It’s only college football. It’s not real life. It’s just college-age kids on a field, wearing shoulder pads, trying seriously to give each other concussions. It’s just a game.
At least that’s what I keep telling myself.
Because a few days ago, the University of Alabama, one of the winningest teams in football history, lost to LSU. I was watching the game alongside my uncle, Tater.
Tater is a longtime Alabama fan, a retired marine, and a former paper-mill worker. He has a tattoo of coach Paul “Bear” Bryant on his upper thigh, and he wears houndstooth underpants.
It was the only time I’ve seen him cry.
When LSU intercepted the ball, my uncle began to exhibit signs of a nervous breakdown. His vision started to dim and he had trouble breathing. He almost blacked out. We had to revive him with Busch Light and Camels.
I won’t recount the game here because, honestly, who cares? As I say, it’s just a game.
Then again, this is what all the losers say. “It’s just a game.” And I know this because for years the previous losers have been saying this same phrase to us Alabama fans.
And all these years we smug Alabama fans have responded by patting our unfortunate friends on the shoulders and giving our best patronizing smiles.
“It’s only a game,” we agree in a pious way, although secretly, deep inside, we are singing “We Are the Champions.”
Shameful. I’m asking for forgiveness for our past arrogance, because now I know the biting pain of loss. Now I know what it feels like to watch your team fall on their own spears.
After the shocking upset, my uncle Tater had to be admitted into urgent care with chest pains. He was babbling in strange tongues, carrying on about past Alabama defeats.
“Punt, Bama, Punt,” he mumbled when they rolled his bed into ICU. “Kick Six,” he babbled when they hooked him up to the IV tubes. He was talking out of his mind.
His nurse was an LSU fan, clad in purple and gold. She asked Tater’s family what happened.
“I don’t know,” Tater’s daughter answered. “One minute he was fine, then during the fourth quarter he went catatonic.”
The nurse stifled a laugh, then confiscated Tater’s shoelaces.
We gathered around uncle Tater’s bedside and reminded him that, for years, Alabama has been on top.
Victory after victory, we were the team that never lost. A team with a winning coach. A team with a university president who once said, “We just want a university our football team can be proud of.”
“So what if you’re not champions?” said Tater’s LSU sympathizing nurse. “Big deal. Life goes on. Get over it.”
And she’s right. Winning has been great, sure. But winning isn’t everything. Moreover, winning isn’t without its troubles. After all, it’s not easy being champs. People love to hate winners.
This year, for example, my cousin’s 9-year-old son dressed up as coach Nick Saban for Halloween. He wore Saban’s patented straw safari hat, and he wore the coach’s trademarked frustrated expression, as though he had not emptied his bowels in six years.
He knocked on doors, presented his Jack-O-Lantern and cheerfully said, “Roll Tide.”
Someone threw rotten tomatoes at him.
The Birmingham police were called. The alleged offenders were 12-year-old hoodlums wearing Auburn University colors.
The perpetrators were detained and questioned by senior officers who asked sincerely, “Why didn’t you use rotten eggs instead?”
This is exactly the kind of injustice we Alabama fans have endured for umpteen years. But we have always borne our suffering with pride because this is what true winners do. And this is what we’ll keep doing. Even if it kills us.
“If you ask me,” said my aunt Eulah, “it all started going downhill when Nick Saban started doing insurance commercials to pay the rent. It’s just embarrassing to see someone you love doing insurance commercials.”
Oh, how quickly people turn against their own.
This, coming from the same Methodist woman who collects commemorative Joe Namath plates in her dining room and uses formal napkin rings which read, “Roll Damn Tide.”
But the truth is none of this matters. In the grand scheme of life, sports are trivial. The world is much larger than an NCAA football stadium.
“It’s just a game,” Uncle Tater mutters anxiously from his hospital bed. “It’s just a game. Just a game…”
“You’re absolutely right,” Tater’s nurse replies. “It’s just a game that YOU lost.”
Uncle Tater’s funeral will be on Wednesday.