“Who are you for?” is usually one, of the first of two questions a person is asked, when they relocate to Alabama from out of state. If you reply with an SEC team other than Alabama or Auburn, you may or may not meet with approval, but you are automatically granted a degree of respect. Mentioning a team from up north like Syracuse, Nebraska or Oregon will get you a head tilt and some cocked eyebrows, but folks will at least know where you stand.
Answering with “Well, I didn’t go to school in this state and I don’t really care much about football ”, is a common, though ill advised, answer. Alabama folks have heard this before from multitudes of displaced Yankees, who seem to get some wicked thrill, pretending not to notice that down here, football is important. It’s not an original answer. It is, however, equivalent to declaring atheism when asked the second of the two questions, which is usually, “Where do you go to church”?
If you declare an SEC team, that’s at least like answering the church question with Baptist, Methodist or A.M.E. It may not be their church, but they know where you stand and will honor your beliefs. Proclaiming loyalty to a team from an “up North” conference will buy you slightly more suspicion, say on the order of claiming that you are either Jewish or Mormon, but you will still be welcomed with open arms to the brotherhood of Monday morning quarterbacking.
I know this from personal experience. I used to be that ugly Yankee that feigned ignorance to the phenomena of southern football. After a while, it just becomes tiresome for everyone involved. What I’ve also learned, is that it’s much more fun, to join in the fun.
I’m going to pass along a little personal advice to any future Yankees that may be locating to Alabama in the future.
Pick a team.
You don’t have to run out and buy season tickets; just be polite.
Pick a team. Any team.
I know you probably don’t care, not yet anyway. It doesn’t matter. Watch a game, or at least pay attention to the highlights on the news at night. Be able to name a player or two, and the coach. Pick a team whose colors you wouldn’t mind adding to your wardrobe, then wear those colors to work on Friday with everyone else and talk a little trash. Who knows, after a while, you might find yourself at a local sports bar watching the game with a bunch of rabid fans.
You will tell yourself that you are not really there for the football.
You will rationalize your presence by noting that the place does have a really good selection of your favorite microbrews.
Oh and by the way, the game is on and you are wearing the right colors.
That’s how it starts…
Talking about football is the sacred, social grease in the wheels, down here. In most places, people talk about the weather when they need to break the ice with a stranger. Down here, weather is no benign, neutral topic. People live with constant, tragic reminders of deadly tornadoes and storms. No one opens a conversation with a stranger by saying, “nice weather we’re having lately?”.
No, they ask each other how they think their team is doing, they question whether or not the coach made the right decisions the previous week, or they may even ask for prayer to heal an injury to a key player. I have seen shared football stories, memories of triumph on the gridiron, or even playful needling by rivals, create smiles, in the saddest of times and places.
After living nearly 20 years down here, I’ve learned to fit in. I love Alabama. Nowadays, when someone asks me “who I’m for”, I tell them Auburn. They don’t have to know I picked Auburn merely because their colors happen to be similar to one of the teams I left back home, the N.Y. Mets. I like orange and blue more than I like crimson and white but that’s ok. I suppose if any of the team uniforms in Alabama had pinstripes, this N.Y. Yankee would have to, “be for them”, as well.
In a recent article in ESPN magazine, Rick Bragg remarked that “In order to understand football’s place in the south, you first have to see it from the inside”.
I have also discovered that in order to understand Alabama’s place in the world, you have to see it from outside the United States.
10,000 miles away at about 14,000 feet of elevation was where I caught that glimpse. On the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, 2 degrees of latitude below the equator, one of the Tanzanian guides asked me where, in America, I was from. Back then, I wasn’t completely comfortable with the notion of saying that I was “from” Alabama, but I didn’t want to have to launch into a long, complicated explanation about the difference between where I was born, versus where I currently live. I also figured he’d probably never heard of it and so it would be something unique to discuss.
I was wrong.
The word “Alabama” had barely finished resonating, when the guide punched his hand in the air and yelled, "Rolllllllllll Tide!" with perfect inflection. I was stunned and amazed as tears suddenly filled my eyes. In that instant I became proud of my adopted home. Several days later a security agent at the airport in Amsterdam, struck up a conversation with me at the gate access. After asking me where I was heading, she sealed the deal for me right then and there by launching into a lovely, a cappella, version of Sweet Home Alabama.
For outsiders, I could see that it might get a bit confusing, because sometimes the word “Alabama” refers to the State of Alabama, and at other times, it is a reference to the University of Alabama, and more specifically, the football team.
In my travels around the world, I managed to learn what the rest of the world somehow already knew about Alabama. It just took me a little longer than most, to figure out. The whole world knows that down here, Alabama is football, and football is Alabama.
Auburn fans understand about that.
They smile and forgive it.