I did not want to be an Auburn fan. Instead, I wanted to pull for Ole Miss. At my grammar school, located in the northeastern corner of Mississippi, the supply cart lady sold single subject notebooks: some with the Mississippi State bulldog embossed on the front, others with Ole Miss’s very dapper-looking Colonel Reb on the cover. I liked Colonel Reb; he reminded me of my great-grandfather. My choice of team also had to do with Ole Miss’s close proximity to our small town. Most citizens in our community were Rebel fans, hence the double appeal of rooting for Ole Miss.
Yet, it was not to be. As my step-father informed me, we were from Alabama, and his family, and as it turned out my mom’s family as well, were AUBURN fans. Imagine being six years old and having a step-father whom you were in awe of, but still getting to know after only two years, tell you with a conspiratorial wink, “If you’re going to live in my house and eat my food, you’re going to be an Auburn fan.” So Auburn it would be!
To me, my step-father seemed like a giant of a man. When you are young, though, all adults look like giants. A little over six feet tall, Robert had married my mother when I was four. Although my biological father showed up occasionally, he was never a constant presence in my life. My step-father filled that void, and because I was so young when my mother married him, Robert, for all intents and purposes, became my Daddy.
I loved Daddy from the start, but because he was such a big man in my eyes, I was also a little bit afraid of him. When he first married my mother, he worked for Deaton as a truck driver, so even his “big rig” intimidated me. Shortly after marrying Mama, Daddy took a job with W.S. Newell under the supervision of my great-uncle. Daddy moved us nearly 250 miles away from our hometown in south central Alabama and away from everything I loved, most especially my maternal grandmother. I resented Daddy for that move, but our family was growing. My mom was pregnant with my younger sister, and the job with Newell meant more money and security, so away we went.
Before my sister was born, for six years, I had been the center of attention at home. I was the oldest grandchild in my mother’s family and the youngest in my biological father’s. I was spoiled. When my sister came along, I did not like her at all. She stole the attention that had been previously paid to me, and honestly, I was downright jealous. Blonde and cute, she was everything I wasn’t. Even though I was only a child, I had always been observant, and when my sister arrived, I wondered if Daddy would love me any longer. Mama had to; after all, I belonged to her. But would Daddy?
Because I craved a way to remain Daddy’s girl, too, his announcement that I would be an Auburn fan provided me with an opportunity to do just that. Each Saturday, if he wasn’t working, Daddy would sit for hours on end watching SEC football. Although we were Auburn fans, he believed in the old adage of knowing one’s enemies. He’d watch the Ole Miss games, secretly making me very happy; he’d watch the Florida games; he’d watch the LSU games. As long as it was SEC, he watched. Of course, he pulled for the SEC, except when it came to Alabama. He was for Auburn and whoever played Alabama.
To begin with, I did not understand a thing about football. I just sat and copied whatever Daddy did. When he cheered, so did I. When he criticized a referee with choice four-letter words, so did I, at least until Mama caught me. Over time, I began to catch on to some of the rules, but often, Daddy would just volunteer the information. He explained what it meant to punt, what downs were, and why Pat Dye was just as good as Bear Bryant. When Bear Bryant died, Daddy was sad. According to him, the man was a worthy opponent, and one he’d actually miss.
Sitting on the couch next to Daddy having him explain hour after hour of football to me alone was intoxicating. Sometimes, though, Auburn’s games weren’t televised, and we’d tune in to the radio and listen instead. The early 1980s brought us the booming voice of Jim Fyffe, and his elongated “T-O-U-C-H-D-O-W-N—A-U-B-U-R-N!!!!!!” became a staple in our house. Often, we’d turn the volume down on the television and the radio up to listen to Jim Fyffe work his magic and envelope us in an ecstasy of play-by-plays. When Fyffe died too young in 2003, Daddy was sad again, but, knowing who Fyffe was and having come to love his performances, so was I.
I realized early that being an Auburn fan means you have to be loyal, for you are sorely going to have your allegiance tested on occasion. Yet, the 1980s were not times when rooting for Auburn was difficult. During this period, some football genius at Auburn discovered Bo Jackson, who made his every move look like art in motion. Daddy’s favorite call was “Bo over the top,” and on Saturdays I’d make “Go Bo Go” signs out of crayons and construction paper. Daddy also loved Lionel “Little Train” James. So fast, if you blinked, you’d miss him; so hard to catch, he passed like quicksilver through the outstretched arms of his opponents. The 80s brought us other Auburn greats, too, such as Al Del Greco, Brent Fullwood, and Tracy Rocker. With each passing season, my understanding of and love for Auburn football deepened.
When I entered the sixth grade, my parents allowed me to join the band. I think my mother did this because she knew I loved music; Daddy, on the other hand, may have come to the conclusion that this would be the only way he’d ever get to cheer for his alma mater on Friday nights during football season. My brother would be born in 1987, but neither he nor my sister ever expressed any real interest in the game until they got older. No, the game would always belong to just Daddy and me; it became our common ground during my adolescent and young adult years.
Because we couldn’t afford Auburn tickets for the whole family, Friday night high school football games stood in their stead. I was in marching band for five years, and Daddy and Mama attended all the home games and most of the away ones. Playing baritone meant I was in the low brass, and we always sat at the top of the reserved band section. Daddy and Mama would sit right behind us. During my first year of marching band, I tried my best to ignore Daddy’s attempts at embarrassing me. His calls of “Bertha Mae,” his special nickname for me even though my name is neither Bertha nor Mae, went unanswered. When I ignored him, he’d resort to throwing boiled peanuts in my general direction. To my dismay but to the amusement of my fellow band members, Daddy turned out to be a remarkable shot. More times than not, those peanuts ended up down the bell of my baritone, causing me to scramble to get them back out. Knowing it was really the only option available, I humored Daddy and just talked to him during the games, but so did all of my friends. They liked him, especially when he’d let loose an expletive at the refs. His use of four-letter adjectives was superb, and even if he did try to mutter them under his breath, his voice managed to carry them to our ears, thus resulting in snickering and sheer delight on our part.
In 1992, I graduated from high school, and Pat Dye spent his last season on The Plains. I had grown up only ever seeing Dye on Auburn’s sidelines as head coach. He was a staple of my childhood. Now, Daddy and I worried what would happen to Auburn football. We spent the entire spring of 1993 discussing it, and as we passed around the deviled eggs at Easter, we wondered if the replacement, Terry Bowden, would live up to our expectations.
Son of legendary Florida State (former) head coach Bobby Bowden, Terry was a marvel to us, and we just did not know what to expect. What we got was a perfect season, 11-0! We couldn’t go to the playoffs in 1993 due to probation, but no one could deny that “Terry’s Tigers,” as they were beginning to be called, had pulled off a miracle season! Stan White and James Bostic dominated the field, and with Bowden on the sideline, we knew a turn for the better was on the horizon. The era of Terry Bowden had begun!
The era of Terry Bowden was short-lived. After five years, he left Auburn amid talk and speculation. Yet, he was on the sidelines when I attended my first Auburn game. In the 1998 season opener, Auburn played Virginia. Virginia outsmarted, outlasted, and outmaneuvered Auburn to win 19-0, but all of that was lost on me. I had never even been to Auburn before this game, and everything about the town and the stadium excited me. I drank way too much lemonade from Toomer’s Corner, but it certainly lived up to all of its hype. After the game, I stood under the Toomer’s Oaks and marveled at how traces of the previous year’s toilet paper still clung to the branches. Because Auburn lost that night, we did not add new paper. Only wins called for tree rolling, a tradition that has now been compromised.
Because I had gone to the game with friends, Daddy had not attended it with me, but when I returned home, he wanted to know every detail. Did you see Aubie? What was it like to watch the Tigers run out of the tunnel and across the field? How did it feel to sing the fight song while watching them play? Daddy so badly wanted to attend a game, but financial difficulties always seemed to stand in the way.
As I grew older, I left home and moved away for school and, eventually, my marriage. I could no longer sit on the couch every Saturday and watch Auburn football with Daddy, but when I could, I was there next to him, both of us cheering a touchdown or arguing with the refs over a bad call. When other obligations drew me away, I would watch the games wherever I was and call Daddy during an exciting play. If Auburn scored, we’d try to beat one another in calling the other in order to say, Jim Fyffe-style, “T-O-U-C-H-D-O-W-N—A-U-B-U-R-N!!!” Whether Auburn only scored one touchdown or six during a game, each resulted in a quick call between us.
After Terry Bowden left, Auburn recruited Ole Miss’s head coach Tommy Tuberville, the “Riverboat Gambler,” to lead the team. For me, having Tuberville as Auburn’s head coach would be the closest I would ever get to being an Ole Miss fan. From 1999-2008, Tuberville led Auburn to an 85-40 record, including a perfect season in 2004 and six straight wins over Alabama; he even survived the “JetGate” scandal in 2003 when there was talk of replacing him. Under Tuberville’s leadership, Auburn thrived, and the phone calls between Daddy and me took on a whole new intensity. Daddy was excited, but still, he had not been to a game. He told me that it was his one wish to see Auburn play before he died.
In 2000, Daddy, age 56 at the time, had to have triple-bypass heart surgery. A diet of fatty Southern foods coupled with diabetes often results in some type of heart surgery. Daddy came through it like a trooper, but his recovery was slow. He hoped to return to work, but his heart simply would not allow it. From 2000 on, his health was a constant source of concern for us, but more often than not, Daddy felt fine, providing he did not overexert himself by doing anything physically taxing. The two of us still talked and watched football every fall, but now, we had to make sure he didn’t get too worked up over a touchdown or bad call.
When the 2007 season rolled around, Auburn was still playing well. The Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams, and Jason Campbell era had ended a few years earlier, but the new guys were holding their own. Ben Tate and Mario Fannin danced across the field with ease, and Quentin Groves stopped anything that blipped on his radar. Being an Auburn Tiger was fun. In early October of that year, I took my son and nephew to their first Auburn games, but neither cared much about it. They were more interested in the concession stands. Daddy had been too sick to go, but he started feeling better, and I knew it was time. So, I purchased five tickets to the Auburn/Ole Miss game for October 27.
When I told Daddy and Mama that they were going with me to the game, Daddy looked at me a little funny. At first, I thought it was because he couldn’t believe he was going to an Auburn game, but as he slowly smiled, he asked me, “You finally change allegiance?” After nearly 30 years of being an Auburn fan, I wasn’t about to pull for Ole Miss now! No, the lesson had been learned, and for better or worse, we both knew I’d always root for AU.
October 27 arrived and was a perfect Southern fall day. We left early enough to beat the traffic, but when we got to the handicap parking area, we worried when we saw how full it was. Finally, we found a spot, and just as we did, a transport cart drove up. Daddy arrived at Jordan-Hare Stadium in style: in an orange and blue golf cart with a tiger tail swinging gently from side to side on the back. When we got to the entrance of the field, Daddy stood still for several minutes. Seemingly unable to grasp the stadium’s enormity, he sucked in his breath, and whispered, “It’s just so big.” Before long, we were seated on our row: Mama and Daddy at their first ever Auburn game alongside me, my son, and my husband (a Florida fan).
One of the great traditions at Auburn is the flight of the eagle. During our game, I believe Nova, one of three Auburn eagles, was the chosen bird for the pre-game flight. Because we were in the nose-bleed section, we were in a prime spot to see Nova being released. Knowing this was a moment Daddy had waited to see for such a long time, I prepped my father for the eagle’s flight. But as the trainer got set to let Nova go, Daddy started saying, “Where is it? I don’t see it.” Nova was released, circled, and nearly landed before Daddy ever figured out where the eagle was. In fact, the bird swooped so low over our section that several people instinctively ducked when it passed overhead. When Daddy finally espied the eagle, he said, “Oh, there it is! Well, I’ll be. That was alright.” Yet, he saw with perfect clarity the drum majors high stepping across the field, which seemed to impress him even more than the eagle’s flight. The fight song rang out as the Tigers exited the tunnel, and once the starting lineups were announced, the game began.
The SEC is notorious for having outstanding defenses, and the October 27, 2007, Auburn/Ole Miss game highlighted defense at its best. Auburn marched down the field during the first quarter for a touchdown, putting them on top 7-0. Brandon Cox, Brad Lester, and Rod Smith began to rack up some impressive numbers. Ole Miss rallied in the second quarter for a field goal, and by half-time, the score was 7-3. I can’t remember all the plays or much of what transpired on the field; what I do remember is my father’s excitement and his play-by-play commentary as the game unfolded. Whether the play was an option, quarterback sneak, or blitz, Daddy knew them all.
Although Daddy cheered his way through the first half of the game, he was quickly beginning to tire, but he did not want to leave. Yet, when Auburn scored a second touchdown, he decided it was time to go. Upon exiting the stadium, a cart was available, and as the driver helped Daddy in, he asked, “Did you enjoy the game?” Daddy told him, “I sure did! It was my first one, but it won’t be my last.”
Daddy had certainly had a night to remember; he had laughed, yelled, and even cursed a time or two when a call didn’t go Auburn’s way, but he had loved every single minute of it. On the car ride home, we listened to the end of the game; Auburn won it, 17-3. Although he was really tired for the next few days, Daddy happily recounted to anyone who’d listen the story of his first Auburn game.
Auburn finished with a 9-4 season in 2007, including a win in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. 2008 proved to be disappointing with a 5-7 finish, but even more upsetting was the loss of Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville. Daddy and I had enjoyed his antics; although a few of the risks he took didn’t pay off, more often than not, they had. Always one to have a surprise or two up his sleeve, Tubby had been a pleasure to watch.
When Gene Chizik was hired in Tuberville’s place, we had our doubts. Chizik had just finished an unimpressive season as head coach at Iowa State; would he be able to do any better at Auburn? Daddy and I wondered, we speculated, we reviewed, and in the end, we decided only time would tell. In 2009, Auburn finished 8-5, and they won the Outback Bowl. Of course, most people know that 2010 would be the year that Chizik would impress everyone, but that season would come too late for my Daddy to enjoy.
On Christmas Day 2009, Daddy had to be hospitalized, and over the next few months, his health steadily declined. In March of 2010, Daddy spent two weeks in Baptist South in Montgomery growing steadily weaker until, on March 28, he passed way. He was 66 years old.
No words can express how one feels after having a parent pass away, so I am not even going to attempt to it. Unfortunately, grief and I are old acquaintances, for I have buried two fathers in my lifetime. I lost my biological father in 1993 when I was only 18; he died of lung cancer. I was 35 when I lost my greatest hero, my step-father, who taught me the value of hard work, respect for my elders, and the love of football. Although most people say that football is only a game, and they are somewhat right, for me and my Daddy, it was a bonding agent. It was the glue that sealed our relationship, and now, the game will never be the same without him.
Since my father’s passing, Auburn has gone on to win the National Championship in 2010, fired Chizik, hired Gus Malzahn, and almost won another championship just this year. My father would have been thrilled to have watched Cam Newton explode across Pat Dye field; he would have had a strong opinion about Chizik’s departure; he would have possibly had a heart attack after the “miracle at Jordan Hare” and the “kick six” this season. Yes, he would have loved it all, but instead, I have had to enjoy it for him.
I must admit that a little bit of the magic football once held for me is gone. After Auburn has made a particularly great play, I still catch myself reaching for the phone to beat my Daddy in making the call to yell “T-O-U-C-H-D-O-W-N—A-U-B-U-R-N!” (always Jim Fyffe-style). Only now, I can’t. Sometimes, I call my mother instead, but she finds watching the games too difficult, so the connection that should be there isn’t. She loves Auburn and wants them to play well, but it’s just too hard for her to watch. The wounds and hurt are still there for us both, and they always will be. A part of my life is gone, and I miss it. I miss him. I guess my one consolation is that I took Daddy to the only college football game he ever attended; it was and always will be one of the best nights of my life, and for that and for him, I say loudly and proudly: “War Eagle!”
For those of us who grew up watching the game sitting side by side with our parents and learning about it through them, we know it is about more than school spirit and rivalries. It’s about more than bragging rights and merchandising. It’s about more than just football. No, the game is really about the memories we create and the people it connects us to. Although some may find this difficult to believe, for a few of us, it is about love. Through it, my Daddy and I found our common ground, and for that if for nothing else, I will always love the game.