Regular readers know that I love two sports: baseball and college football. I enjoy others sports now and then but I am passionate about these two. In a unique way these two loves define my childhood and thus they have remained with me for sixty years. Both interests began by learning and sharing these loves with my dad. From my earliest remembrance dad took me to see the Nashville Vols play minor league baseball. From this experience, and from playing pitch and catch with dad in the backyard, I learned to love baseball. In 1957, as a boy of eight, I adopted the World Series champion Milwaukee Braves as "my" team and the rest is history. All these years later I still love the Braves. Through thick, like in the great run in the 1990s, and through thin (there were several lean decades in Atlanta), I rooted for the Braves. Perhaps my greatest Braves baseball moment was doing chapel for the team at Wrigley Field back in the 1970s. I later did more baseball chapels in Atlanta and St. Louis. Going inside a major league clubhouse on game day (which is not done by almost anyone these days because of security) was a major thrill. Meeting players in this setting was also an uncommon kick.
My other great love (in sport) has been for college football. I also came to this love with my dad (photo left, with mom, from the late 1930s) in the mid-1950s. Our family lived about 25 miles east of Nashville (TN) and we had tickets to see Vanderbilt University play football and basketball. I expected that I would go to Vanderbilt University until my senior year in high school. I attended a military prep school and longed to leave home and get away to try a different way of life that offered new vistas to grow and change. Several things that happened in that last year led me to attend the University of Alabama. My parents, thankfully, agreed with my choice. Friends teased me by saying I chose Alabama so I could cheer for a winner.
My first memory of Alabama football is etched in my mind to this day. Dad took us two boys to see Vanderbilt play Alabama in 1958, Bryant's first season as head coach of the Crimson Tide. As we watched the game unfold (Alabama was not very good yet) dad told me that the coach on the sidelines would turn this team around and they would be a National Championship caliber team soon. I didn't know what that meant but I soon realized it meant they would be very, very good. I still recall Bryant throwing his hat down at an official's call and asking, "Dad, why did that coach throw his hat?" I also recall another game in Nashville and how the fans in crimson almost outnumbered the home town fans. And they yelled, all night long, "Roll Tide, Roll." I was fascinated. I was also attracted to the coach and the school. Later, when I visited Alabama to consider enrolling in the fall of 1967, a local pastor got me a pass to an Alabama practice and I met Bear Bryant. The team was preparing for a bowl game and I was really impressed. I knew I wanted to go to Alabama then.
The irony of my two years on the campus at Alabama is two of Bear Bryant's worst teams were the two years I was there. By his standards these were down years. Some even suggested he had passed his prime. In the 1970s he turned it around and had one of the greatest decades in football history winning more championships and honors than ever. So much for "over the hill."
My son and daughter got the interest in baseball, especially my daughter. But neither has any interest at all in college football. The problem is that we had no great team to see on Fall Saturday afternoons. I couldn't pass the love along I am afraid. My daughter tells me, "I guess you have to go to a university to adopt the team like you did." That is not quite true since hundreds of thousands of people follow the Crimson Tide who never attended the university. Think, for example, of all the die-hard Notre Dame fans who never even visited the campus. College football is bigger than alumni but the core fan base is clearly rooted in those who attended a particular school.
I can't explain this but whenever I meet a Crimson Tide fan I immediately have a topic of common interest that makes me smile. Hey, I even discuss the subject with friends who went to Auburn, Florida, Georgia and (even) Tennessee! The rivalries in the Southeastern Conference are incredible. I have been to the "big house" in Ann Arbor many times. I have been to huge sports venues over five-plus decades. Nothing compares to an afternoon in Tuscaloosa, Athens, Gainesville, Auburn or Knoxville. I will get to one game (Arkansas) in Tuscaloosa this fall. (I schedule ministry in Alabama for one fall weekend almost every year. Friends just know the Lord led me!) I hope to see one away game if I can get to Kentucky the first weekend of October. I will watch or record all the television broadcasts of the Tide and turn off the phone when I watch. I am a rowdy and, sometimes, loud fan.
I am excited about this year's Crimson Tide team. They are young and they are loaded with talent. This is the kind of team that Nick Saban might be able to mold and shape in his way. They open tonight in Atlanta (nationally televised) against highly regarded Virginia Tech. Both teams are ranked in the pre-season Top Ten. It should be a fun game. I think the Tide wins but then I am biased. Now you know why.