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But the college game does at least offer an illusion of youth. The drums beat again. The stadiums seem smaller, the players are too young, but the experience of time renewed persists. The boys follow the band again....
As I have suggested, mine was no ordinary college football weekend; traveling helter-skelter across the midlands, I saw in person, not on the television screen, three games in 48 hours, each of which determined a conference championship. The six teams involved were all ranked in the Top 10 nationally. Their combined record was a remarkable 53 wins, two ties and a single loss. Four of the six were undefeated and untied entering these climactic games. And since each of these match-ups was "a traditional," feelings ran extraordinarily high in the communities where they were played. The fans I met along the way were not the people I once knew. But they shared in common the search. And what could it possibly matter that they were not entirely certain what it was they were looking for?
Ben and Wellington, two round-faced, bespectacled middle-aged men, a bit plump, a bit tired but dead game, sit at the curve of the bar near the pool in Baton Rouge's Bellemont Motor Hotel. They are removed by only a few feet from the bar's main action, which happens to be an animated conversation involving two former Alabama players, Johnny Musso and Steve Bisceglia, several 'Bama assistant coaches and some other in-group types. They are served by a plump blonde bartendress who in the pale light behind the bar looks more attractive than she probably is. There is much laughter, much reminiscing, some flirting.
Ben and Wellington are at the periphery of the inner circle; indeed, they might as well be in Tuscaloosa for all the notice paid them by the others. They return this inattention with affection, laughing loudly at the eavesdropped anecdotes, joining in from a safe distance, talking scarcely at all to each other. The pleasures they gain from this evening will be vicarious.
"Drove seven hours getting here for the Big One tomorrow," says Wellington during a slight lull in the main conversation.
"Welly and I never miss a 'Bama game," says Ben.
The stars of the evening are now joking about Musso's new career in Canadian professional football. "Get my friend here a Canadian Club," Bisceglia instructs the bartendress. "That's all they let him drink now."
Ben and Welly chuckle at this one, nodding at each other conspiratorially. They knew Bisceglia had a reputation for wit. He was obviously under way now.
A group of tall, broad-shouldered young men, four blacks, one white, obviously football players, step tentatively into the bar, eyes straining against the darkness. One of them, the white youth, spots the coaches and quickly ushers the others out.