As I noted over the weekend I made a journey “home” this past weekend. The nostalgia of such trips is rich, the joy truly palpable. Time with my mother, my brother and my much loved sister-in-law provided both rich conversation and deep personal insight. I was especially enlightened as my older brother and I talked about our childhood, our emotional and spiritual development, and our respective journeys to deepening faith over all these years. Our mom will be 91 next month. Her mental acuity is slipping very quickly now. This provided several moments for private tears and some real grieving. A most memorable moment came when she asked me if I would “read to her” from a Joni book that she loves. (Here I was 57 years old, reading to my mom much the way she read to me as a child. It is hard to write this if truth be told, but perhaps it will encourage some of you who are sons to spend quality time with you aged parents.)
Highlights from such a trip fill me with incredible peace and great thanksgiving this morning. I genuinely have a rich heritage in Christian formation. I also have a very special relationship with my only sibling, a brother four years older than me who is a physician and committed Christian. (We had our rivalries as children but we are best of friends today!)
Saturday’s trip down Interstate 65, and then south on Route 69 into Tuscaloosa, was sheer joy. The day was gorgeous, sunny and 72 degrees. Arriving in Tuscaloosa memories of my two years on campus in the late 1960s flooded my mind. The sights and sounds of major college football in a small college town are quite unique. The streets became more and more crowded as the day wore on. The Quad in center campus was filled with tents and tailgaters everywhere. And the smells of the grills were delicious. I ate more Southern barbeque in one day than I have in twenty years. Even the sounds were unique. One guy had a red jeep with Alabama logos and signs, two huge Bama flags on the back, and a huge sound system playing the Bama fight song as he rode up and down the street. (Yes, I got a picture with my brother and me beside the jeep!) As the players arrived three hours before kickoff, to be greeted by a rousing throng, they walked from their two busses up champions’ walkway to the 93,000 seat stadium. Evidence of past football glory was everywhere. The walkway has great tributes to their twelve national championship teams and twenty-one SEC championships. And huge statues of the four coaches of the national championships teams stand over the whole area. One area is even saved for the next coach who will accomplish the same feat, saying to present Coach Mike Shula something like: “We give you our blessing to win a champsionship or our permission to go somewhere else!”
We mingled among the fans for five hours, talked with strangers everywhere and just relaxed. Most of the tailgaters had generators, with television dish systems, and live football games going all day long. Some of the loudest cheers arose from the center of campus every time Arkansas surged ahead of Auburn in their game. (For those who are unenlightened, Alabama and Auburn hate one another, at least in terms of their long and bitter football rivalry.)
We even had dinner in the A Club (inside the stadium) as the guests of Gary Otten, a former Crimson Tide lineman from the 1980s who is a friend of my brother. We sat at a table with Fred Sington, a man who played for Coach Bryant on his first Alabama team in 1958. He regaled us with stories that put me in the floor in laughter. I could have listened to this for hours if truth be known. As we left the A Club fans wanted to know if we were former players so they could get our autographs. My brother had fun telling one guy he played at Bama until his cover was blown when honesty took over. Adn we shook hands with many old Bama stars, including the guy who scored the last touchdown for a Bear Bryant team and the current Athletic Director, Mal Moore, who coached for the famous Bear.
After all of this glorious fun Alabama won the game 30-14, though they struggled mightily, proving again that college football always has some surprises. Alabama is far superior to Duke, and was thus favored to win by 28 points, but Bama did not come to play emotionally and Duke did. (Bama actually trailed at the half 14-10.) The evening ended with a 150 mile ride back to Huntsville. Our sporting pilgrimage, which began at 9:00 a.m. on Saturday, was over by 12:30 a.m. on Sunday. We had traveled 300-plus miles, enjoyed a glorious day, passed through places called Bug Tussle and Boldo (I am not making this up), and deepened a great relationship. You can’t beat that kind of day in the sun if you love college football and a glorious autumn Saturday in a great old Southern town.