One day and twenty years ago, Andy Mundy and I loaded up a car about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and headed towards Florence, Alabama. The Division 2 National Championship was the next day and our alma mater was, against all odds, playing for the big trophy against Bloomsburg University. Conventional wisdom tells you Florence is only about 4 hours east of Cleveland, Mississippi but Mundy and I have never been much on conventional wisdom. So, after somehow going through Jackson, we rode the Natchez Trace up to Florence and arrived at the hotel around 10 that night where we found a newly married George Bassi and his wife waiting in the lobby with a cold drink and the desire to go find something to do in the Shoals.
We discussed our entertainment options with the hotel concierge. (Ok, who am I kidding? We asked the woman at the front desk of our Holiday Inn where we should go for fun.)
“Well, do you want to go dancing?” the lady asked. She was on the telephone and talking to me in between smacks of gum and spitting quick words into a phone receiver. “I’m on hold,” she assured me.
Do Andy and I look like we want to go dancing, I thought.
“No ma’am. We want to go somewhere and have a few drinks before we go in,” I explained. “We have a late morning kickoff tomorrow.” I was kinda proud of my mature response. After all, I had been a lawyer for over a year.
She nodded at me, wrote the name of a place and an address on a sheet of paper and pushed the paper across to me.
“Just down the road.” The desk clerk/concierge motioned her hand towards the front door. “Perfect for y’all.” Considering she had never laid eyes on any of us before 30 minutes earlier, I had a little doubt she knew what would be “perfect” for us. As we walked to the car, I have never felt more like the dudes on Police Academy being sent to the Blue Oyster than I did at that very moment. But we were thirsty after a 4 hour car ride that took 7 hours, and we probably would have gone to Lucifer’s Lounge if it served cold beer.
Three blocks down from the hotel was a strip mall with a parking lot filled with cars. There, we saw a neon sign proclaiming the name of our chosen destination, or rather, the night’s destination chosen for us by the lady at the Holiday Inn. Like I said, there were lots of cars outside so we weren’t the only people with the urge to grab a beer or three on a Friday night in Florence.
Once inside, we found an old fashioned country and western honkytonk with Hank, Jr. and Merle providing the club soundtrack via a DJ booth. Through a smoky haze (yep, you could still smoke in public back then), we could barely make out a checkered dance floor filled with couples twirling their cares away. We moved to an empty booth in the corner of the place and immediately started drinking beer. Lots of it. We caught up on each other’s lives in the way old friends who haven’t seen each other lately do, and we reminisced about some of our favorite football stories— most illustrated how bad Delta State had always been at football. More than once that night, we expressed our disbelief that Delta State University, perennial doormat and the team no one cared about, was now one game away from a national championship. I would say the more we drank, the worse we became at football back in our day, but we were pretty damn bad without the help of alcohol as a memory aid and story embellisher. It was a great time toasting our football success and of course, George’s newlywed status.
About 45 minutes into our merriment, George got up and excused himself to go to the restroom. When he asked our waitress for the whereabouts of the bathroom, she pointed, “Go around the bar and through that closed door. Be careful.” Careful? Did she say careful?
George disappeared around the bar and then reappeared barely two minutes later wearing a broad grin like he had a secret.
“John, come with me.” George jerked his head towards the bar.
Don’t only women go to the bar in packs?
“You need me to come with you?” I asked. “Are you scared to go over there?”
“Oh no. But you have to see this to believe it,” George assured me. “Just come on.” He walked around the bar.
I guess I was curious so I followed George. I rounded the bar and shuffled toward the closed door.
George waited for me at the door and then opened it with a grand flourish. I walked past George into this other room only to be greeted by the sound of loud techno dance music. Loud. And techno. The room was lit with a black light, and sweaty people in leather were dancing, or actually grinding, with even more sweaty people in leather inside of large cages. The only comparison I can make is it reminded me of the old 616 club in Memphis in its vibe and urgency. Goth-looking people with chains and tattoos were standing around the bar, and in my blue Oxford button down shirt and pressed khakis, I have never looked more like a new lawyer in my life. I practically screamed, “I’m from the Grove! Have you seen Muffy and Alistair?” to every techno rave kid that passed me staring at me like I was the odd one.
George and I soaked in the techno a little bit longer before we decided to move back over to the other side. We were just sitting back down with Andy when we noticed our fellow DSU alum Ken Causey walking by our booth with an uncharacteristic spring in his step. Ken is one of the funniest men alive on a sober day, but add up our long car ride, the 4 beers we drank, and the fact there was a goth techno bar in a side room of a country and western bar in Florence, Alabama, and Ken is a fucking hilarious entertainment option. We yelled at Ken over the George Jones blasting through the soundsystem and waved him over to our booth.
Ken sat the end of the booth and eerily eyed us very similarly to the way Jack Nicholson leers at his family in The Shining. He stopped our waitress as she was walking by the booth.
“We need four shots of Jager. Now.” Ken demanded. No smile. All business. The night just turned weirder.
The shots arrived shortly and the smell of Jagermeister rose through my nostrils on a rapid elevator ride to my brain. Aren’t we too old for this? Can we just have a fruitier shot instead? Do people use this stuff for cough syrup?
“Drink,” Causey instructed. So we drank and I tried not to gag on that nasty shit. Ken finally broke the silence of three young men trying not to puke with a knuckle rap on the table. Ken looked at us as if he were about to unfurl the nuclear codes.
“The first time we score tomorrow, we are going to kick an onside kick,” Ken predicted. “We are going to get that kick. Then we are going to score again. At that point, those fuckers from Bloomsburg are playing catch-up the rest of the day.”
We all laughed at Ken’s prediction but he didn’t laugh. He just stared at each of us. So we quickly went back to telling old stories about football to change the subject. We drank until the bar closed and somehow found our way back to the hotel in the middle of the night.
Fast forward approximately 9 hours later to the championship game.
On a gorgeous day for football in Alabama, Bloomsburg scored first. We scored next. Then damned if we didn’t kick an onside kick and recover just like Causey said we would. We scored again just as Ken predicted. “Those fuckers from Bloomsburg played catch-up the rest of the day” until there was no time left to catch up. (We discovered later the truth that Ken had sat in a coaches’ meeting earlier that Friday evening and was tipped off to our strategy.) Josh Bright ran the midline option to perfection, and we shattered the championship game records for offense en route to our first football national title. Thanks to our Friday night, I had one helluva headache most of the day but the experience was worth the splitting pain I felt every time our band played the fight song (loudly) in the section beside me that afternoon.
We may never win another national championship in football but I will never remember that weekend, that drive, that bar, that prediction, that team, or that feeling when the clock struck zero.
We were champs. Forever and always. Those fuckers will play catch-up until the end of time.