When we got to Ruleville, I started the questions.
“Dad,” I would begin. “Tell me a story about Archie.”
He was only happy to oblige my request. “Archie” was Archie Manning, the fabled Ole Miss quarterback who went on to sire two pretty fair quarterbacks in their own right. In our home, just like so many other Southern homes in the Seventies and Eighties, Archie didn’t need a last name. It meant “Archie Manning.” “Folk hero” doesn’t do justice to the reverence Archie was, and is, shown in the South. He is like what would happen if Tom Sawyer had a son with Johnny Unitas. Fans of all schools still rave about Archie being the best they’ve ever seen play the sport. The entire 42 years I knew him, Dad was never prone to hyperbole and never in awe of much of anyone. But Archie brought out the rare Fan Boy moments from my father. Every.Single.Time.
I would ask for an Archie story right when we turned on Highway 49 in Ruleville toward Drew (Archie’s hometown). Dad would begin telling me the familiar stories I had heard so many times before, and I always hung on every word. He would tell me about Archie Who and Hee Haw Kiner or the time Archie was hurt early in some game only to emerge from the locker room midway through the third quarter and jog to the sideline by himself ready to lead the Rebels to a come from behind victory. I heard that story so many times I could practically hear the murmur of the crowd myself. Dad’s tales of football games past would eventually leave Archie’s era and he would end up telling me about other great football games and trips, right down to who went to the game, what bottle they drank on the way, and how everyone always knew it was a big game if the Rebels were wearing the navy blue jerseys. Understand Dad was usually not a man fond of the spoken word, so I cherished these rare loquacious moments. The stories would take us through Drew and Tutwiler and then through the final turn at Marks as we pushed our way toward Oxford to make that day’s memories together. As I think back now, it’s hard to guess who was more excited those days- me hearing the stories or Dad telling them? I wouldn’t trade those slow Saturday morning 93 mile trips to Oxford for any amount of gold. I recall every trip and can still taste all of the pimento cheese sandwiches Mom packed for us to eat in the Grove. It’s glorious. Simply glorious.
That’s what college football is to me- a tradition passed from one generation to the next with each generation adding another helping of personal yarns like it’s cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving. For some folks, today’s college football has become an obsession of stalking the internet and television for information about their favorite team to help in the time-honored tradition of talking trash to your friends about a game being played by 18-22 year olds. But for me, it’s the memory of riding a two-lane highway toward the Mississippi hills with my dad and the fantastic stories about Archie that I can now tell my own boys when we make the same Saturday ride. It’s the sound of the CBS college football theme mixed with Uncle Verne welcoming me to another afternoon of football. It’s Herschel and Bo and Peyton and Eli and all the other one-named Saturday afternoon heroes. It’s my two older boys hugging each other as small children when Senquez Golson snatched away an Alabama touchdown in 2014 to ensure a Rebel win, and then them praying with tears in their eyes for Laquon Treadwell’s broken leg later that same year. It’s the sweet smell of Jim Beam and Sprite on a cool Saturday evening- an unmistakable smell that never fails to bring a long Deuce McAllister touchdown run to my mind’s eye the moment it invades my nostrils. College football is the explosion of noise in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium when Travis Johnson runs back an early interception for a touchdown against LSU in 2003 and the hush when Eli is tripped by his own man at the end of the very same game. It’s Johnny Football being Johnny Football, Tua being Tua, Dak being Dak and the LSU playing “Neck.” College football is Saban scowling and the Head Ballcoach smirking. It’s the Grove with your family surrounded by little boys throwing footballs hoping to have the chance to throw it in the big stadium one day. It’s looking at the scoreboard in Braly Municipal Stadium at North Alabama in 2000 and realizing my alma mater just won a national championship, but also looking up at the same scoreboard in 2010 and realizing my alma mater had just lost a national championship on the final play of the game.
College football fans can’t remember our wedding anniversaries half of the time, but we can all recite the starting quarterback of our favorite college football team and remember specific games and plays. We know our team’s history better than our own. At some level, though, our favorite team’s history is our own. I love it all. The pageantry, the excitement, the tailgating, the bickering, the wins and even the losses. It is part of my soul.
I hear we are playing for a national championship Monday night. I will watch the game and hang on every play. One of the teams will hold the trophy and become immortal. Neither of the teams is “my team,” but my hope springs eternal.
Next year could be our year.
Can we go ahead and kick off?