“… with a banjo on my knee.”

I always like to try new things and experience new places. So when my friend Bethany, the biggest college football fan I know, suggested we take in a game of her favorite college football team, I thought…. well that will certainly be a new experience. You see even though she’s from Tennessee, and even though she lives in Chicago now, she loves and follows – and that’s actually an understatement – she LIVES Alabama Crimson Tide football.

So a few months ago, we found ourselves ordering tickets to Alabama’s first game of the season – in Alabama.

It was my first college football game. Somehow I’ve managed to get this far in my life without ever attending a game. She decided it was time I changed that. And so on Labor Day weekend, I did.

She had flown home to Tennessee a day before the game, and I flew into Birmingham at noon on game day. She and her boyfriend, Jeff, and her best friend Rachael picked me up on the way to Tuscaloosa for the 6pm game and the fun began.

To say that Alabama fans take their football seriously, is yet another understatement. The only way I can describe the environment on game day to those like me, who have never experienced it would be somewhat like, “Imagine the Cubs in the World Series – every Saturday.” I’ve seen some serious tailgating in my life, but in Alabama, it’s on a completely insane level. In fact, to call it tailgating, seems, inadequate.

It was more like a tent city had sprung up anywhere along University Drive that had a patch of grass. Nice tents too. The kind you would find on patio decks. And they brought everything. Electric generators to power lights, big fans to keep them cool in the 90 degree plus humid heat, televisions and satellite dishes. And not just a few dishes. Since the game was only being televised on pay-per-view, it seemed like at least half the tents had their own satellite dishes mounted on large tripods. All the comforts of home.

I was glad Bethany tipped me off on wearing a crimson colored shirt, or I would have been the only one there NOT dressed in the appropriate school colors. regardless, we stopped at several Alabama shops to get the rest of the required gear. More shirts, pom poms on sticks for the game and Alabama clothing for friends and family. I skipped the clothing, seeing that I would probably never wear it again once I left town, but I did get a pom pom on a stick.

We stopped for a little lunch and I got to observe more people with little on their minds besides the game which was a few hours away. I began to hear the familiar greeting of “Roll Tide,” which is like Aloha in that it can be used as both hello and goodbye to the faithful. I’d been practicing my “Y’alls” for weeks as well.

I probably heard “Sweet Home Alabama” dozens of times, blaring from many of the tents as we walked to Bryant Denny Stadium. Bethany had also taught me the proper time to yell, “Roll tide, roll!” during the song, so I didn’t look like the complete Yankee that I was. Although I believe the preferred nomenclature is “Northerner.”

We got to our seats, about 30 rolls back from the field near the five yard line at one of the end zones. Pretty sweet tickets.

Since the game was at 6pm, we had time to watch what I apparently hilariously referred to as batting practice. I mean I KNEW it wasn’t batting practice, but I guess I didn’t really know what else to call it.

More “Sweet Home Alabama,” blaring from the stadium PA. “Roll tide, roll!” Videos of nearly 100 years of football highlights on the scoreboard. So by the time the team ran out onto the field, total frenzy had been achieved.

It was also the first game for new Head Coach Nick Saban and he got a big standing ovation as he walked out onto the field in front of the team.

So my impressions:

It wasn’t the drunken debacle I thought it could be. No, it was a pretty civilized affair for a major sports event. I’ve seen the Manchester United Hooligans in Milan, Italy. I’ve seen the over served Cubs fans spilling out into Wrigleyville. And I’ve seen the very surly intoxicated White Sox fans who obviously are carrying a big chip on their shoulders from being Chicago’s second team.

No, the Bama fans were just happy to be there and soaking it all in. Bethany told me to be on the lookout for the girls dressed like they were going out to a fine dinner in heels and dresses, and she was right. Even some of the frat boys were in what seemed to be a uniform of white shirts and ties and khakies.

There were no beer sales inside the stadium, since it’s a college game, but I didn’t even witness much pre-gaming going on outside. Not at all what I was expecting.

Like I said, quite civilized and classy. And very friendly.

I thought I would stick out like a sore thumb. I mean I’ve walked into roadside diners out in the sticks and experienced the proverbial needle being dragged across the juke box record as all heads turn in the sudden silence and someone says, “You’re not from around these parts, are you?” But there was none of that.

I know I blend well when I travel, but this was a little unexpected.

Alabama stomped all over Western Carolina, 52-6 and all was happy. And again, even after being out there literally all day, the tent city was very well behaved. Celebrating, but well behaved. Insert more Sweet Home Alabama soundtrack here.

So the plan was to drive the four hours back to Tennessee that night and sleep at Bethany’s mom’s house and so we packed up and headed north. It was good to be in air conditioning after the long hot day and we were pretty tired, so it wasn’t a trip full of conversation, but it was fun nonetheless and about 3:30am we were pulling into her hometown of Murfreesboro, a little outside of Nashville.

They had set up a little air mattress in one of the front rooms for me and I laid down for my first night sleep ever in Tennessee.

I woke up surprisingly early about 8am and heard the familiar sounds of kitchen activity. I poked my head out of my room and stepped out to see a woman I’d never met before standing there at the counter.

“Mornin’ Ms. Adkins,” I said, trying to put on my best regional dialect.

“Well, you must be Bethany’s friend Billy,” she smiled. “Would you like some breakfast?”

Something inside of me stopped me from saying the probably over the top, “No, ma’am,” so I just said, “No, thank you though. I’ll wait for everyone else to get up. I would like to take a quick shower if that would be ok though.”

“Help yourself. There are towels in the bathroom,” she said a most welcoming way.

There was a glass of orange juice waiting for me when I finished, and I got permission to tag their little dog Tab for a walk out in the yard. I walked out of the front door into the bright sunlight to see where I was for the first time since we had arrived in darkness. I found that there are really no streetlights anywhere in the south.

I walked into the front lawn and pictured a small Bethany and her sister running around growing up here. The mailbox out near the empty two lane road completed the picture. It was quiet, except for the country sounds of birds and insects.

And then off in the distance I heard probably the only man made sound to be heard there as a car approached and roared past, soon to leave me standing in silence again.

Tab and I walked around to the huge backyard that seemed to go on forever, past a rusty basketball pole. Bethany is about 5’11”, so I imagined lots of games of horse as I walked under the netless rim.

An apple tree, perfect for climbing. A miniature barn that probably housed the riding mower needed to maintain such a yard. Very peaceful.

After my little walk, I came back in through the front door to see that Bethany and Jeff were up and suddenly, the kitchen was full of life. Bethany’s sister and her husband were due any minute with their new baby Brody, named after an Alabama quarterback of course.

Somehow, Bethany’s mom had cooked up a most amazing breakfast in short order and we all sat down to home made biscuits and gravy, omelettes, fruit and an incredible still warm coffee cake. It was so amazing. What a breakfast.

We talked and laughed and Brody received his new Crimson Tide baby clothes. If he later decides he like fashion more than football, he’s going to be in for an uphill battle.

My flight out of Nashville was leaving in a few hours, so Bethany and Jeff drove me to my second new airport in 24 hours and my southern adventure came to a close.

It was great fun. Definitely a new experience for me after most of my travels having been to Europe in the last decade or so. But it was pleasant. And I even got to try out my new favorite phrase of, “Is this y’all’s car?” Pronounced “y’all zez.”

Roll Tide, Roll.

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