Thursday, September 06, 2007

Living in the moment

In the end, it was just a football game.

For a lot of reasons, Nick Saban's debut as Alabama's head football coach Saturday was something most of us who were fortunate enough to see it in person won't soon forget. For Crimson Tide fans, it was the dawn of a new era in the proud history of a team with a history few others can match. It was a spirit that even if the Tide suffers a few losses this fall, the program finally is heading in the right direction after so many years off course. It was renewed hope that things once again can be as good as they once were.

It also was a throwaway game against an overmatched I-AA team, 60 minutes of catharsis that provided relatively little certainty of what we will see in the days and weeks to come.

Even so, it was an evening when the positives far outweighed the negatives. Gone were the slap-tackles and endless runs up the middle that have plagued Tide supporters' nightmares in past years. In their place were a steady string of hard hits and a wide array of offensive schemes that kept the opponents -- and the fans -- on their toes, forced to wonder what was next rather than spotting it from a country mile.

Even when some questions arose -- about a still-unreliable kicking game or a Western Carolina touchdown called back due to a penalty -- never was there the sense that the answer was doom, or that no answer existed at all. Instead, the dominant feeling in the air was that these problems would not persist over the long haul, that they were correctable and would be corrected, that they -- like so many other temporary things -- would pass.

The game itself passed soon enough, but not before a host of reminders of what makes the sport so enjoyable in the first place. There were the crimson hordes, complete with their houndstooth hats and their body-painters and their requisite man with a full-back tattoo of Bear Bryant. There were the schadenfreude moments, the intervals of pure, unadulterated mass joy upon the announcement of a Michigan collapse or a Tennessee loss in the making. There were the visceral displays of irrational giddiness for the showing of stadium videos that almost everyone had seen more times than they could count.

Importantly, it was a shared experience. In a state widely known for so many finishes near the bottom of lists that truly matter, Saban's debut was a chance for the more than 92,000 people in attendance and the tens of thousands of others watching or listening at home -- people from every conceivable walk of life -- to lose themselves briefly in something that wouldn't limit them or hurt them or judge them. For those few hours, what mattered was not the degree on your wall but the shaker in your hand, not the money in your bank account but the enthusiasm in your voice, not the color of your skin but the color of your shirt.

Like all other moments, it was fleeting. The teeming masses streamed out of Bryant-Denny Stadium on that warm September night, leaving their echoing cheers to fade gradually back into silent darkness. Saban and his squad quickly turned their attention to this weekend's Vanderbilt game. And around the world, billions of everyday people went about their everyday lives, unaware of or indifferent to something as pedestrian and ultimately irrelevant as college football in the face of real worries like war and famine and pestilence and natural disasters and social injustice.

It was a taste of the unified purpose that is missing in all too many aspects of life. It was an unforgettable experience. In the end, it was just a football game.

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