Tuesday, November 1, 2005

What it Was, Was Football -- Alabama Style

Written by: Marilyn Puett
Website up and coming - stay tuned

It was November. Now where I grew up in North Carolina (you know -- it’s one state up and one state over to the right), November is just that month that contains Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving, and thirty of the fifty-four shopping days prior to Christmas. But as I quickly learned, November in Alabama holds an entirely different meaning.

Despite telling my husband that I’d sooner move to Hades proper than to Alabama, I found myself with my bags packed and the car headed in the direction of a town called Huntsville. The first weekend, we decided to orient ourselves to our new hometown. In 1973, *The* Mall was *the* place to shop. Parkway Place Mall was a strip center called Parkway City, and life as we know it today pretty much stopped south of Airport Road and west of Jordan Lane. Whitesburg Drive was a two-lane street, there was a drive-in theater where it intersected with Airport Road, and fast food had not invaded the culinary scene.

Our first stop was The Mall, which sat at the intersection of University Drive and U.S. Highway 231, also known as the Parkway. In its heyday, The Mall was a bustling shopping center with two anchor stores, and on any given Saturday it was full of all types, checking out the latest fashions, searching for the newest bestseller, or just hanging out at the center-court fountain. However, on this particular Saturday, something was occurring that we, as “foreigners,” were unaware of. This was the day of the annual Iron Bowl -- better known in layman’s terms as the “Alabama-Auburn” (or “Auburn-Alabama” depending on where your loyalties lie) football game.

Our first stop was a small clothing store that catered to men. We strolled through the store, stopping at various racks and displays, showing some interest in several items. We were never approached by a salesperson.

‘They’re all just busy at the moment,’ we told ourselves. Just then, a cheer arose from behind the sales counter and we noticed all the store personnel gathered around a television set. Peering closer, we saw a football game. And then we stepped right in dog doo by interrupting the camaraderie and asking for assistance. If looks could kill, several of Huntsville’s finest young men and women would be serving life terms. And then we waded farther in by asking who was playing.

Maybe it was the stupid looks on our faces that gave us away, but some poor soul finally clued us in. “Hells bells, y’all. This is the Iron Bowl -- the biggest football rivalry in the great state of Alabama,” he explained before turning back to the television in rapt attention.

Iron Bowl? Football? Remember, we came from North Carolina -- the basketball land of Dean Smith and Jim Valvano, the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Michael Jordan. Football? These folks were getting this riled up about a football game? Shaking our heads, we left the store, only to encounter the same madness in every other establishment in The Mall. Shucks, it didn’t take long to figure out we could have shoplifted the contents of the entire mall while that game was being played, and no one would have been the wiser. Waving the white flag of surrender, we returned home, confident that the day’s experience had been a fluke, and that life would return to normal the next day.

Yeah! Sure! Just like life returns to normal after an atomic bomb is dropped or man walks on the moon. “The Game” was rehashed in a bazillion newspaper columns and a gazillion sports broadcasts, discussed in Sunday School classes across the Tennessee Valley, and Sunday morning quarterbacks replayed it for another week. Marriages were threatened and friendships jeopardized over the Tide and the Tigers.

Fast-forward thirty-two years. We moved away from the Tennessee Valley for several years in the mid-seventies, but chose to return here because we felt it’s one of America’s best-kept secrets. The Mall disappeared years ago, Whitesburg Drive is a major thoroughfare, the drive-in is gone, and civilization extends well south and west of Airport Road and Jordan Lane.

But every year, on a Saturday in November, the month of Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving, and right smack in the middle of the Christmas shopping season, hordes of fans still gather in front of television sets to watch the Iron Bowl -- still the biggest football rivalry in Alabama, and something bordering on religion for many. And while we still claim our North Carolina roots, I now have a sweatshirt bearing the logo of one of those universities and a coffee mug proclaiming me a University Mom sits proudly on my desk. And I’ll never forget that day when I learned that what it was, was football -- Alabama style.