Even the purple dimness of twilight pulses with sweltering heat. The sun will not set fully for hours yet, and the stored heat of the noontime is rising form the turf field, baking us from beneath. The Redcoat Band plays Bruno Mars into the sultry southern night. It is humid, and Athens pulses with sodden pre-semester energy. Band camp is in full swing.. It is break time now, and someone asks me for a prediction:
“10-2, lose to Bama in the SEC Championship.” I say confidently.
“Brave man. Sounds about right, though.” Says the person who asked the question. This is the paradox of UGA football. It is courageous to predict success, but success is expected and right when it happens.
The Redcoats take buses to the Notre Dame game. Hurricand Irma descends on Florida, and we are slowed by traffic in Atlanta, Nashville, Louisville, and finally Indianapolis. In the end, we spend 32 hours on our buses that weekend. The time spent is worth it though, because this trip is truly without precedent (a theme, it will become obvious, for the entire season). UGA has never played at Notre Dame, so UGA fans have occupied the stadium in the world’s drunkest police action. 40,000 of them crowd the bucolic campus. I see more people I know on the walk to the game than I usually do on a gameday in Athens. There’s an edge to their playing when they can play at someone as opposed to for them. The third quarter ends, and 50% of the stadium lights up their phones. This must be, I think, the seductive allure of nationalism. We win the game by 1 point, and we all fall a little bit in love with this team. I enjoy being around the Redcoats with another band in the stadium.
The month ends with a trip to Tennessee. My wife and I lived in Knoxville for two years after grad school, so I feel a mix of excitement and apprehension at seeing my old friends and students. We win easily, and I’m put into a new position. As an adult, we haven’t won enough for me to need to be nice to opposing fans, and as a student, I was philosophically opposed to inter-collegiate politeness.
The month starts with the Missouri game. It is homecoming and one of the drum majors is running for homecoming queen. She loses, but walks up the stands past the band afterward holding a sign that says “I Already Won.”. I watch her walk up the steps, crying happily, and I realize I haven’t believed this deeply since church camp.
Weeks later, we are undefeated and the anxiety has begun to mount. Halloween is coming and with it, a game against Florida. I white-knuckle through a 28-0 lead. The game ends at 42 – 7. I look at my wife. We wear the faces of disbelieving lottery winners.
My father is getting remarried the weekend of the Auburn game. Every single picture taken of me during his rehearsal dinner will be unusable. The thing that frustrates me the most is that the loss feels so on-brand.. It’s a familiar pattern for a UGA fan to fall into. One of the stereotypes surrounding this fanbase is that UGA fans are plaintive country clubbers. That we are comfortable in our upper-middle class Metro-Atlanta bubble. The most damning word in this attack isn’t privilege, but comfortable. UGA fans know what it feels like to be comfortably upper-middle class in football terms. What’s different this time is that we’re already locked up to play in the conference championship.
We get the rematch with Auburn in the championship. I’m excited because I think I have a statistical argument for how we could win. The Redcoats are on Show 3, which is all Allman Brothers. This feels appropriate, as we are the only team left from Georgia playing on a national stage. The scale of the last three games grows exponentially. It’s thrilling – and a little bizzare – to feel so much attention directed toward the Redcoats. We have always labored in anonymity during UGA’s football diaspora, but suddenly the traditions we take for granted are picked up and examined with unfamiliar eyes. Being a national novelty feels exhibitionist. It’s wrong to be this popular, but it feels so right.
The SEC championship feels like pure best-case-scenario: we win handily with punishing defense and an unrelenting rushing attack. This game, more than any other, will stand as a tactile validation of Kirby Smart’s blueprint for the UGA program. We find ourselves on a trip to the Rose Bowl. We’re going to Pasadena.
I have a constant fear that I am disconnected from the events around me. I have a sort of relapsing/remitting fuzziness. I’ve complained to my wife that I can be distracted and aloof while walking through a 400-person band playing fortissimo. It’s the sort of physical metaphor for undiagnosed ADHD that satirists would find too on-the-nose to print. This is only relevant to The Rose Bowl in its absence. I am proud of myself on this trip. I live the entire experience in the moment. I remember walking around Grand Central Market, bag of papusas in hand, with the kind of grin I previously reserved only for bad puns and my wedding day. The trip is awesome in the very literal sense; I am in awe of the band’s efforts. They work through a series of logistical snafu’s that would derail most military units. They perform in the Rose Bowl Parade on 100’s of minutes – not 100’s of days – of practice time. Then they get on the bus and drive to the stadium for the game. It’s difficult to convey how herculean this task is. It’s the Michael Jordan flu game of marching band. It’s 440 Kirk Gibson’s hobbling to the plate. It’s a Gregg Maddux in his mid-40’s pitching 7 flawless innings. It’s breathtaking.
We go into half time down 14, and the band, full sure that this is their last performance, plays with a frenetic lack of reserve that would do the Allmans proud. I cry then, and again, when in the second half and in overtime the band continues to perform. Play after lip-busting play they output disruptive blocks of sound.
I was always annoyed when parents told me, across the gap of experience between us, that “You just don’t understand” how it love and raise a child. This was chiefly because I’m a recalcitrant asshole, but I think some part of it came from a stubborn refusal to believe that there is emotional ground I had yet to tread. On January 1st, I realize how ignorant this stubborness is. To call myself proud of the Redcoats does the feeling a disservice. Pride can only be felt by a contributor, by someone with stakes in the game. Nothing I taught these students prepared them them find the endless well of energy and will. It is most accurate to say that I am humbled by the Redcoats, but even that falls short of the sort of vulnerable loving that sweeps through me as they play. It’s like the feel in your eyes after you’ve been crying. When your cheeks are dry but still damp, cooling like hot asphalt during rain. It’s a lightness of the body and the soul.
We win the game in overtime. The play comes to the end zone the band is in. It comes to me personally, it feels like. I get 15 text messages at once as we leave the valley, shaky videos of me, body unsure of what to do, dancing in the stands. I still don’t know for sure what fueled them those 16 hours, but I know enough to think it was some mix of spite, love, and stubbornness usually reserved for marathon runners and toddlers.
Theodore Roosevelt was a prolific diarist. His journals are insightful, long, and filled with both wisdom and minutia. But on the day of his wife’s death, his entry looks something like this:
February. Thursday 14. 1884
The light has gone out of my life.
I am tempted to leave my recollections of the National Title at that. If I could think clearly on it – which I can’t – I would admit that it was a “good” game. Good in the sense that a close election is good for website clicks. Not good in the sense that my candidate was elected. I acknowledge the privilege, the insensitivity, of avoiding the details of this game, especially by referencing the death of a wife. But lend my license, for a moment, to say that this game did feel like a death in the family. It is fresh to me, and the loveliness of its time is still marred by its ending in darkness. So let’s move on to the end of the game. The wake is, in this case, more interesting than the death.
There is a Faulkner novel in the offing of every SEC game , never more so than in the wake of a game where the prize to be won is The Prize. As we walk out of the stadium, every element of good Southern literature is on display. The tunnels and concourses of Mercedes Benz Stadium contain every type of Good Country Person: the absurd, the angry, the ashamed, the tragic, the lustful, the idiotic, and the lost. I was no exception to this. In the aftermath the game, I can’t help but wonder if GA will win a National Championship in my lifetime. I glimpse my own mortality, and despair of it. It’s impossible to trace the arc and span of one’s life in the midst of it, I think, I feel deeply that We may have come as close as We ever were going to get. I think about Moses – It bears mentioning that nothing in the world makes me as melodramatic as College Football does – and that this was my glimpse of the promised land. As we load the bus after the game, the sense of loss is palpable. We are bereft, not simply of a win, but of any salve to soothe our cracked and brittle pride.
A band member says that we should feel happy that the team played so well (She’s right), and that we’ve had a magical season (She’s also right). But the older staff are having none of it:
“It’s been most of my natural born life since we were in this game, so I’ll take a few days to get over this one, thank you very much.” There are no silver linings. We don’t get here very often, and we may not be back while any of us are alive.
David Foster Wallace told a good story about two fish. They are swimming along one morning when an older fish swims by and says “Hello boys, how’s the water today?” The first fish looks at the second, bewildered, and says, “What the hell is water?” During the trip to Notre Dame I stood, awestruck, in the Basilica of the Sacred heart. After the SEC Championship, I watched as the band made confetti angels. On New Year’s Eve, I helped the Redcoats rehearse for the Rose Bowl Parade. It’s Wednesday after the National Championship, and I realize now why that older fish asked what he did. Not because he had been in water for so long, but because he had been caught and released. I’m flopping on the banks of this season, and all I can think is “So, that was water.”
Each college football season is like a sand mandala, waiting for the slightest touch of wind to blow it into nothingness. How do you make sense of something like that? How do you give meaning to a perfect moment, while knowing that your expectations are its only flaw? Sports in general beg these questions of meaning, but no sport that I know of places a higher strain of arbitrariness on those who consume it than College Football.
The rules of the sport are antiquated, and produce a kind of barely restrained violence that is anything but modern. The rivalries are generally geographical, but are ultimately determined by a complicated mix of politics, history, and even racial issues that leave brother hating brother, mother hating son, and one small town hating it’s twin across the Chattahoochee, or Tennessee, or Savannah Rivers. The traditions are an unholy pastiche of the philosophies of Classical education, medieval heraldry, and the kind of belligerent drunkenness that can only be brought about by Appalachian corn liquor. And all of that ignores the collegiate marching band, an organization whose every performance is dictated by a decades-long evolution that is so obscure as to be meaningless to anyone who has not at one time been a member. I thought of this arbitrariness, of this evanescence as I walked out of the stadium. The band had begun its post-game ritual: loading the bevy of equipment required to run a 450-member organization, and eating 100’s of catered Chick-Fil-A Sandwiches.
Every band experiences this kind of comfortable chaos after each performance. Band members change, pack, eat, and load trucks within feet of each other, discomfort being an unaffordable luxury in the sweaty necessity to Get It Done. What struck me Monday night as I watched this dance was how quiet it was. There is very little talking, other than what was required by the moment, and the conversations that do happen whispered in the midst of a fleeting hug or momentary pause. What words are their than can encompass experience? All that passes, each to each, is a moment of eye contact. Secret expressions of lightness and hope and sadness loss multiply through the crowd. Who could speak what we shared these last months, and days, and hours who was not there to feel it raw and burning?
I’ve desecrated some catechism by describing that moment. I’ve blown away the mandala while whistling Dixie.
One of the most well-tread clichés surrounding college football is that it is some sort of religion. This idea bedecks shirts, signs, hats, and many columns from the national-sports-writer-who-only-cares -about-the-sport-once-a-year crowd. It is the philosophy that underpins the hackneyed motto of the SEC, “It just means more.” The problem with the idea isn’t that it doesn’t ring true, but that its particulars are usually drawn by non-believers. College football may be a religion, but it isn’t one of salvation. It’s not a shared more code, or filter for good and evil. College football is pagan. It is ancestor worship. It is exalting old gods of seasons and weather. It is the war god falling in glory to the shattered ground. It is a shared fire in the middle of a frozen tundra under moonless sky. It is whispers in the night, and shared looks that speak of loss. It is a silly game played by teenagers with an oblong ball.
Well, it is over now, and nine charter buses rocked their sleepy cargo to the north and east, up highway 316. The moment has passed. This band will never play together again. The seniors will graduate soon, and become pharmacists, and lawyers, and teachers. They will rarely think of these moments (none of us will). But then, on a humid fall night, the light will catch on grass in that sacred way. A chord will sing from a deeply buried song. A cardinal will flash red in a tree, and alight into the sable sky. And then we will pray again to these pagan gods.