Family, Food and Football
By BJ Bennett
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Rivalry week divides families and splits states in two like a sharp knife through hot bread.
Rivalry week is a southern rite of passage. We’re serious year-round, but the last weekend of November hits us like a powerful church sermon, a glare from grandma and a spicy spoonful of hoppin’ johns all at once. Sure this week is about being around loved ones, just as long as nobody says anything stupid and there is a flat screen television around. With family in town, true allegiances are oftentimes brought out. Shared last names don't necessarily put us all on the same page; unless, that is, they come on the back of the same colored jersey.
Saturday hits like a Molly Hatchet guitar rift as we all wake up with a just-having-worked-out adrenaline rush, even if we haven’t done so in years. It's a pounding in our chest that lasts all day. During this time of thanksgiving, the weekend ominously darkens the mood. It's a quick transition from delicatessens to disdain.
"They don't like us very much and we don't care for them," admitted South Carolina running back Kenny Miles of the Gamecocks' top rival Clemson.
In my family, all celebratory and glad-handing, "mandatory fun" as my dad calls it, must be done before Saturday. Extended relatives included, we reach up from Florida's beaches out to the Yellowhammer State up through Carolina's triangle. Growing up, visits always prompted the same pre-game speech. My brother and I used to get the following stern talk from dad on the way to reunions: “...don’t start no crap when we get here…” he would say, his military-voice in full-effect. Mom would roll her eyes, knowing those efforts were nothing more than futile.
Lunchtime angst would rise like the creeks on the coast. After the obligatory family questions nobody really cared to answer, dad called this the “How’s your Mommaanddem?” segment, you could feel, for lack of a better phrase, the tide starting to come in. All of the men in the family would stand around, eyes down at the ground, before one eager soul would ultimately offer up a condescending jab. The women in the family would sigh and walk off, shaking their heads with that “here we go again” look.
Like kids running to an ice cream truck on a hot summer day, the frantic melee would begin. That first snide remark was our jingle cue. Uncles and cousins standing a hundred feet away would jog towards our van of vehemence, looking for their slice of the pie. Family favoring the current champion would talk trash with an arrogant, bad-guy-in-a-movie smirk. Those in rebuilding mode would call upon their glory years, citing past accomplishments as proud points of personal history. The followers of the cellar-dwellers would simply make fun of your haircut or sweater.
Down here, such banter is a holiday tradition.
“The first person I would like to thank is the good Lord, for giving me the ability to play the game of football. Because without the ability to play the game I would have been at Auburn,” former Crimson Tide star Marty Lyons once joked.
Rivalry week is all about reminiscing. True nostalgia. Grandparents and great uncles proudly tell stories from Alabama/Auburn, Clemson/South Carolina or the Mississippi State/Ole Miss like they are recalling memories of their own kids. They will tell of Van Tiffin's "kick" in the 1985 Iron Bowl, the “Immaculate Deflection” in the 1983 Egg Bowl or the 1997 Palmetto State play known simply as “The Catch”.
“A game like this, Alabama players will remember it for the rest of their lives. Auburn players…it’ll eat their guts out the rest of their lives,” then Tiger coach Pat Dye said after that famed 1985 Iron Bowl loss.
Rivalry week divides families and splits states in two like a sharp knife through hot bread. Florida and Florida State can’t seem to get together without a near pre-game rumble at midfield. Because of various arguments, Auburn, after a game in 1901, didn’t play in Tuscaloosa again until the year 2000. The Georgia/Georgia Tech rivalry is literally called “Clean, Old Fashioned Hate”. The Golden Egg Trophy itself was created because of an early 20th century brawl that stemmed from Ole Miss fans tearing down MSU’s (then Mississippi A&M) goalposts. Bulldog fans defended their field with wooden chairs. To avoid future souvenir grabbing, the trophy was created in 1927.
“I don’t have any more respect for them now than I did last year or the year before or the year before that. It’s the same to me," stated MSU head coach Dan Mullen, 3-0 against the program he calls "the school up north".
The scene will be a similar one all over the southeast this week. In states like Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, rivalry tensions are at an all-time high. Part of what makes rivalry week so special is the fact that the biggest games of the year are intertwined with family holiday gatherings. In the south, that’s like giving a grade-schooler matches, two hours of free time and a flowing tap of energy drinks.
While every fall Saturday and every game down here is special, no week of games is more sacred than the ones coming this Saturday. Ask some fans and 1-11 with that key victory would beat 11-1 with an in-state loss.
“Sure I’d like to beat Notre Dame, don’t get me wrong,” the great Bear Bryant once explained, “but nothing matters more than beating that cow college on the other side of the state.”
Former Georgia All-American offensive lineman Matt Stinchcomb went a step further.
“There is a Tech contingent in my family,” he told me, “this game determines what time and even if I show for the reunion.”
Thanksgiving is about being thankful and eating ourselves into a stupor, but this weekend is about winning. Pride comes in many forms; a ring, a bowl game berth or a Golden Boot, Golden Egg, Victory Bell or Commonwealth Cup. Thursday we eat, Friday we drink, Saturday we get down to business.
“They said they had the number one defense in the nation, but they didn’t show it. They didn’t step up to the challenge. They said a lot of things, but you know what? They can put this loss in a turkey and smoke it,” former Auburn linebacker Karlos Dansby said after beating Alabama in 2002.
The pairing of Thanksgiving and rivalry week is so unique because it puts our priorities on full display. That order is generally featured all day Friday and Saturday in high definition in multiple rooms of the house. We all love our family, but this week DNA eats at the kid table. Blood is thicker than water, but it isn’t thicker than face paint.