My father and I last year prior to the South Carolina game
My grandmother, Jane Owen Black, was the first member of my family to graduate college to the best of my knowledge. Proudly hailing from the small community of Dadeville, Alabama, a daughter of the Great Depression used Alabama Polytechnic Institute as a means of growth, escape, and socialization to a greater society than previously known. When I think of my grandmother, I can't help but imagine that Auburn provided a way to carve out her own path from her upbringing.
While she was dearly loved as a child, dealing with the divorce of her parents in the deep south in the 1930's was far from easy. I imagine API allowed her to leave some of that behind and enabled her to establish something of her own identity through her education, which she would use to become a school teacher in Dadeville and Alexander City upon her graduation.
She married her 1st grade sweetheart, Mr. Jim Berry Black, upon his return from Europe in the second World War. I've heard my father tell the story that upon his return to Dadeville following World War II that the car he was riding in stopped in the street as he got out to hug my grandmother. They were married for 57 years, raising three children while my grandfather established himself as a prominent community banker, helping establish and one day chair the board of the Bank of Dadeville in Tallapoosa County.
My grandfather never went to college. He lost both of his parents before the age of 10, and lost his caretaker, my great aunt, before he was a teenager. He watched a younger sibling fall into a fireplace and burn to death. He and his remaining 8 siblings then raised themselves in rural Alabama, where my grandfather had to shovel manure to pay for his high school cap and gown. Life was hard, and hard work was the norm.
While my grandfather never went to college, he always had a love for Auburn. This made all the logical sense in the world, considering his wife was a graduate, but this love was also immensely personal for the man. The Auburn he came to know was cut from the rural south. The people that went there were country folks. They were his people.
Beginning in the 1950's, Auburn needed of a fresh start in football. For those of you that know a little something about the history of Auburn, I don't need to tell you all about who Ralph "Shug" Jordan was, and what he did for Auburn. His 176 wins, a national title, and a return to force in the deep south and beyond earned his namesake on the stadium the Tigers play in to this day. None of this could have been known in his early years, but what was known by a man like my grandfather was the type of man Auburn was getting.
Coach Jordan was a veteran of World War II like my grandfather. He served under General Patton on the beaches of Normandy, earning him a Purple Heart. Coach Jordan came from rural Selma, Alabama. Coach Jordan was a gentleman, raised in a culture where men were to be respectful and dignified. I don't know the specific date that my grandfather fell for Auburn, but I have no doubt that the arrival of Ralph Jordan solidified it. I like to think it's because what Jim Black saw in Ralph Jordan, he saw in himself. Auburn had a man to be proud of, and Jim Black would certainly be proud of them as well.
For me to explain the culture of Auburn University would take more than a single piece of writing, but simply put Auburn people want to be proud of who represents Auburn. We want to win, no doubt, but the manner in which we are represented matters. We want to feel like who represents us reflects something of who we are as people, because Auburn people want to in turn proudly represent their university. It's this relationship that makes us a strange lot of fans for certain, and being in a football crazed state that we contribute our part in does nothing but enhance this. But boy do we care about not just who represents us, but how.
My father was birthed into this love and admiration. The second child of my Nana and Grandeddy, Jim Black Jr. would spend fall Saturdays of the late 50's and early 60's attempting to rush the field as soon as the clock struck zero in Cliff Hare Stadium to try and collect chin straps from the likes of Zeke Smith, Lloyd Nix, and Ed Dyas. Since the Bank of Dadeville was open for business on Saturdays, the Boy Scouts provided my father with opportunity to see these Auburn greats, among others, as they battled on the gridiron.
Dad's senior year of high school were exciting times at Dadeville. As the biggest player on his football team at a whopping 210 lbs, Dad was getting some modest looks from a few schools to play football. A coach by the name of Mal Moore recruited my father to play football at the University of Alabama for Paul "Bear" Bryant. Being a step slow and knowing his football days were numbered, he instead decided to attend junior college and then enroll at Auburn.
In my Dad's own words, Auburn "made" him. Auburn provided ample opportunity for a country boy from Dadeville to network, build relationships, cultivate an ability to speak publicly, and challenge himself with new circles to socialize. My dad came in 2nd for SGA President at Auburn and was the first group of Plainsmen to wear those orange blazers you still see today. He worked closely with Coach Jordan as a representative of the Plainsmen, and developed friendships with the likes of Terry Henley and Pat Sullivan, all while watching the toughness these players among others exemplify what hard work could do. He saw the last Auburn victory over Alabama by more than 10 points in 1969, saw Sullivan lead us back in what was at that time the greatest comeback over Alabama in 1970, celebrated a Heisman Trophy in '71, and watched lightening strike twice in Birmingham on December 2, 1972 in a game now known as Punt, Bama, Punt.
Throughout the remainder of the 70's and into the 80's, my dad rarely missed a game, often attending with his wife, my Mother, Kathy. My sister was born a few years after they were married, followed by my brother. I came along soon after. Dad missed his first Iron Bowl since before college in 1992. The game was on Thursday, Thanksgiving night, and my grandmother made everyone put family before Auburn in a rare moment when the two didn't coincide.
My first Auburn experience was 1992, but I fell in love in 1993. Since games weren't on television and I was finally old enough to start appreciating the game itself, I became a regular on the treks down 280 to the Plains of Dixie. Those car rides are what I remember best from my childhood, listening to grown men talk about autumns past, reveling in the glory of the 80's and speaking with genuine anguish over heartbreaking defeats.
We've never been a tailgating family. This is largely in part to me never seeing a member of my family touch alcohol until I was well into adulthood. Tailgating was about a party. Our parties were those car rides and visits to a single story house in Dadeville to try and make sense of gameday with my grandparents. Often we'd carpool to the stadium together, where Dad's parking pass was always given to Nana and Grandeddy, making it easier for them to walk to the stadium.
Nana and Grandeddy sat in section 6 row 30 on the last two seats by the railing of the entrance. Their seats were perfect. Midway up on the 45 yard line. For years our 4 seats were one section over and down, in the lower level of section 5 on about the 13th row. I saw Scot Etheridge beat undefeated, heavily favored, and highly ranked Florida with a late field goal in 93 there. I saw Pat Nix hit Frank Sanders in the north end zone to, as Jim Fyffe eloquently said, "...put Auburn right back in the thick of it!" before completing an 11-0 season with a 22-14 victory over Alabama that same year. I saw the 94 interception game against LSU there, the refs give us some home cooking late against Alabama in 95, the barn burn in '96, and felt so hopeless through 4 overtimes against Georgia in a first for the Southeastern Conference.
Dad's seats moved to the Nelson Club the next fall, where we're blessed and fortunate to sit to this day. Every highlight reel shown of any big play in that stadium since 1997 have been viewed by me from that section. Most of them sitting to the right of my brother and my Dad. We saw a curveball go through the uprights to upend #1 Florida in 2001, got punched in the gut in 2002 late against Georgia, Cadillac go crazy in '03, the excellence of 2004, 11 sacks in 2005, were frustrated by a high school coach turned offensive coordinator in Gus Malzahn in '06 when Arkansas came to town and bruised our ego along with our #2 ranking, Brandon Cox develop real grit against LSU that year and again against Alabama the following to give us 6 in a row over the Tide, saw the rain and the crowd sit through it for the game against West Virginia in 2009, Chris Todd give us hope that we could be proud of our team again, Cam Newton replacing Bo Jackson as the most exciting player Dad has ever seen in 2010, Jonathan Wallace give us a player to be the calm in the storm of 2012, and 1 second live in eternity in 2013 after the Miracle at Jordan-Hare.
The reason I say all this is to simply say that for me, it's not just the "Auburn Family" for me. For my life, Auburn is my family. The joys and heartaches of Saturdays aren't just something we read preseason magazines over in anticipation, play the old NCAA 14 with updated rosters just to keep the season top of mind in the spring and summer, and it certainly is not simply bragging rights over rivals. Alabama doesn't deserve such glory in my life.
No, fall Saturdays are so much more to me. They're about remembering Jim Black Sr. and how every time we drive through Dadeville we remember that this journey hasn't been the same since he left us on Easter Sunday of 2014. It's about reminiscing over Jane Owen Black being moved to tears when the choir would sing the Alma Mater at halftime of Homecoming. It's about reflecting on the old days when my brother Daniel or myself had a high school game the night before, and how tired we were but would beam as Dad would talk to us and on the phone to his friends about how proud he was of us. It's about seeing how much of a man I was being molded into becoming by listening to my Dad explain the world and how it all really worked so many times on drives back after the ESPN2 kickoff that meant we'd be late to church the next day because we wouldn't be home until well after midnight. It's about reminding each other how the game will ultimately be won or lost up front, about knowing we're going to lose if Daniel or myself has a good feeling about the game and how we're going to win if Dad feels good about it.
It's about a bond that two sons have formed with their Dad that he formed with his decades earlier, and giving my uncle a chance to be with the boys. It's about laughter, talking trash to each other, distancing ourselves further from Friday and Monday and having a chance to be in the moment, away from the pressures we all stupidly put on ourselves as men.
On the subject of the Kick 6, if I could encompass what it is I'm trying to convey in this piece, it would be summed up by the distinct memory of my Dad's smile after they weren't going to keep them off the field that night. For every memory I have in that old stadium, that sight will forever be my favorite. It more so than Chris Davis moved me to tears.
There was an odd, cool brisk to the air as I walked into work last Friday. That bite in the air swirled in with humidity meant one thing to me. It meant that it's about that time. It's time for football season. It's time for new memories, old jokes, and endless conversations over players, situations, schemes, and coaches. It's time to head to the rolling plains of Dixie, neath the sun kissed sky, with a stop first in Atlanta that'll hopefully end back up there in December. It's time for Auburn, which means it's time for family. On to vict'ry, strike up the band.