I still remember the moment. I was less than five years old. It was in Albertville, Alabama. My brother and I were playing in the living room when I decided to climb on the foot stool. This was Alabama, after all. We didn’t have ottomans. Just foot stools.
I climbed up on that foot stool. I looked over my cousins. Even my older brother. There, a few paces away from my throne sat the family patriarch. My great-grandaddy, Reuben Smith. Reuben gazed at me with a sly smile. The smile of a man who spent the best years of his life working hard in a Goodyear factory providing for his family. Who supplied the Second Great War with rubber. Who fought the depression. Who became a yellow dawg Democrat with Big Jim Foldom’s call of “y’all come”, and never cared much for George Wallace. Yes, Reuben Smith of Albertville, Alabama gazed at me with that sly smile. A young boy, barely a toddler, didn’t know what to do with that intimidating stare from such a formidable old man. I stood on my throne as Reuben let those immortal words slip through that smile.
“Boy… if you gon’ say somthin’, it best be ‘Roll Tide, Roll!’”
What to do. My father sat opposite Reuben in the living room. Daddy, Reubens decednent, was orange and blue, through and through. So had I been up to that point, much to Daddy’s approval. But Momma was for The Tide. So were Meemaw and most of the Aunts and Uncles. So was Grandaddy and Great-Grandaddy.
There I was, standing on the foot stool. Surveying all that existed to a boy less than four. My brother, momma, daddy, cousins, Nanna, and Great-Grandaddy. And Great-Grandaddy was for the Tide. And at that moment, and for every moment on, so was I. Roll Tide.
This is why this week matters so much. People talk about the great rivalries of college athletics. Kansas versus Nebraska. Ohio State versus Michigan, and others. But those rivalries are divided by political lines established by statutes, and the lineages of families that dare not cross a state line. The Tide and the Tigers hold no such borders as sacred. We spend the entire calendar in interaction. Call it crazy, but when you lose the Iron Bowl (and yes, if your team of choice fails, YOU have lost the Iron Bowl with them. It doesn’t matter if you have never set foot in one class on that school’s campus), you spend the entire calendar year answering for it. In the workplace. In the grocery store. At church, which is the epicenter of social interaction in the Heart of Dixie.
Even under the Christmas tree, amongst the most blessed and coveted of family lineage. You will still be subject to the ridicule of Iron Bowl failure.
Our entire nation is in the midst of a fiscal crisis. On the national landscape, we argue who’s responsible for our economic misfortune.
But it doesn’t matter in Alabama. For the most part, regardless of who controls office space on Capitol Hill, we’re poor. We don’t have much to put up for pride. Just our homes, Momma’s cookin’, and our values.
But none of that matters. Because whether your veins are filled by orange and blue or crimson and white, for one day a week, four months out of the year you can be proud. You can be proud of your team no matter what the bank note says. If your crop didn’t come in or your house is going to be repossessed, you can be proud. If there wasn’t money for new school clothes, or if you still haven’t moved up from that construction worker’s apprentice position, you can be proud. When your boys are between the hash marks, you are a king atop your own throne.
And for one of those weeks, the most important to anyone born in The Heart of Dixie, you can be prouder than any other. Because it doesn’t matter what’s happening on the farm, or in your house or in the family. If you win, you can climb in that tailgate with the bottle of liquid shoe polish. You can scrawl the score on the back of the cab of your pick-up, followed by “ROLL TIDE!” or “WAR EAGLE!”. No matter how poor you are, no matter what shame comes your way, no matter how sad you think your existence; there is one day more important than any other in the South. And that is Iron Bowl day. And on that day, you were triumphant. And no matter what your circumstance in life, you can pick your chin up, and hold your head up high.
Because you may not have anything to be proud of in life. But by God, you have the team. And that may be the only thing that gets you through the year.
And that’s why the rest of the country will never know what this week means to those of us born and bred in The Heart of Dixie. But by God we know. And for a lot of us, it’s what will get us through to next year’s game.