It’s easily the most intense college football rivalry in the country — Auburn vs. Alabama. And if you live in the Heart of Dixie, which team you support matters more than whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat. Newcomers marvel at the depth and fervor of everyday people’s loyalties, many of whom never attended either school. This can occasionally be a frightening thing, as when Harvey Updyke poisoned the iconic oak trees at Toomer’s Corner several years ago.
For most native Alabamians, preference is set at birth or shortly thereafter. I’ll never forget the day my young daughter, Elena, came to me and worriedly inquired whether we were “Alabama or Auburn.” I told her Auburn because I had gone there, as did my brother and my father and one of her mother’s brothers. She walked away content: Which side didn’t matter to her then, only that we had one. Pity the children (and adults) who find themselves without such reassurances come autumn.
This point was graphically demonstrated for me years ago when Elena was enrolled in the Fairhope K-1 Center. Just for fun and to show my support for the public schools and hardworking teachers, I accompanied her to school one day and went through all her classes, breaks, lunch and recess. By coincidence, I had chosen the final day of the Iron Bowl food drive, when students wore their team colors and had a midday pep rally to cheer for their respective teams.
When the noon hour arrived, we all duly lined up and shuffled across Church Street to the Fairhoper’s Community Park. I will never forget what happened next. The kids and teachers quickly separated themselves into two uneven groups — about two-thirds Alabama fans and the rest Auburn — and squared off only 15 yards apart. The Alabama side was a sea of red sweatshirts and T-shirts, with a houndstooth skirt or two among the teachers, and the Auburn side a patchwork orange and blue line. There were even a few team flags fluttering in the cool breeze. And then it began — cheers, jeers and chants back and forth, some led by the teachers and some impromptu eruptions. The longer it went on, the more animated it became. The kids really threw themselves into the occasion, shouting and yelling at the top of their lungs, and the teachers weren’t shy either. The little boys were the cutest; several dashed out between the lines to shake their fists at the opposing side, like medieval knights challenging a hated foe to individual combat before the real battle began.
And that’s when I noticed them. A clutch of a dozen or so kids and teachers huddled together between the groups. The teachers looked bewildered, even a little awed, and the kids were confused. Some were in tears. A teacher absent-mindedly patted one child’s shoulder as she no doubt tried to think up a reassuring explanation. In an instant, I understood. These were the transfers and the transplants, new to Alabama from wherever, and this was their up close and personal introduction to the famous rivalry. The children in particular sensed the pressure to take sides and hadn’t a clue how to respond. Nor, it appeared, did the teachers. They were uncomfortable neutrals in the peacetime emotional equivalent of a war zone.
Happily, the rally concluded without violence, and teachers and kids good-naturedly jostled together again and poured back into the school. Elena seemed fine; but then, she had a side. As for those who didn’t, I could only hope they picked one soon. It would make their lives a lot easier in this crazy place they now call home.
text and photo by John S. Sledge