To lie on my couch, in a food-induced coma, and watch college football’s rivalry games. All day. Without respite. Beer doesn’t count as respite. I’ll remember Saturday, November 23, the Year 2002 forever. That’s because this day is going to be both the best and worst of my life.
Imagine: college football all day, with every team playing its most bitter, hated rival. Plus, in some far-off universe outside of Vegas and gambling (‘Honey, where is your nanna’s box of jewelry? Some punk missed a chip shot field goal and Squeegee State didn’t cover the spread. Also, we need to sell the house’) some of the games are meaningful. Michigan vs. Ohio State will most likely decide whether the Buckeyes—I asked a friend once: a buckeye is some kind of weird nut, and yes, they have a nut-headed mascot—go on to play the Miami Hurricanes for the national title. This game has been a nightmare for the Nutheads: twice in recent years they’ve needed only to beat the Michigan Wolverines to go to the title game, and twice Michigan has won and brutally ruined Ohio’s season at the last moment. I’m very psyched for this game. This is the kind of game where the losing cheerleaders cry and the coach begins a new career fixing mufflers at the Siberian Meineke.
This is the early game, starting fittingly at high noon. After that, it’s decision time. The ‘Iron Bowl,’ usually a vicious brawl between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn Tigers, starts at 3:30. Winning the ‘Iron Bowl’ is only half of it: killing someone on the other team is also part of the plan. I love the ‘Iron Bowl.’ But at that same time, the Trojans of U.S.C. play the Bruins of U.C.L.A. in what I like to think of as the ‘Juicy Fruit Bowl.’ Being a nor-easterner, anything related to Southern California is viewed with disbelief, boredom, or scorn. Then again, this is Rivalry Day, and scorn is what this whole thing is about.
After those games, the schedule is fuzzy. I’d thought that next I would watch Oregon vs. Oregon State in a game billed ‘The Civil War’ but the game isn’t listed anywhere. How could this time-honored contest, between the Oregon Ducks and the Oregon State Beavers - dude, you gotta see their home field, where a ferocious orange beaver is painted at the 50-yardline—not be played on Rivalry Day? This one is a classic: the kids at State think of the Oregon team as a bunch of imported rich kid hippies and call the school the University of Cal. at Eugene, while the Oregon guys consider the State crew a bunch of illiterate car-thieves and thugs. Both sides are right, and that’s what makes this game so much fun. However, sorrowfully, the game isn’t being played today, or if it is, no one has listed ‘The Civil War’ anywhere. This may be a Homeland Security situation, so best not to investigate overmuch. I don’t need no civil war…
Without that, I’m left with grisly options. South Carolina Gamecocks (battle slogan: ‘Beat Your Gamecock!’) vs. the Clemson Tigers? God help me. The Oklahoma Sooners vs. the Red Raiders of Texas Tech with their star quarterback Kliff Kingsbury (I’m not making this stuff up) is also on, and I may watch that one just to see if Kliff can work his magic and upset the Sooners, a team I’ve rooted against all my life for no reason whatsoever. Again, that’s what this is all about.
Noon kickoff is moments away, so I have to make subs, fly a foxtail from the car, and kick my girlfriend, fresh from having her wisdom teeth yanked out, off the couch. This ain’t no party, this is serious business. Back at the half.
Halftime: Michigan 9, Ohio State 7
Without a doubt, this is the Game of the Day. Over 100,000 Ohio fans have filled their stadium, nicknamed the Horseshoe, and all of them are insane. How crazy is the atmosphere? The Nuthead scoreboard operator, in a fit of hubris, posted fake scores (Ohio St. 200-Mich. 0) during pre-game warm-ups. The reporters are so jacked up they’re going over anatomy textbooks with an orthopedic surgeon as they explain shoulder injuries. Despite the crowds and some shifty calls by the refs, Michigan is out-playing State, but they’ve flubbed some chances to break the game open and face a long second-half battle. It’s a good thing they’ve got a defensive starter named Lazarus.
Meanwhile, like D-Day, reports are coming in from other fronts across the country. Notably, the Minnesota Gophers are tangling with the Wisconsin Badgers in some sort of Rodent Bowl. Seeing these numerous field reports, it occurs to me that many tens-of-thousands of Americans are spending their day drunk in a parking lot. Other observations:
- The decals on Ohio State helmets, awarded for great plays, look like tiny marijuana leafs. Really.
- College cheerleaders are not like pro cheerleaders. The pros look like strippers, the collegians are like pixie-mice from Jumping Jack Land.
- At 1:18, I see the first of what will be 6,000 Coors commercials. This is not long after a tooth-whitening commercial ends with the tag, ‘Have more fun with your mouth!’
- In two hours of viewing, I have not heard one black athlete speak. All the interviews are with white guys, all of whom look like that ‘Bachelor’ doofus.
Go Michigan! Go Lazarus, beat the potheads!
Final: Ohio State 14, Michigan 9
Lo and behold, the Buckeyes gutted the game out and won with a late touchdown! Many marijuana stickers will be distributed after this one. Serious partying in the Horseshoe, as Michigan, despite getting the calls in the second half, couldn’t put anything on the scoreboard. The fourth quarter was a trench-like affair, and gradually it felt like God wanted the Buckeyes to win, and thus they did. As for Lazarus, he took a few extra breaths and scared everyone in sight, but it wasn’t enough and Michigan has a year to brood on why they couldn’t finish off the Buckeyes during the early going. Now, no matter what happens anywhere, the Nutheads will play for the national championship in January.
On to the rest of the schedule. Instead of U.S.C. vs. U.C.L.A., one network opted to show a completely meaningless game between also-ran chumps Penn State and Michigan State. Ugh. Actually, I’m glad, as all U.S.C. games are imbued with their oppressively dull fight song. The Trojan fight song (no, it’s not Barry White) is like the Darth Vader music, except it sucks. Flipping through stations, I hear one sideline reporter describe how two rival teams are playing for ‘The Old Wooden Bucket.’ That does not interest me. Relieved, I click right over to the always-violent ‘Iron Bowl,’ where God, like Dixieland, is usually smart enough to look away, look away…
Kick-off: Auburn (Ala.) Tigers vs. Alabama Crimson Tide
I know I’m at the ‘Iron Bowl’ because the moment I find the station, I hear the announcer pronounce melodramatically, ‘THIS. IS. THE. IRON. BOWL.’ Welcome to Tuscaloosa, where the game is being played this year. As usual, I’m rooting for the perpetual underdog Auburn squad. With the eternal exception of Bo Jackson (‘Bo knows!’) Auburn never quite has the talent or the money of the storied Alabama squad. Then again, Auburn isn’t playing under a N.C.A.A. probation the way the Tide is either, as ‘Bama coaches and boosters were flagrantly busted offering cash and SUVs to high school coaches in exchange for steering prospects ‘Bama’s way. Maybe Alabama ought to be playing for some crappy old bucket? As it is, they’ve got Auburn on their hands, and the Tigers make up in pure meanness for their lack of funds. Even my girlfriend, ice clutched to her jaw, has noticed Auburn’s violence. After a big play, they gleefully slammed a teammate on the head, and she sums up the situation perfectly: ‘Dumb-asses.’
Bo still knows! Go Dumb-asses!
Halftime: Auburn 17, Alabama 0
Auburn is putting a whuppin’ on the Tide. How sweet it is! As the game progresses, a few things stand out. During one pile-up, a ‘Bama player reached down near a fallen Tiger. The Tiger, thinking he was being offered help up, held his hand out. For a second, I thought the archrivals were going to share a Moment. Instead, the ‘Bama player slapped the Tiger’s paw aside and helped his own teammate up. ‘THIS. IS. THE. IRON. BOWL.’
What’s also clear is that this game has the best names by far: Brodie Croyle, Lane Bearden, Carnell ‘Cadillac’ Williams, Tyler Watts, Roderick Hood, Travaris Robinson, Wayne Bacon, Sam Collins, Horace Willis. Though injured and not playing, Cadillac gives the best interview of the day. He tells CBS’s sleek, chic, model-esque sideline reporter Jill Arrington that he visited a kid in the hospital the night before, and how thrilled the kid was when he walked through the door. Then, after being asked how much he wished he were in the game, Cadillac’s eyes become as bright with hope, desire, and excitement as any kid’s, anywhere. You can see the dream on his face, and hear it in his voice. This too is the ‘Iron Bowl.’
Late Third Quarter: Auburn 17, Alabama 7
The day is becoming bleary. I’m in a haze of football, squeaking cheerleaders, and celebrity Macintosh computer ads. It’s third and 10, Yo-Yo Ma is waving a pom-pom, and a linebacker is pitching laptops. I’ve hit the wall. Needing nourishment, I ask my girlfriend to please make me another sandwich. She seems dazed from the tooth extraction and doesn’t immediately respond, remaining bent over her bowl of gruel with codeine powdered on top for the pain. Feeling sympathetic, I remove some of the ice from her face and refresh my drink. In soothing tones, I tell her the sandwich can wait. I forge on, alone. Go whoever’s playing! Beat those bastards, whoever they are.
Final: Auburn 17, Alabama 7
It’s 8 o’clock, the game is done, and so am I. Alabama has been mauled and embarrassed on their home field, and not even a bucket is coming their way. The Auburn coach does a funny little jig as the last seconds run off the clock. Elsewhere, other celebrations (and future fuel to rivalry fires) begin. In Ohio, reports have come in that tear gas was needed to break up Ohio State rowdies as they rampaged throughout their sacred Horseshoe. Win or lose, it’s become trendy for students at major universities to riot after a big game. Still, though Harvard won their annual match with Yale, no major looting has been reported in Cambridge. Harvard men save their pillaging for Wall Street.
Rivalry Day continues across America. The aforementioned Gamecocks are being beaten in South Carolina, the Washington Huskies are trying to mess up the Washington State Cougars, and in what’s undoubtedly the best party of the day, the Ole’ Miss Rebels are down in Baton Rouge rumbling with the L.S.U. Tigers. Of course, since that’s the only game I’d actually enjoy at this point, it’s nowhere on the dial. When I watched this game last year, the southern belles in the stands—rosy cheeked in the cold with their long cashmere coats buttoned up and their long honeyed hair down—were by far the best looking women I’ve seen at any athletic event, ever. Things like this are what makes the Ole’ Miss-L.S.U. game such a classic.
But that’s not for me, not this year. I am on a death march, and I’ll be watching a freak named Kliff try to upset the mighty Sooners of Oklahoma. Even as I type, my girlfriend is hacking ice from the sides of the freezer, as refreshments will be necessary to finish this godless task. I promised to let her have another painkiller when she’s finished making the margaritas.
This day has been overwhelming. I may never enjoy football again, but I will keep such fatalistic thoughts to myself. For now, I leave you with the only lesson I’ve learned watching this spectacle of history, regionalism, and sport play itself out across America. In these times of war and strife, it’s good to know that no matter how close one school is to another racially, politically, and socio-economically, it’s still cool to want to bust your neighbor in the face.
Folks, it’s Rivalry Day, and if you can’t hate someone else, hate the one you’re with. Go team!