College football’s national championship is easily the most contested, controversial, debated, decried, and denounced title in all of athletics. In fact, it is difficult find any snarky corner of the internet (save those with sponsorship ties) where one will not find it described as “mythical,” akin to a flying horse or a reasonable Texan. Yet, far from devaluing its stature, this only makes the title more coveted.
It is difficult to explain what Alabama football means to those who are not born into it. For the uninitiated, the first obstacle to understanding is the spectacle of the so-called sidewalk alums, the fans of the school who hold no connection to the university other than sharing the same state. They are not alumni of the school, and in some cases may have no relative who can claim to be an alumnus of any school, yet their support is unwavering.
They are the ones you see queued around the field on fan day, extending programs, hats, shirts--even their own spawn--to be autographed by the team. They are the majority of those who pack in the stadium for the spring scrimmage and the ones who keep the sell-out streak going even against Division II schools. They are the target of much derision and scorn, the source of much foolishness, but they are ours.
They are also the cipher for understanding Alabama football and, within a limited sphere, its relevance.
One could easily forgive the outside observer who mistakes Alabama’s football history as beginning with Bear Bryant. However, the cognitive dissonance present when broadcasters list six national titles to Alabama’s credit while the team’s quarterback speaks of winning a thirteenth says more about the press’s myopia than it does our signal-caller’s math skills.
In truth, Alabama’s football history extends prior to the Associated Press’s interest in football. Outside the stadium named for him, Bryant stands third in the statue garden, the second--or, by some counts, third or fourth--wave of Alabama football’s story, a story tied to the dignity of the state, even when its people did not deserve it.
It cannot be dismissed that the first generation of Alabama football players, playing a game created for the Ivy League, did so to prove themselves beyond the shadow of their defeated fathers and grandfathers. Nor can it be denied that, for far too long, segregationists looked to Bryant’s lily-white players as a proof of their ideals, even while the coach was trying to integrate the team in spite of them.
But those struggles and those claims are, mostly, in the past. What can explain football’s hold on Alabama today? Why does this myth mean so much?
Perhaps through all the changes in Alabama, from fallen soldiers in a confederacy to college students in a Union, from segregated lunch counters to integrated dance halls, from one generation to another, no matter how distant the past was from the future, no matter how different the ideals of fathers from those of their sons, football--winning football--became that one thing to remain constant.
That’s certainly a lot of bullshit to ask you to swallow on the eve of the biggest game of the season, maybe the biggest game of the decade. But there it is. And Alabama, its sidewalk alums, its tradition, better and worse, are right in the middle of it.
Is the national title, the target of much derision and scorn, the source of much foolishness, a myth? Yes, but it is ours.