The University of Alabama took the field against the Georgia Bulldogs this afternoon for the SEC Championship football game. Tensions were high in our town.
I ran into a man at the gas station who wore a Bulldogs T-shirt. We pumped gas beside each other.
“‘Bama sucks,” he said, pointing at my Alabama shirt.
“Roll Tide,” I remarked.
Then he started laughing.
“Aw, I’m just kidding,” he went on. “I know Alabama doesn’t suck, but I sure hope they do tonight.”
I told him I would pray for his eternal salvation.
During kickoff, I was still running errands. In fact, I was standing in a long supermarket checkout line. I counted eight shoppers in line who were watching the game on their phones.
And when the Bulldogs scored their first touchdown, a Georgia fan shouted at his phone, “YES! TAKE THAT, ALABAMA!”
There was an old woman ahead of me. She wore teased white hair, pearls, and an Alabama jersey. She turned to me and whispered, “Do you mind watching my cart while I go beat that man’s ass?”
So I bought supplies for the evening. Namely, beer, chips, boiled shrimp, and chicken wings.
The older man behind the cash register wore a University of Alabama lapel pin on his apron. And, in rural accent, he said, “Nervous about the game?”
“If I was any more nervous,” I said. “I’d have to call the incontinence hotline for support.”
“Me too,” he went on. “Just don’t forget, there’re three kings in this world. The Good Lord, Elvis, and Nicholas Lou Saban Jr.”
He scanned my groceries.
And that’s when it dawned on me. This poor man was stuck at work during the big game. I asked him about it.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s a bummer, but nobody would work tonight. I wish I were at home, having a beer with my son, we are huge fans. But since he’s been gone, I hardly even watch games anymore.”
“Where’s your son?” I asked.
“He’s overseas. I miss him pretty bad. Been three years since we watched a game together. ”
“I’ll root extra hard for you tonight.”
“Roll Tide,” he said.
I got home in a rush. I sat on the sofa and watched the boys play. My wife made cheese dip. The dip was so hot it scalded the roof of my mouth. It took one whole beer just to bring the swelling down.
The first two quarters were hard to watch. Georgia was impressive. They pushed Alabama to the fence and held them there. The last eleven minutes of the game were looking worse. Georgia controlled the field. Alabama’s quarterback was hobbled.
I was chewing a throw pillow and reciting the 23rd Psalm.
But at the final trumpet call, Jalen Hurts leapt off the bench, replaced his injured teammate, and made the whole world proud. He passed one touchdown, then ran another.
There was a lot of shouting in our house. My wife screamed, “ROLL TIDE!” I screamed, “ROLL TIDE!” We jumped up and down. My dog hid under a table and almost had a nervous breakdown.
And when Alabama won, I began to cry. I didn’t mean to, it just sort of happened.
When I watch football, I miss my late father more than usual. I can’t help it. I was born during the third quarter of the Alabama-Illinois Liberty Bowl. I drew my first breath only seconds before Jesse Bendross ran an eight-yard touchdown against the Fighting Illini.
They say my father kissed me on the forehead, then held me up to the glow of the television and traced my face with his finger.
Big games bring out the loneliness in me. Because they aren’t just games. They are the memory of who I come from. They are something that ties me to my father. They are moments meant to be shared. And everyone deserves to share them with someone.
After the game I told my wife I had to go to the supermarket. It was late, and the store parking lot was mostly empty. I walked through the store’s sliding doors and saw my friend, the cashier. He was behind the customer service counter.
“You again?” he said. “You forget something on your list, buddy?”
“Sorta,” I said.
I picked up a magazine and went to the customer service counter. He rang me up.
“A National Geographic magazine?” he said. “That’s what you came here for?”
“Well,” I said. “That, and this.”
I held out my hand. We shook.
“Roll Tide,” I said.