Thursday, November 10, 2005

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer | by Jay

I mentioned the Alabama-LSU game this Saturday a couple of posts down. Well, with Alabama playing so well this year, this is a great opportunity to plug a wonderful book. If you've read our blog for a while and followed our links, you might be aware of Warren St. John, who's a writer for the New York Times, the keeper of the Fan Opticon archive, and a frequent reader of BGS.

A couple of years ago St. John, who's a Birmingham native, set out to document the culture that surrounds Crimson Tide football. He bought a clunky old RV (nicknamed "the Hawg"), and set off on a football road trip that took him all over the South, getting to know all kinds of folks for whom Alabama football is a consuming passion: diehard tailgaters, "subway" alums, local radio personalities, scalpers, well-heeled bigwigs who fly in for every game, stadium workers, and all manner of colorful personalities. The result was Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, "A Road Trip Into the Heart of Fan Mania."

It's a wonderful, entertaining book, and it's much more than a simple account of Alabama football during a particular year. It's really a hilarious and illuminating anthropological study, with the author as one of the chief subjects. St. John tries to get underneath the passion, asking a central question: what is it about our sports teams that has us fans so emotionally tied to their fortunes and foibles?

The answers are as diverse as the people he gets to know. There are the Reeses, who skipped their own daughter's wedding because it coincided with a Bama game. There's Ray Pradat, the Episcopal minister who watches the games on a television beside his altar while performing weddings. And there's Chip Glass, a young fan so wrapped up in Alabama football that he won't even attend the games, fearing a nervous breakdown. What's great is that through it all, St. John is clearly one of those passionate fans himself; he's no outsider, not a condescending New Yorker come to clinically study this quaint phenomeon. No, he lives it and breathes it as much as the people he interviews, and as a result the book has a refreshing, personal tone that brings you right in, sits you down, and welcomes you to the party.

In the end, RJYH isn't just a book for Alabama rooters; it's really applicable to fans of all stripes, and as an Irish fan, I recognized myself (and my mania) in the pages over and over again.

There's a Bear Bryant museum in Tuscaloosa right across from Bryant-Denny stadium, and for one game every year they host a reunion of all the people whose parents named them after the Bear. Bryant Adams Paris, Paul Bryant Mitchell; the list runs about six hundred deep. (I'm reminded of Montana Mazurkiewicz, among many others). In the book, St. John wanders through the reunion, ruminating on the ritual of passing football fandom from generation to generation.

The religious comparison is apt. In a paper titled "Meanings and Interpretations of Paul 'Bear' Bryant", a group of anthropology students at Alabama polled hardcore Crimson Tide fans and locals on their opinions of the late coach and found that fully 26 percent associated the Bear with "godlike" qualities. The default explanation for Bryant's exalted status in Alabama is that he won and gave Alabamians something to be proud about at a time when the rest of the country and world looked down on the South. He was a kind of redeemer. I suppose the theory makes sense for a certain generation, but I liked the Bear long before I was old enough to understand that people outside of Alabama held my home state in exceedingly low regard -- long before I felt a need to be redeemed. I became an Alabama fan and Bryant fan the way most people come to their teams and their heroes -- because my father liked Alabama. He went to school at Alabama -- his fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, occupies a monstrous antebellum knockoff just around the corner from Bryant Museum.

It could have easily been otherwise. My father considered going to Georgia Tech in Atlanta to study engineering, but went to Alabama to be closer to his parents, who lived nearby and were divorcing, largely because of my grandfather, a country lawyer and politician, was an alcoholic. So it's fair to say that the ultimate reason I like Alabama is because my grandfather drank too much. (It's not so grim -- he stopped drinking and remarried my grandmother twenty-five years after the divorce, but that's another story.) My granddad might have known that he was screwing up his marriage by drinking, but he couldn't possibly have imagined the effect it would have on his yet unborn grandson's autumn Saturdays fifty years later. I doubt the thought would've deterred him, but I like to think it might have caused him to pause contemplatively mid-Bourbon.

There are some practical benefits to liking the same team as your parents -- not getting disinherited, for example; or avoiding years of arguments at the dinner table -- but that's probably not why it happens so often. I imagine people follow their parents because continuity is reassuring, and because it takes a lot of energy to break with the past. It's a threatening notion to a lot of fans that we don't like our teams for all the reasons we say we do (the colors, the tradition, the fight song, the style of play) but rather because of the random process of imprinting. I find the thought liberating. It's a lot harder to hate the other side when you allow that your arguments for liking your team are just as contrived as the other guy's are for liking his. The way we find teams isn't so unlike the way we find wives or husbands -- through happy accidents -- and with sports it matters little if, as with myself, the marriages are arranged.

[later, at the game]

Arkansas snaps the ball, then, something eerie: it's the same play as the week before. Stoerner drops back, his receivers spring for the near right corner of the end zone, and he throws the ball high. There's a paralyzing sense of déjà vu, then here it comes…and arcing spiral into the end zone as the clock hits zero…another jump ball. A cluster of red and white jerseys leaps upward like bridesmaids to a bouquet. The ball disappears into a bundle of groping hands and after a moment squirts out at ankle level, falling to the turf. It's incomplete. We've won.

In such moments, a very strange image crosses my mind. I imagine that somewhere deep in my brain there is a little cheerleader, perhaps no bigger than a sea monkey, leaping and kicking ecstatically. How else to explain the percolating, giddy tickle to the psyche that follows a win? With each footfall and herkie, some pleasure-giving cocktail of serotonin, testosterone, adrenaline, and god knows what else is extruded from my brain cells, and goes trickling across my frontal lobes. In fact, it's amazing what doesn't matter after a win. Anxiety is soothed. Life's quotidian concerns become insignificant and utterly manageable. To take a simple example, I have $7,000 locked up in an RV that isn't even roadworthy-- and I don't mind at all.
It's a great read. Do yourself a favor and check out Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer.