I cried. I laughed. I met up with old friends. I was introduced to new ones. I drank a lot of beers -- maybe a thousand. It was a gorgeous day -- the best. And while an event I feared would be over-commercialized proved to be so, it was a party that couldn't be dampened by the greediest of profiteers. This was Toomer's Corner at its absolute best; a party that best compares to the BCS National Championship celebration or the 1989, 1993, 1995 or 1997 Alabama games. But even those may come short, as those parties didn't continue for three days.
And I almost didn't go.
I spent my entire morning procrastinating. I had made the decision to go on to Charlemagne Records in Birmingham's Five Points South neighborhood when the store opened at 10 a.m. Saturday to participate in the annual Record Store Day. And while I picked up the only real release that I wanted, I still went down the street to Renaissance Records and waited in line, a long one, to predictably leave with nothing. I walked back through Five Points to my apartment, and I stopped by Starbucks to pick up a grande blonde roast and a cheese danish, which I carried home to enjoy. Then, it was nearly 11 a.m. in Birmingham.
I parked at my usual spot on North Donahue in Auburn around 1:30 p.m. Typically, I'd cross the tracks and pass the Goal Post, make my way past Momma Goldberg's and on to Jordan-Hare Stadium. But when I reached the crosswalk at Donahue and Glenn, I was drawn to take a left turn. Maybe I'd just take the long way straight to Toomer's Corner? I sort of succumbed to instinct and just followed my feet with no real direction or purpose.
I passed Tiger Terrace on my right, the apartment complex where my ex-wife and I, for all intents and purposes, lived together during our senior year after first meeting at the College Park complex on South College. A fellow walking a few feet in front of me found an opening in traffic and crossed Glenn at that point, and instinct had me follow suit. I walked through the breezeway where that apartment was, and while I didn't really take some kind of cinematic pause to soak in nostalgia, I was aware of it.
I then cut across Magnolia and through campus, the way I walked to it every day that year. The buildings weren't there then. It barely looked the same.
I stepped inside the new Student Union building (which wasn't there when I graduated) to use the restroom before making my way across the lawn of what I will always call the Eagle's Cage. I thought I may find the College and Magnolia tailgating crew, and when I didn't, I went to the parking deck (which wasn't there when I graduated) hoping for better luck. No avail.
After nearly an hour of putting it off, I realized that the game inside had reached halftime, and fans were beginning to trickle over for the painful, over-commercialized "celebration" at Toomer's Corner. So I begrudgingly fell in line. No one was smiling. No one was celebrating. Everyone just walked. Vendors along the concourse and near the old Foy Student Union building had stacks of boxes, selling individual rolls of Angel Soft for $1. And I supposed it was then that a day-long array of emotions slowly began.
Every conversation that I was a bystander to was about Toomer's Corner.
"I remember the 2001 Florida game when Duval made that kick. It was wild that night."
"Now, you see son, when Auburn wins big games, we go to Toomer's Corner and we roll the trees!"
And I remembered that 2001 game. The day I had given up my student ticket to be at a wedding in Rogersville. The day I told mom at the ceremony's conclusion, "We're gonna win this game." The day I raced back to Auburn, parked in the lot that is now the baseball parking deck, walked up and scalped a ticket for $10. I had (have?) tiny, girly wrists, so my ex slipped off her wristband which I managed to slip on at halftime and make it inside to see that kick in the rain.
And I remembered that first time my dad tried to explain it all to me. And I remembered those moments we shared beneath those old oak trees. I remembered how happy we both were in the face of victory. Before I went crazy and the devil stole me away for rock and roll, it was Auburn football and the Atlanta Braves. Those were the things we shared, the former still our strongest bond.
I kept putting it off. I kept procrastinating. I kept avoiding it because I knew how much it would break my heart. And when I finally climbed those steps and walked near Samford Hall and caught my first look, I was devastated. Recall that these moments were while the game still carried on as an afterthought. I made my way to the Corner -- slowly. I walked through the streams of toilet paper and around the large media stage. I stepped back and allowed that moment of solitary reflection, and as I absorbed that moment, I recalled a Jason Isbell ("Dress Blues") song lyric written for a much more somber reason, but still applicable to that moment: "Nobody showed up to protest; just sniffle and stare."
That moment was overwhelming. I walked down to the Chevron at College and Glenn and bought a lukecold 24-ounce Budweiser. I slipped into the alley between Skybar and McDonald's and drank it from a paper bag while I had a pretty thorough cry. With it out of my system, I migrated back to Toomer's and found a reporter friend of mine, whom I managed to sneak away long enough to grab a beer at Quixote's.
And the day began to improve.
We ran into the majority of the College and Magnolia crew, including our fearless editor. We gathered on the patio and shared memories, swapped takes, had some laughs and toasted some brews. I stayed at Quixote's for nearly three hours, completely missing the formal "ceremony" on the stage while catching up on unrelated life topics with old friends. And that's when I realized what was actually happening.
Local business and outside corporations tried to make this an event with an itinerary that included merch booths, and the Auburn people didn't really let them have their way. The trees were covered by dawn. While people were gathered around the stage, it seemed an afterthought. This day, this gorgeous April afternoon, was a celebration in which the real cause was never even spoken. There were engagements, weddings, young and old, black and white. There was an amazing collection of the Auburn Family, each celebrating the way that it wanted to celebrate and would otherwise do without suggested instruction. And they refused to stop.
When I left at 1 a.m., there were still thousands on the street, a street that could no longer be seen. When I arrived back in Birmingham around noon the next day, there were still photos being posted of the raging celebration. Before the sun set, photos were being posted of the equestrian team's arrival and the celebration that followed. The Auburn Family has been mocked, bullied and beaten, and this celebration was a culmination of all of it. It was a last hurrah for those trees and those friends that we met underneath them. It was a defiant rallying cry that Auburn's people have had enough. It was a grand welcoming to one of the most unifying hires in recent memory. And without being there, there is absolutely no way to understand it.
I began a Twitter tirade Saturday evening, one that I assumed I would regret the next morning. But I didn't. There were two things happening in the tirade: I was blaming Birmingham sports radio station and one-time employer of mine, WJOX, for their role in the poisoning of the trees, and I was angry about the lack of an Auburn presence on their staff. My first rant is wholly correct, and frankly, I'm very happy with myself that I directed a lot of anger at someone that deserves actual blame rather than innocent Alabama fans that had no part of, nor endorse, what happened.
My second rant wasn't articulated very well in 140 characters, but still had a truth: Unless Al Del Greco was in Auburn, no employee took the time to absorb what happened there on Saturday in person. And to try to put that moment into context by looking at photographs is insane. There were satellite trucks from several television stations statewide. AL.com brought a fleet of reporters. But seemingly, no one at the state's largest sports radio station could be bothered with filling up a tank of gas and witnessing one of the biggest spectacles in Auburn history in person. And that disappointed me for a lot of reasons, but mostly, it's because of the handful of really fine folks there that I maintain an immense amount of respect for and admire. How that frustration can likely be perceived is heartbreaking, because there's no way I would invest that much of myself into something that I don't care about and love. My role when I was in radio was serving as kind of an "Auburn compass," a center that could bring things back when they were starting to drift a little far to one side. To do that with humor by typing words is impossible, and I realize its frequent failure.
For those among the crowd of over 100,000 at the intersection of College and Magnolia, those that took the time out of their busy lives and the $40 worth of gas from their bank accounts, a lifelong memory was rewarded. Few times in my 30 years has the Auburn Family stood so united, and each of them, it has been in the face of adversity: from something as small as a bad fall loss, to the larger things like being shut out in 2004 and receiving a full-blown, daily cavity search since claiming the BCS National Championship victory in Jan. 2011. That's why Auburn fans proudly refer to themselves as a "Family." That's the part of it that no outsider will ever understand and a rival fan will certainly mock below in the comments section. What unites Alabama fans is their bone-deep need to force their superiority down your throat and their national championships; what unites the Auburn Family is enduring that, and enduring soul-crushing moments like this.
In that moment I stood in the alley behind Skybar, drinking a lukecold 24-ounce Budweiser from a paper bag, I looked to my right and saw a new commercial development on Glenn with a Waffle House, where the W6 House was. The hell is that about?
It was the Auburn Family's spirit in the face of adversity. It was the force with which it reclaimed a day that profiteers attempted to rob. And it was realizing that Auburn's landscape was evolving on every corner, same as it ever was, that may have finally granted me the inner peace that I was searching for. Remember The Bottle? Remember the W6? Remember the Milo's? Remember Mom's Party Shop? Remember Apple Foods? Remember when there wasn't a massive structure in front of Beard-Eaves (what the hell is that thing?!)? Remember when Sewell was a dilapidated eyesore?
Just the same, I'll remember Toomer's Corner. This is different, sure. But what I realized and was reminded of as I stood for 12 hours at College and Magnolia is that structures have never defined Auburn. Landmarks have never defined Auburn. National championships have never defined Auburn. What defines Auburn is its people. And Auburn's people are resilient. On Saturday, Auburn's people showed they are a spirit that is not afraid. And I was reminded that I'm damn proud to be an Auburn Tiger.