For the Love of Football in the South 1

The arrival of college football season makes southerners as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. There are only a few Saturdays down here when white-tailed bucks graze peacefully in open pastures and doves fly unmolested over soft brown fields of sunflower while hunters exchange their camouflage for collegiate jerseys. Staunch southern Republicans and Democrats stand united with those who have never cast a vote to support their mutual teams.

I grew up on the Chattahoochee River in Vinings across the street from Kim King, the most prolific passer in Georgia Tech’s history, who later became a storied GT radio broadcaster, successful developer and generous philanthropist. Kim’s ‘hero status’ at GT greatly benefited me and my friend, Beau, Kim’s son. We climbed around GT’s ‘Ramblin’ Wreck’ Model-A and tossed the pigskin with the legendary quarterback on Grant Field. Yet, despite Beau’s strong encouragement to swarm with his beloved yellow jackets, I have always bled red and black.

In the South, you simply have to choose sides because loyalty and allegiance matter.  Football stadiums reminiscent of the ancient Roman coliseums fill with upstanding citizens who morph into seemingly bloodthirsty mobs chanting for victory and the downfall of their opponents. These stadiums collectively hold more than a million seats which sit quietly vacant six days a week before swelling to the size of cities on a handful of fall Saturdays reverently referred to as ‘Gameday.’

Saturdays in the South mean different things in different stadiums.

  • In Knoxville, Tennessee, fans proudly adorn orange attire that could not be given away and fill one of the world’s largest stadiums singing ‘Rocky Top’ on an endless loop. Their mascot, a Bluetick Coonhound named Smokey, proudly leads the Volunteers onto the field through the “T” formed by the marching band.
  • Generations of families travel to Tuscaloosa’s famed Bryant-Denny Stadium where the Crimson Tide has only lost about fifty games there since it opened in 1929. The visiting team’s locker room is literally named “The Fail Room.” Tickets are coveted like passes to the Masters tournament. Every home game has been sold out since 1988.
  • Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium becomes Alabama’s 5th largest cities on game days when it welcomes 87,451 screaming Tiger fans. The ‘Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry’ of UGA/AU began in 1892, and yielded essentially an even win-loss record.
  • Over in Oxford, Ole’ Miss’ co-eds, dressed in their Sunday-best, tailgate beneath three hundred year old oak trees in ‘The Grove’ where they celebrate the ‘Walk of Champions’ and exchange the mysterious greeting: “Hotty Toddy!”
  • Down in Gainesville FL, gator fans are known to don their jorts (jean-shorts) and slither into a stadium they call “The Swamp” where they clap sun-baked arms in a ritualistic reptilian imitation.

Fall Saturdays for me are spent in my beloved Sanford Stadium in Athens where, since 1929, the Georgia Bulldawgs have fought valiant battles “between the hedges”. Few things excite me more than listening to the lone bugler play its soulful Battle Hymn before “our boys” thunder onto the gridiron to the deafening roar of the bulldawg nation.

No matter which team you support, Southerners’ love of college football with all of its deeply-rooted traditions and rivalries, is part of the rich character and common bond that defines us. Soon, players and fans from other parts of the country will have the moxie to challenge our teams and that will afford us the opportunity to welcome them to Saturdays down South. I can hardly wait…