The deep connection I feel with Auburn, emboldened by parents who met there, a lifetime of games in Jordan-Hare, and my own time in school, is probably why I resonated so deeply with Chris and Aubielicious' notion in The College & Mag Show that to truly love something means you have to allow it the opportunity to rip your heart out. That idea perfectly describes what I could never describe myself as to why I always choose to be an optimist. Not simply because it's just more fun than constantly short-selling your team's chances, but because somehow, believing in those guys in Orange and Blue can "maybe, with the right bounce of the ball, win 9 games this year" despite all available information, shucking rationality to the side and throwing in a whopping measure of 100% All Natural Barner® makes pieces like 2013 Auburn so much fun. Exposing yourself to this much emotion is what makes things like Chris Davis' improbable field goal return an occasion for a celebration not ever seen in my lifetime, as well as the sports-related heartbreak that floods your soul when your team, the most improbable National Title Contender in decades, comes with seconds of winning the whole damn thing.
That I even sat down to write down thoughts on a football season and game is a bit ironic. I'm (almost) a pastor, having graduated from Divinity School last year and waiting on my wife to finish her M.Div. this year before we move back home for lives of full-time ministry. Football, sports in general even, is the kind of triviality that needn't be trifled with when one's entire vocation and life is centered on things above. (I'll never forget my now-retired minister grandfather taking me by the arm several years ago and saying, "John Carl, you should consider softening your stance about the University of Alabama before you try to be a pastor.") I also remember after Ricardo Louis hauled in the now famous catch in the Georgia game, one of my more self-righteous Facebook "friends," an Auburn student who also happens to be headed towards Christian ministry posted, "I'm excited about the Auburn game, but not too excited. It's just a game." Aside from the gratuitous Jesus-Juke, such a comment, I felt, robbed the moment of what made it so special, namely the opportunity to celebrate and rejoice with people of like mind, to go absolutely bananas over something so unlikely that it will be replayed for years and years, and as such, to temporarily lose your mind and act like an insane person over something that you witnessed with other people. The triumph of games like Alabama and Georgia (for me at least) is not that they give me some kind of personal dividend with which to wield on social media and in personal relationships, or some kind of personal triumph that I had any part in at all, really, but the memory of those people with whom I shared such an experience with, bound by our love of a school and a group of young men who have chosen to represent it.
From this tenuous position I find myself in - teetering on the line between level-headed pastor and irrational Barner - I've done a lot of reflecting in the past year or so about why sports has the unique ability to make otherwise normal people act completely insane. Some call it a primal urge for victory; others say we all have a need to be a part of something that manifests itself in competition. The journey from 2012 to 2013 for Auburn fans was one in which we experienced the range of emotion, from hopefulness to despair to disgust to hopefulness again to elation to full-on Barn...
And then grief.
I spent the past summer working as a hospital chaplain in a Level 1 Trauma center. In that time, I learned a lot about grief - both in a classroom, academic kind of way and in a real-life kind of way. I watched a lot of people experience grief in real time, including myself. While most people associate the term simply with the loss of a loved one, one can experience grief over any sort of major loss or even a major change, as it can signify the loss of one era, setting, or set of relationships. It's a physical condition that manifests itself in a variety of fashions that, more often than not, are only similar insofar as they occur differently in every person.
I hope you'll forgive the inevitable crude association that is made by placing a story like this into a rambling feelings-dump about college football, but the most poignant, beautiful expression of grief I witnessed came during the middle of the week this past summer at about 2:00am. I was paged to the emergency room and was immediately met by the chief ER resident, who I followed to a conference room holding a concerned looking man. To make a long and heart-wrenching story short, his wife had numerous complications with her health and, after a long road travelled with these illnesses, had succumbed to a heart attack and passed away. I walked with the man into the trauma bay to allow him to see her one last time.
In that moment, I experienced what can only be called transcendent - one of those moments where, yeah, I'm a guy sitting in an emergency room on a stool at 2:35am and I'm wearing a poorly-tied tie and I think my shoes are tied because I was so startled by the pager in my bed that I just threw everything on and I think I'm awake but not really sure, but all together not really sure where you are and what's happening for the light in the room. I sat off to the side and watched this man - in for sure grief - spend a last 20 minutes with his wife. He held her head, rubbed her hands and feet, kissed her cheeks - all in the most tender, deliberate, almost painstakingly slow fashion, with not a movement wasted. When he returned to my side, I put my arm around him and he told me, with a smile on his face, about how much her grandchildren loved her, how loved she was by everyone, the things they used to love to do together, how he was going to miss her. There hasn't been a single retelling of this experience, this included, where I haven't been emotionally moved by the thought of that moment.
And I've come to realize that such a moment carried so much significance because I watched someone truly grieve in a fundamental and beautiful way - not simply hurt for a loss - hurt, certainly - but reflect on it, feel it in your whole body, and in many ways, embody it fully, all while honoring the memory, even when it hurts like hell.
Let me emphasize again that I'm not comparing the loss of a football game to the grief that a man experiences with the loss of his wife (or anyone who loses a person that they love, for that matter). The "hurt" experienced when your team loses a football game is miniscule compared to losing the person you've chosen to do life with for almost half a century. But still, there has been (for me, at least) an uneasy, uncomfortable pang in my stomach for the past week about the end of the 2013 Auburn Story. Oddly, however, I don't think it has much to do with the fact that there's not another crystal football sitting in the Rane Room.
As I've stated, to compare these two scenes is at best naïve, foolish and callous; at worst, insensitive and worthy to be ripped to shreds by all my div school colleagues who might stumble across these ramblings. And yet, I feel as if I'm truly grieving. I grieve for the loss - not the actual loss, the 34-31 kind that I watched helplessly unfold in Pasadena, but the loss of this team, of the whole ethos this season brought to the Auburn people. I grieve that we'll never again get to see Nick Marshall and Tré Mason run the read option as God intended it to be run. I grieve that we'll never see Dee Ford getting outrageously held yet still sacking the quarterback. I grieve that we'll probably never again see a team so destitute, down-and-out, and dysfunctional be brought together by a quirky, gimmicky high-school coach to be resurrected and transformed into one that made all us foolish Auburn people so damn proud.
So we all grieve, in a sense. Because to grieve in this way is to remember how much fun the ride was, to circle it over and over, remembering where you were when you saw that 78-yard pass ricochet off Trey Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons into the air for what felt like an eternity. It is to never forget exactly how you felt when Chris Davis caught a sailing, 57-yard metaphor for all the bad energy, broken wills, unaccomplished aspirations, stale promises, and heretofore unmentioned wonky juju we as a fanbase had endured since Atlanta in September, 2012 and ran that b**ch back into eternity. It is to remember how your entire psyche changed when he crossed the 50-yard line, like you felt fundamental, important, real parts of yourself are coming unglued and that's ok because they're not gonna keep ‘em off the field tonight. It is to celebrate Tre Mason, a somewhat dim, but shining, reminder of the Auburn spirit amidst the cloudy decline of 2011 and the stormy apocalypse of 2012, who did nothing but kept running and running and running to yard after yard and touchdown after touchdown right into the annals of Auburn history and, as is right and good, the heart of every Auburn person everywhere. It is to remember that aforementioned high school coach with the hellacious Arkansas accent who took a group of men and taught them to believe in themselves again, to believe in Auburn again, and in time, taught us to believe again, too.
A national championship would've been nice. It would've been totally awesome to kiss my wife amidst a shower of confetti in the most historic arena in college football history and to buy another heinously large flag to put in our extra bedroom (perhaps a reason she wasn't as upset as I was at the outcome?), and to spend way more money than two preachers should on things emblazoned with "National Champions", but that's not really what this trip was about. In many ways, that football game was just an occasion for a bunch of southern people who love the same little school in East Alabama to get together and remind each other why they share that love. To celebrate 110 or so young men who share a small part of the same story that we all do, who just so happen to have given us all something to cheer for and be proud of again. At best, the disappointment we all felt was not for us, the fans - not that we were robbed of the opportunity to buy a bunch of t-shirts and car stickers and to troll the heck out of our rival friends on facebook with pictures of crystal footballs and grinning coaches, or to trot out some arbitrary number as some sort of affirmation of our fanhood - but rather for guys like Tre and Dee and Ricardo Louis and Jay Prosch, who gave so much to us over the course of 5 months only to have the space for their crowning achievement conspicuously empty. I grieve for those guys, that we weren't able to celebrate that moment with them, a moment they deserved way more than any of us did.
Over Christmas, I was speaking to the wife of my father's retired veterinary partner, the couple whom my family has shared a block of season tickets in Section 12 of Jordan-Hare since before I was born. She and I have always bonded over the highs and lows of Auburn's fortunes together, more than most in our families, it seems. Ms. Anne, a lifelong, devout Southern Baptist, looked at me and said, "John Carl, I don't know what it's going to be like when we get to heaven; but I have a feeling it's going to be something like the 30 minutes in that stadium after Chris Davis returned that kick," to which I replied, "Ms. Anne, if it's not, I'm not sure I want to go," which is definitely something a real-life pastor should say.
This season - this beautiful, magical, whirlwind of a season - was perfect not because of wins and losses, but because we experienced it together, in all its wacky, whimsical, Delaware Wing-T-smash-you-in-the-mouth wonder. Because only Auburn football can make me run around a neighborhood that is not my own screaming, or make my father - one of the more stoic people I know - sound like a gleeful little child, or make us all turn around in a frenzy of nonsensical screaming lunatics amidst fireworks, Kool and the Gang, and the space where a bunch of air used to be to grab somebody - anybody - to hug or high five and no we don't know them and we don't care because we're going to Atlanta and I love you forever war damn eagle - all encapsulated in a moment that deserves its own painting.
I know that Auburn is not that different from many other schools. We like to claim we are, though at base level, each devout alumnus or fan of a school describes their own experience as one of a kind. And yet, I return to my thoughts the morning of January 6, as I stood with friends outside the Rose Bowl, where my heart would be shattered later that night...
"We might win tonight. We might not. Tre Mason might run for 200; Jameis Winston might do Jameis things. But when we wake up tomorrow morning, we will wake up Auburn people...and that will be enough."
So we grieve not for the loss, but because this chapter of the ride is over. And I, for one, am grateful to have been a witness.
War Damn Eagle.