For many of our nation's football fans it's hard to relate to such a poetic depiction of a college game. But for southern natives, football is more than a game. It is a magnificent obsession, a religious experience and a way of life. And no southern football game better embodies the essence of that simple truth than Tennessee and Alabama.
Unless you've grown up in the South, it's hard to appreciate the allegiances southern fans have for their football teams. The overall attendance numbers in the SEC, impressive though they are, only tell a tiny part of the story. The real story isn't in the seats, it's something in the souls of the people who occupy those seats.
In masses they crisscross the southern corridor of our country on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays throughout the fall. You see them rushing through airports, boarding chartered buses, filling restaurant parking lots and crowding rent-a-car counters. They travel in boats, buses, motorcycles, vans, motor homes, and pickup trucks all with their schools respective colors flying in the wind. They get there many different ways, but they are all driven by a rare devotion.
I'm sometimes asked why football is treated with such reverence and regard in the South. I believe the answer goes back to the land itself. You can't drive to a game in the South without getting close to a Civil War battlefield or cemetery along the way. There are plenty of roadside signs that point out the various historical sites, but even without signs, the psychic emotions and images of war are imprinted on the landscape. A mere four years before college football began, the Civil War ended and southerners were a conquered people. In truth, southerners are the only Americans to have ever lost a war. And not just any war, but one which killed more Americans than all other wars combined.
For survivors of that war, it was a harsh burden to bear. For succeeding generations of their offspring, it was a difficult legacy to accept. College football came at a time when southerners needed a way of redeeming their pride and expressing their fighting spirit. And so the game was taken and imbued with the most intense of emotions and thus transformed from a sport into spectacular struggle for victory. When most southerners go to a contest, they're not simply looking for entertainment or a vicarious thrill, they seek victory. For the true southern football fan is more participant than spectator. And that's the spark that ignites a competitive inferno on the football field and in turn attracts top talent from around the country that want to be a part of it all.
This is the historic insight you need to truly understand the significance of the Tennessee-Alabama showdown. It pits the South's two most successful football teams. The teams that are one and two in bowl appearances nationally, teams that are in the top seven in all time victories and teams that have collected 18 national titles between them. While always intense, this is a game normally played with a sense of honor and sportsmanship. That respect generally extends to supporters of both schools as well. It seems fans of these prolific programs appreciate how special an occasion it is when their teams cross swords. Here's hoping that mutual respect continues to sanctify this series.
Incidentally, Tennessee is the state in which more Civil War battles were fought than any other and Montgomery, Alabama, was capital of the Confederacy.
On Saturday, the SEC's two most tradition rich and successful football programs will renew their rivalry for the 85th time since the series which began in 1901. But this season finds both teams at a crossroads with 4-2 records and top 20 rankings.
The winner will likely push its way back toward the top 10 while the loser is likely to fall out of the rankings. Alabama has lost a record seven straight to Tennessee and the Vols need to make it eight straight to salvage a disappointing season. The pathos and passions that will be played out in this game are truly profound from a sports perspective.
By the end of this pigskin passion play one team will revel in the glory of victory, the other will be beaten but unbowed. And fans on both sides, fortunately enough to witness this jewel of Southern football in all its splendor will be enriched by the experience.