beah couldn't find him some Alabama boy to play quarterback. Hell, he done all right with [Pat] Trammell. This boy he's got now, he can play. But I still don't see why Beah had to go out of state like that."
The quarterback, that long-ago season, was Joe Namath.
Ah, the purity of it. That is what most distinguishes the nature of my home state's obsession with football. In a world that is full of sports-mad people, the fans in Alabama are distinguished by their monomania. Tune the radio to a local sports talk program, and the conversation will be about football. This will be true in the middle of the summer, before players have even arrived on campus for two-a-days. It will be true during the World Series. Or the NBA playoffs. Or Speed Week at Daytona.
Obsession is both grand and frightening. It is the source of all great art, of course, but also of great tyranny. When the Iron Bowl was played in Birmingham, Legion Field pulsed with wild, atavistic passion. It was thrilling and scary at the same time. Balanced right on the edge of mayhem.
When I was researching a book on the Alabama-Auburn rivalry, Bo Jackson told me that he didn't understand the fans. Their passion, he said, made him nervous: "I don't see how somebody can get dressed up in an orange suit and howl like that for people he doesn't even know."
Whole fields of academic enquiry have been built around the urge to explain obsessions. In Alabama's case the list of usual suspects includes a hangover from the Civil War, the old Scotch-Irish tendency to feuds and love of a good fight, and a need to see winning in football as validation. A way of getting back at the people who have dissed you for so long as a bunch of rubes.
In the minds of proud Alabamians, the Crimson Tide teams that went out West and won Rose Bowl games back in the 1920s and '30s were making a statement. The more you were despised, the better it felt to win, which made the 1963 Orange Bowl victory over Oklahoma—with President Kennedy sitting, conspicuously, on the Sooners' side of the field—especially gratifying. In those days football got regrettably and shamefully mixed up with race. But when the color barrier fell, football seemed to go on, to almost everyone's relief.
The rivalry between Alabama and Auburn wouldn't be imaginable in any other state. Here it is inevitable and organic. Before a single football game can become so fraught, the sport itself must be vastly and irrationally important. Football is to Alabama what food and cooking are to France. Nobody else understands it or does it right because nobody else cares enough. Couldn't possibly.