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God and FootballFaith and Fanaticism in the SEC
By Chad Gibbs
ZondervanCopyright © 2010 Chad Gibbs
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGOD AND FOOTBALL
Welcome to the American South, where God and football scrimmage daily for the people's hearts and minds.
Perhaps you think this an overstatement. Perhaps you should exchange this book for one you can color in. (I'm sorry; that's an awfully mean thing to say to someone who just bought your book.) Think of it this way: suppose an alien were to visit Tuscaloosa, Knoxville, or Baton Rouge - and if you don't believe in aliens, you can substitute a Canadian. Suppose this visitor - we'll call him Corso - were to spend a week observing the ordinary citizens of those towns. What do you think Corso the alien would conclude about the religious beliefs of those average, everyday people?
Well, on Sunday morning he'd probably see them make their groggy, wrinkled-shirted way to a steepled building where some sort of ceremony had begun ten minutes before they arrived. Inside, he'd watch as they mouthed the words to songs, then struggled to stay awake while a man spoke for less than twenty-five minutes. Then, for the rest of the week, this place would be the furthest thing from their minds, unless by chance something tragic happened.
Corso might be justified in concluding that church, for most, was a court-ordered punishment.
On Saturday, Corso would see something completely different. The people would wake up early, carefully choose an outfit based on the good fortune it had brought them in the past, then drive, sometimes for hours, to a hallowed campus where some sort of ceremony is scheduled for much, much later that day. All afternoon they would eat, drink, and fellowship with friends, family, and strangers. Then, when the time came, they would all enter a colossal shrine and join tens of thousands of similarly dressed and likeminded people. Inside, they would chant and sing until they lost their voices, and afterward they would celebrate like they're at a wedding reception on Fat Tuesday.
After he sees this, I think it's safe to say Corso will think he's found the one true religion - and he'll probably convert on the spot.
Football is big down here in the South. Real big. From peewee to junior high, high school to college, and even the NFL, southerners love their football. And the fans of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) are arguably the most ridiculously passionate fans in America. Consider: each spring nearly half a million fans attend spring practice games at the twelve SEC schools. Did you catch that? Practice games. This year alone, more than six million people will witness an SEC game in person, tens of millions more will watch on CBS or ESPN, and at least a dozen will read this book.
Football is a cash cow for the SEC's institutions of higher learning. This year, the combined athletic budgets of the twelve schools exceed 800 million dollars. That's more money than the GDPs of twenty-four of the world's poorest countries. Granted, I don't know what GDP stands for, but this figure sounds impressive nonetheless.
* * *
But before you start feeling too bad for God, I want you to know he's doing okay down here as well. In a nation that has historically considered itself Christian, the southern states are by far the most Christian-y. A 2004 Gallup Poll that tracked religious affiliations state by state showed that in eight of the nine SEC states, over 86 percent of people considered themselves Christians. I began to scour the Internet for a poll that wasn't six years old but lost focus after I discovered peopleofwalmart.com. Of course, not all people who tell Gallup they are Christians are what other Christians would consider Christian - they might not even follow John Piper on Twitter, know the words to "Shout to the Lord," or invite friends to see Kirk Cameron movies at their church. Granted, Scripture is silent on the part social networks play in salvation, but clearly at least some of the 86 percent of self-reported Christians are nothing of the sort. Perhaps they just picked up the phone one night in 2004, and when someone asked if they were "Christian" or "Other," they chose the former. Christianity, believe it or not, is the southerner's default setting.
* * *
So we've established that God and football are both pretty big down here, but which is bigger? Well, I've got a theory.
When you attend a church here, you will almost certainly hear people talking about football. Worshipers will gather before the ser vice and discuss in reverent tones what went right and wrong the day before. The pastor will usually reference Saturday's happenings by either praising a team's win or mourning its loss, while oftentimes taking a playful dig at the misfortunes of a rival school. Churches sometimes encourage this blending of faith and fanaticism with "wear your team's colors" day or by having viewing parties for big games - with halftime testimonies, naturally.
Conversely, God doesn't get a lot of play in SEC stadiums, unless a player injures his neck or your team is lining up for a last-second field goal. And sometimes God is called upon to do some damning - usually of referees or offensive coordinators - but that's it. The SEC doesn't really have to add God or anything else to their product to fill the seats. There is no "wear your denomination's colors to the game" day.
Churches have to schedule around football. Apart from tailgates and viewing parties, a church event planned on Saturday in the fall is guaranteed to be a colossal failure. So far as I can tell, the SEC does not have to consult the churches when it makes its schedule. It makes sense to me that if one thing has to schedule around another, then that thing isn't as important to the people participating.
Apart from Christmas and Easter, only tragedy gives churches those SEC-like attendance numbers they so greatly desire. The first weekend following September 11, all twelve SEC stadiums sat empty, while the churches were filled to capacity. Of course, depending on national calamities isn't really the best strategy to increase church attendance, but what can churches do? The people have chosen today what they will worship, and it looks like God is a two-and-a-half touchdown underdog to the Tigers, Bulldogs, and Gators.
The people have chosen. You'd think I wasn't part of the problem ...
OTHER GODS BEFORE ME
I grew up in Alabama - perhaps the worst place on Earth to acquire a healthy perspective on the importance of spectator sports. Warren St. John
I was immersed in the waters of Southeastern Conference football twelve months before I was submerged into those of believers' baptism. This is not a unique testimony, at least not in the South, where the age of accountability is often preceded by the age when your parents are sure you can sit through an entire game without crying. Two weeks before my ninth birthday, I was thrown into the backseat of my Uncle Jimmy's station wagon and taken to Legion Field, where I watched Satan's minions from LSU defeat my beloved Crimson Tide.
The majority of the blame for that 14-10 loss was placed on my perceived-to-be-unlucky shoulders, which explains why I was not invited back to a game for the next three seasons. I say that's why, but I suppose it could have been my insistence on taking a sack full of G.I. Joes into the stadium. Lucky for me, Bill Curry would eventually lose enough games that my family had to admit that not all of Alabama's misfortunes were a direct result of my childish indifference.
So at the age of twelve, my family started throwing me back in my uncle's station wagon and driving me to either Birmingham or Tuscaloosa, where I'd watch the Tide destroy some hapless foe. And it was always the hapless foe. I had apparently been deemed too much of a risk to take to another conference game. This was fine with me, because a win was a win - who cared if it came at the expense of the Biloxi School of Hotel Management and Massage Therapy? Besides, I was with Uncle Jimmy and Grandpa James, the two men not named MC Hammer I admired most when I was twelve.
For the next few seasons, my family's strategy of taking me to games without putting the Tide's win-loss record at risk worked like a charm. I witnessed the thoughtless slaughter of undermanned teams from Cincinnati and Tennessee - Chattanooga. But even this almost backfired when I nearly ruined Bama's 1992 national championship season with my attendance at the Louisiana Tech game.
This was a game that shouldn't have been close. The Crimson Tide's defense was stacked with future first-round draft picks, and their offense, while not very exciting, hadn't to this point had any trouble scoring points. But late in the game, heavily favored Alabama was clinging to a harrowing 6 - 0 lead. Fortunately for me, and the team of course, David Palmer returned a fourth-quarter punt for a touchdown and cemented the uninspiring win.
Driving home, I listened while Jimmy and Grandpa discussed in spectacular hyperbole just how bad this year's team was.
"If we can't move the ball any better, we won't win another game."
"I'm not sure we'll ever score again."
"We should probably disband the team."
Always the optimist, I tried to interject a little hope into the conversation: "David Palmer is awesome! Right?"
Jimmy and Grandpa just looked at me, then continued with their assessment of what was, apparently, the most abysmal team to ever don the crimson and white.
"I know one thing," Jimmy started up again, "there's no way we beat Auburn playing like that."
This caused me to throw up in my mouth. Auburn was our archest of archrivals, and each year we had to play them in a game known simply as the Iron Bowl. I'd spent most of my school career absorbing verbal blows from Auburn friends who were wallowing in the ecstasy of a four-game winning streak over Alabama. The Tide had turned in 1990, and for the past two seasons I'd been learning to spew insults right back. It had never occurred to me that losing to Auburn again was even possible. I thought the travesty of the late eighties was akin to God destroying the earth with a flood, and Gene Stallings was our rainbow. (If you think that analogy is stretching things, just keep reading.)
Of course Alabama didn't lose to Auburn that year, or to anyone else. The Tide beat Florida in the inaugural SEC Championship Game and then destroyed Miami in the Sugar Bowl to capture the national championship. Jimmy brought me back all sorts of loot from the game and even gave me a VHS copy of the broadcast. I spent hours watching and rewatching the big plays, eventually wearing out those parts of the tape so it sounded like Keith Jackson was calling the game in his own made-up language: "Tuckdrown Maladrama!"
That season, and that game in particular, cemented a couple things for me. First, I was now an Alabama football fanatic. Sure I cared before, but now it consumed me. I began memorizing the depth chart, a gateway drug to harder stuff like preseason magazines, which I soon began studying like Scripture. Then, worst of all, I started paying attention to recruiting, which satisfied my craving to care about football every day of the year.
The other thing 1992 did was convince me my uncle Jimmy was the coolest man to ever live. Now I know what you are thinking, and before I go any further, I want to set things straight: I was not some fatherless child whose male relatives took turns escorting to sporting events. I have an amazing father, but his autumns were devoted to that other southern pastime: white-tailed deer hunting.
I could have gone either way because I sort of like the idea of sitting in a tree and taking out God's creatures with a high-powered rifle. What I didn't like, and what in the end sealed my fate as a football guy, was cutting those creatures open, hacking out their innards, and separating the gross edible parts from the purely gross parts. My time as a deer hunter was short-lived and rather uneventful, unless you happened to be the one deer I shot in the face, in which case it was very eventful.
So I was a football guy, not a deer guy, and that brings us back to Jimmy. The man went to all the games. He witnessed the goal-line stand in 1979. He saw Van Tiffin's kick in 1985. He was in New Orleans for the 34-13 trouncing of Miami, and he was the first adult I knew to have a room in his house entirely devoted to cool stuff. The walls were covered with signed pictures, programs, posters, and jerseys. He had cardboard stand-ups of players, signed bats and balls, and a filing cabinet full of celebrity autographs he'd collected through the years. Anytime we'd visit, I'd run straight to this room and try not to drool on the memorabilia.
What I didn't know at the time, but would soon learn, was that Jimmy also struggled with addictions. This was scary stuff for a fifteen-year-old. I couldn't talk to Jimmy about it; I wasn't even sure I was supposed to know. But that summer at church camp I came up with a plan: I'd pray for him.
This plan was actually a joint venture with my best friend, Ryan, whose brother Jeffery, at one time or another, had been addicted to just about every substance known to man. Spending the night at Ryan's house was always exciting because you never knew when Jeffery would stumble in the door, stoned out of his mind. Depending on the drug du jour, he would either sit and tell us funny stories or chase us around the house with a shovel.
Ryan and I bugged each other to pray every day for God to change our loved ones. We both believed God would answer our prayers, and soon all would be right in our worlds.
On the gridiron that fall, Alabama fell back to earth, while Auburn went undefeated. Most years this would have been enough for me to take drugs myself, but I sort of figured God was making Alabama crappy because he was going to fix my uncle. (It's understandable when a teenager thinks like this; what's scary is I still do it in my thirties.
By the following spring, Ryan and I had been praying for nearly a year. Since Ryan was an Auburn fan and his team went undefeated, it made sense that my prayers would be answered first, but God soon tore the roof off this theory.
March 27, 1994, is a day people in northeast Alabama will always remember. On that day, twenty-six tornados ripped through parts of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Twenty miles from my hometown, the meanest of the lot slammed into the Goshen United Methodist Church, collapsing the roof and killing twenty worshipers. That morning our pastor stopped the choir during their opening hymn and told us of the imminent weather. He decided to have an invitation, then quickly dismiss us to go seek safety. The organist played "Just as I Am" a little faster than we were used to, but before she could finish, Ryan's brother Jeffery stood up and walked down the aisle. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. We all anxiously rejoiced with Jeffery and his family, and when we thought the moment had been adequately celebrated, we ran for our lives.
My answer came a couple of months later, early Sunday morning, July 31, 1994.
At the time I was high on God, following another week at church camp. And I was filled with hope after seeing Ryan's prayers answered before my eyes. That Saturday night, I prayed to God, giving him my list of wants and wishes, writing them down in my prayer journal, and then I fell asleep.
My grandparents lived next door to us, and the police went to their house first. When they told my grandmother her son Jimmy had been killed in a car accident, her screams woke up everyone on our block. I almost thought it was a dream, until our phone rang. Since no one calls after midnight to give you good news, I jumped out of bed in a panic. Mom was already awake, and she beat me to the phone. When she answered, I could hear my grandmother's screams over the phone and across the yard at the same time. Before Mom ran next door, she told me what had happened. I didn't cry; I just stood there feeling numb. It's strange, but immediately after the moment that would dramatically change my life, I crawled back into bed and fell asleep.
Excerpted from God and Football by Chad Gibbs Copyright © 2010 by Chad Gibbs. Excerpted by permission.
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