SG | I live in North Carolina. It’s March. That can only mean one thing, sports fans. Time to write about football.
Basketball passions run white-hot here in the Tar Heel State, but truth be told, I’m still warming up the game. As a product of the SEC, football fandom has always come more naturally to me. Now don’t get me wrong — I’m not going to pretend to be able to expound upon the nuances of SEC football and its influences on Southerners’ existence. That would be a disservice to you, dear reader. You see, my brother and I are not very good at sports. This goes for both playing and watching them.
There’s a story from when Craig was attending the University of Alabama and living in Tuscaloosa that perfectly illustrates our shortcomings. During one fall semester, he was renting a house that wasn’t too far from Bryant-Denny Stadium. Awakened one morning by the faint, surging pregame chants of a crowd of 100,000, he crawled out of bed and puzzledly gazed at the cars parked haphazardly in his front yard. It was gameday in Tuscaloosa. For Craig, it was just Saturday.
Now I’ve always been a bit more engaged than that — while I was at Auburn I rarely, if ever, missed a home game. I even made it to a few away games. Once settled after graduating, I was pretty adamant about watching games on TV. Even many years (and three kids) later, I still catch games when I can. But beyond knowing who our coach is any given year and maybe a few key players’ names, don’t count on me for commentary. I don’t know who our defensive line coach is or where he came from. This goes for the entire coaching staff. I don’t know our schedule more than a few weeks out. I don’t have any clue what bowl game we’re going to.
But I cherish the sounds of an Auburn game on a crisp fall afternoon, and if you get a “happy gameday” from me, it’s sincere.
My dad was an extremely engaged fan, going so far as to mute the TV to tune in commentary from the local Auburn radio broadcast. He would clap and shout for good plays, yell out for bad calls, and jump up and cheer for touchdowns. My mom had an old stuffed tiger that my dad would put on top of the TV for games (now under my daughter’s care), and if things weren’t going right, he would carefully align it to point its nose northeast, toward Auburn. One time I even saw him get out a compass.
I’ve carried many of his gameday idiosyncrasies into my adult life. And although I’ve been watching Auburn games for more than 20 years, three stick out in my mind as the best of the best.
1. Auburn vs. Florida, 2001 | Final score: Auburn 23, Florida 20
aka “The one where I stormed the field”
This was the best game I’ve attended, ever, anywhere. There were a number of factors that built this game into the stuff of legend. First, Florida came to Auburn that fateful day as the best team in the country, ranked No.1 under the iron fist of coach Steve Spurrier, towering over the unranked Auburn masses. So in the student section, we all expected a loss. A big one. My roommates and I had a bottle of Jim Beam waiting on us back at the apartment to sooth our bruised pride. Second, this was October 2001. My senior year, and almost one month to the day after the September 11 attacks. Everyone there needed a win (sorry, Florida). And glory be, Auburn hung in there. By the end of the fourth quarter we were tied up. Enter Auburn kicker Damon Duval (of “Boom it, Duval, Boom it” fame). With 17 seconds left in the game, he kicked — and made — a 44-yard field goal to topple the mighty Spurrier and his Gators. The fans went nuts. Students began surging onto the field, and I instinctively joined the crowd, catching my flip-flop on a hedge as I leapt over the field wall. The goal post came down, and I had a hand on it as it was triumphantly paraded around the field. [If that’s considered trespassing and/or vandalism, Auburn, I most certainly did NOT do any of these things.]
2. Iron Bowl, 2013 | Final score: Auburn 34, Alabama 28
aka “The one where my dad made that thing happen”
My dad, Darryl Gates, died of lung cancer in July 2012. It was a fluke — he wasn’t a smoker and was in great shape — but he died within 9 months of being diagnosed. I’ll write more on that, no doubt, but something I’ve reflected on since his death are Auburn seasons surrounding it. (Remember, he was an extremely engaged fan.) We won the National Championship in 2010, so thank goodness he got to enjoy that in perfect health. The 2012 season, which ramped up without him, was abysmal. Zero SEC wins. “The worst in 60 years!” said the Birmingham News. I found no solace in it, but that was somehow appropriate. Perhaps it’s for that reason that in 2013, when we surged back to go to the National Championship game, I felt my dad had some hand in it. With every win, I smiled knowingly. He had gotten the hang of things. Working the levers, as it were, from his celestial perch. If there’s any doubt, just watch the last second on the clock of the Iron Bowl. Yes, the last SECOND. We were tied up, and Alabama made a field goal attempt with no time left on the clock. My brother and I were actually on the phone watching it together, facing inevitable overtime. They missed the field goal, but lo and behold, Darryl Gates intervened, nudging young Chris Davis, a cornerback from Birmingham, to casually catch the ball in the endzone. He proceeds to RUN 100 YARDS TO WIN THE GAME. I’m freaking out. Craig is freaking out. Auburn announcer Rod Bramblett is freaking out. It’s fabulous. Do yourself a favor and take 1 minute 11 seconds out of your day to watch a miracle.
Note: This clip also serves as one of many tributes to Rod, whom I worked for at the Auburn Network while in school. Tragically, he and his wife, Paula, were killed last year by a reckless driver.
3. Iron Bowl, 2019 | Final score: Auburn 48, Alabama 45
aka “The one where it all came together”
You can’t beat a good Iron Bowl. You see, Auburn and Alabama have this deeply bred rivalry that is completely unmatched among all other rivalries. Georgia thinks they have a rivalry with us, bless their heart. I think Alabama and Tennessee have some bit of animosity brewing on the side, but Auburn/Alabama is the main event. So every year when we play, no matter our seasons up to that point, all bets are off. And so it was this past Iron Bowl, when #5 Alabama seemed unstoppable against #15 Auburn. My wife took our two older kids (ages 4 and 6 at the time) to see Frozen II at kickoff, so I could enjoy the game with our dozing 1-year-old. At first it didn’t seem like much would happen. Alabama would inevitably win, but no one was playing well. And then things started clicking. Alabama made a great play. Auburn made a better one. They got a touchdown. We got a touchdown! It built like this until the score had mounted into the 40s by the fourth quarter. By that time my kids were home, and we were all having dinner with the game on. They started getting into it (I was WAY into it by that point, which didn’t hurt). A lot happened, but the short of it is Alabama got out-coached by Auburn, and made a foolish play in the final seconds. Auburn won. But why? you may ask. Why did Alabama’s seasoned, unbeatable Coach Saban make a mistake?
Her name is Maddie Gates. With the final minutes left on the clock, my 6-year-old daughter wisely strolled into the room, stuffed tiger under her arm, and expertly pointed its nose due south.