Opening Day Memories

Just a few more hours now, Lord willing, and this year’s edition of the Crimson Tide will kick things off against West Virginia.  One one hand, It’s hard to believe it’s here already, but on the other, it seems like such a long time since the Sugar Bowl.  I’m sure you know what I mean.

As the first game day of the season approaches every year, it makes me think back to many of the opening days of yesteryear.  No matter the year and no matter how good or bad we were supposed to be, it was always exciting.  Always.

I spent the lead up to those days much like I do now.  I’d find some source of information – usually an Athlon’s magazine, and I’d hunker down and absorb every bit of it.  The closer we got to the season usually meant a pre-season pullout section in The Birmingham News and I’d devour that too.

Those early years were, of course before the Internet and before the proliferation of ESPN, so I “watched” most of the openers by listening to John Forney and Doug Layton on the Alabama broadcast network.  I’d find some sort of radio, try to drag it outside or prop it up on a window ledge inside, and then I’d proceed to re-enact the action live in my backyard.  Man, those were good times.

My dad worked shift work at the local paper factory, so there was two out of three chance that he wouldn’t be at home for most of the games.  If he was working the day shift, he’d usually get home after the game started and if he worked the evening shift, he’d have to leave for work before it was over.  (If he was working the midnight shift, he’d just stay up to listen and suffer the consequences later.)  This put a big responsibility on me.  Though the folks at the factory would usually have a radio on with the game, dad was always sure to ask me what happened and he’d listen intently as if I was telling him the secret Kentucky Fried Chicken Recipe.  Most of the games were won by the the Tide, so after my recap, both of our smiles would beam and we would have a hop in our step for the rest of the day.

In my elementary school years, we would also have our pee-wee football games on Saturday evenings.  There were three league teams and the games would start around five o’clock with the youngest team and be followed by the two older games.  For the coaches and players on the field, and for most of the folks in the stands, this meant being out of earshot of a radio.  The action on the field was important and we’d try to do our best, but our game meant nothing in relation to the game being described by Forney.  The concession stand would have the game on most of the time, so that gave us every incentive to make a visit or two (or three or more).  If we were fortunate, the public address announcer at the field would somehow wrangle a score and announce it to the crowd.

As you can probably see, these games – Alabama football – became part of the fabric of our culture.  They became ingrained in us.  Yes, I suppose as Alabamians we did – during the course of the 1900s – use Bama football to elevate our esteem.  I can’t argue with that.  But for the people of my era, we weren’t concerned about our esteem or what happened in the past, we just wanted the Tide to roll.  We just wanted to win.

And so as opening day rolled around every year, our spirits were bouyed.  We were lifted out of the dog days of summer and the drudgery of school starting back back focusing out thoughts on Bama football.  Like Pavlov’s dog, we were trained.  We were able to disregard or put away the harsh realities of our present lives and be lifted, no just because of the change of seasons, but because our winning past time was back.

Things changed a bit as I entered my teenage years.  The kickoff of Alabama football was still the object of my affection, but with the decline and death of coach Paul Bryant, our situation changed.  Our expectations of winning were still there, but our coach, our leader, was gone.  Our affections were still firmly fixed on the Tide, but we knew things were different.

As the 1983 opener approached, the first in 25 years without coach Bryant, the emotions of Tide fans were all over the place.  We just weren’t sure what things would be like without Bryant.  We weren’t sure what all Ray Perkins would change or what he was up to and we weren’t sure if he could make us champions again.

Ultimately, we struggled that year, finishing 8-4 after a 4-0 start, but we were excited once again the next season as Bama opened up with independent Boston College.  We raced to a 31-14 lead as Tide star Kerry Goode exploded onto the national scene, but our hopes for the game and the season were dashed when Goode injured a knee in the third quarter.  Doug Flutie starred in that game and eventually went on to win the Heisman Trophy that year.  Had Good stayed healthy, Flutie’s competition for the award would surely have been stiffer.

As I continued to age and the realities of life set in, my expectations for Bama football quietly began to change.  The standard was still the same – perfection and championships – I can say that for sure, but experience told me that those days were gone for a while.  But each opening day still brought the same butterflies and excitement.

Today, obviously, we live in a time when the golden days have returned.  We are entering season number eight with Nick Saban at the helm and he has led us to three national titles in the last five years.  These have indeed been the glory days all over again.  In addition to the titles, we opened up under Nick Saban by beating the likes of Clemson, Virginia Tech (twice) and Michigan all on the national stage.  Our expectations now are, quite frankly, pretty unreasonable.  We have so much talent and such good coaching that we should win every single game.  Unfortunately, though, our unreal expectations can sap some of the joy out of the game.  We are one of the best teams in the country year in and year out.  We should win.  But when we don’t, things can get ugly.  I know.  I’ve experienced this ugliness first hand.

So as we sit on the edge of the 2014 season, we have a chance to check our perspective on things and give ourselves several reminders:

* It’s just a game.  Yes, there are all sorts of implications from losing, but this is still just a game.

* And because it’s just a game, our esteem isn’t determined by the game.  Are you going to change your fan affiliation if our team loses?  I should hope not!  So relax.  It’s just a game and these are some of the best times of our lives.

* Other than being at the stadium and yelling, there’s nothing you can do to help your team win.  Your special game day socks don’t help.  Your lucky underwear don’t help.  Your national title tee shirt doesn’t help.  Think about it.  Falling for these sorts of things is actually insulting to our team that works so hard all year round to prepare for the games.  And you think you control the outcome of the universe by sitting in your lucky seat?  C’mon.  Get real.

* Just because the coaches or players may make mistakes or do dumb things, it doesn’t give us the right to spew venom at them.  Think about it.  Would you say these things to the players if you were in the same room with them?

(Hopefully, I’ll remember these things if the game gets close tomorrow.)

These are special times and we are privileged to be fans of a special team.  Let’s do our best to make memories that will stick with us for a lifetime in a good way.

Roll Tide!