IT WAS POURING rain. The taxi inched along the perimeter of Bryant-Denny Stadium as cops in ponchos directed drivers to strip-mall lots, campus parking, backyards, anywhere. Six hours before kickoff, cars were at a near standstill, and every vacant patch of grass was jammed with tailgaters who had been there since dawn. It was November 2015, and more than 200,000 people had descended upon Tuscaloosa, Ala., for the most anticipated SEC football game of the season.
That night, under the lights, hated rival LSU would play Alabama. Most of the fans wouldn’t fit in a stadium that fits more people (101,821) than the population of the town itself (95,334). Bryant-Denny is only the fourth-biggest park in the football conference, yet it’s the eighth-largest stadium in the world. Welcome to the SEC. “These people,” said the taxi driver as he hunched over the steering wheel and peered out at the street, “believe in college football.” In the south, this game is second only to church. You’re born into the team you root for.
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My friends and I got out on University Boulevard, one of the town’s main strips, and managed to sneak into a bar with a lineup two blocks long. A group of friendly Alabamans invited us to sit with them on a side patio. It was a family reunion spanning three generations, all 20 of them worshippers at the altar of Nick Saban. Well, 19, actually. One renegade son-in-law was dressed in LSU clothing, and he accepted our offering of a tall-neck Budweiser by muttering, “Geaux Tigers.”
Walking back to the stadium, we came across a few dozen people gathered on someone’s driveway, peering into an open garage, yelling—even shrieking. Approaching them, we feared the worst—gun ranges sit beside liquor stores in these parts, after all. Upon arrival, we realized it was life and death. Arkansas and Ole Miss, who had beaten ’Bama a few weeks prior, were in overtime. If the Razorbacks pulled off the upset, there was legit hope for another national championship in Tuscaloosa.
One wild play followed another, then Razorbacks QB Brandon Allen ran in a two-point conversion. Arkansas won.
The stroll to the stadium became joyous. In line, walking in, a father looked at his son, both of them draped in Crimson red, and told him, “Boy, nothing matters more than this.”
The game was billed as the battle of running backs: Alabama’s Derrick Henry against LSU’s thoroughbred Leonard Fournette. On every Tigers third down, the stadium became as noisy as a jet engine at liftoff. When Alabama had the ball, the place went deathly silent. But each time the offence moved the chains, the announcer declared, “First down, Alabama,” and the crowd yelled, “Roll Tide!” in unison.
When the Crimson Tide got into the end zone, forget about it. It was ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. In Tuscaloosa, it’s like that father said: Nothing matters more than this.
In the end, Henry ran for 210 yards and three touchdowns, and Alabama’s defence shut down Fournette. A month later, another SEC crown. In January, a fourth parade in seven years. Imagine that road trip.
This story originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Sportsnet magazine.