The South rises with the Tide

Posted: Nov 22, 2004 12:00 AM
Don Cole, aka the Heart Guy, was ailing and wore a beeper. He was a candidate for a heart transplant and was not supposed to ever be more than a two-hour drive from his Nashville hospital, in case it received a heart that could be transplanted. He said that, if the hospital learned that he left the two-hour radius, he would be removed from the list of recipients. So why, weekend after weekend, was he 3 1/2 hours from Nashville, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.? "If I can't go to Alabama football games, what's the point in living?"

Then there is the couple whose huge RV resembles the fuselage of a Boeing 737. What sacrifices have they made for their devotion to Alabama football? "Let's see," muses the husband. "We missed our daughter's wedding. We told her, just don't get married on a game day and we'll be there, hundred percent, and she went off and picked the third Saturday in October, which everybody knows is when Alabama plays Tennessee, so we told her, hey, we got a ballgame to go to. We made the reception ? went there as soon as the game was over."

You can meet these folks and others of their tribe in "Rammer Jammer Yellowhammer: A Journey into the Heart of Fan Mania," a hilarious ? and a little bit scary ? book by Warren St. John, a New York writer who was born in Alabama. A few years ago he returned to try to figure this out: "Why do I care?" About sports, that is.

To plumb the depths of the human fascination with contests, St. John went for total immersion. He spent a football season with the seriously hard-core fans. They are the ones for whom the phrase "Roll Tide" is an all-purpose exclamation-incantation-salutation. They are the purchasers of official Alabama coffins (red, with the school logo on the top and a white velvet "A" sewn into the lid ? $1,999). These fans travel from game to game in their $300,000-to-$1.4 million RVs, turning game day into a three-day festival of cold beer, artery-clogging broiled bologna sticks, 'Bama Bombs (maraschino cherries soaked in PGA ? pure grain alcohol) and sacramental events such as the Bear Bryant Namesake Reunion at Tuscaloosa's Paul W. Bryant Museum.

The museum, which contains such relics as the jacket and slacks one fan wore to his 500th consecutive Alabama game, is across Bryant Drive from where the RVs gather, near Bryant-Denny Stadium and Paul W. Bryant Hall, a dorm, and not far from Paul William Bryant High School. The reunion is for people named for Bryant, who coached the Tide to six national championships. There are almost 600 such people.

Alabama's obsession with football began, in a sense, on Jan. 1, 1926, five months after the Scopes trial ? about teaching evolution ? gave the South's despisers fresh ammunition. On that day Alabama's Crimson Tide became the first team from the South to play in the Rose Bowl. The Tide won, 20-19. The South really would rise again.

But in every region, sport can produce a collective mind, or sometimes a collective setting aside of mind. In 1895 a French psychologist published "The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind," pioneering the study of the mental unity of crowds ? people in the same frame of mind. "Freud," writes St. John, "disparaged crowds as neurotic on the grounds that, like neurotics, crowds 'demand illusions, and in fact can't live without them' and 'are guided not by ordinary objective reality but psychological reality.' "

However, St. John believes in using Ockham's Razor ? that is, in first trying the simplest explanation of a phenomenon: "We can't paint our faces and scream like maniacs at our desks, in the classroom or at the dinner tables with our fam- ilies, so. . . ."

Well, then, why does St. John care about the Tide? "I chose Alabama the way a baby bird chooses its mother: It was the first thing I saw." We all acquire such allegiances, but there also is a regional twist to this. For Southerners, the myth of the Lost Cause is all very well, but winning is nice, too.

So try to think anthropologically about those 'Bama fans who fire up their RVs, break out their radar detectors and sing "Rammer Jammer Yellowhammer! Give 'em hell, Alabama!" They are not just emulating the RVer who said: "We can't be young, but we can be immature." They are pursuing what sportswriter Frank Deford called "that curious Southern combination of eternal knighthood and childhood." Roll Tide.