More than a game…
Born into a household with a recent high school graduate for a mother, I was lacking a father for the first four years of my life. Luckily for me though, my grandfather, “Big Daddy” (as pegged by my cousin), was the missing piece to the puzzle. Acting as the primary father figure in my tyke days, the bond we shared was immediately sparked. The key to the flame? Auburn football.
Ever since my first trip to the Plains at a mere age of three months, I was drawn in for life. The soaring of the eagle, the dense amounts of burnt orange spanning across Jordan-Hare, and the roarous cheers from the student section all shaped the early stages of my Auburn obsession… but I’m leaving out the most important part. Sitting way up in section 62, I had the closest thing to a father sitting by my side, each and every week. Shaking and shouting for our defense to wrap up and tackle, I could tell that this so called “game” was a way of life down here in the south — a religion.
A new season was lingering upon us – 2006. I was nine years old at the time when the nuke was dropped directly upon my heart. “Big Daddy’s not going to be well for a while. He has cancer.” My mother’s words from that cool spring day still ring clearly through my ears. Confusion, ignorance, and slight bitterness jumbled to form the question, “So, what about the Auburn games?” My mother was floored by how “selfish” I was acting, and she immediately reprimanded me by my response. But what she didn’t realize was that it was a complete misunderstanding.
My intentions were nowhere near selfish, as I knew in my heart and mind that the weekends my grandfather and I shared were the best parts of each other’s weeks, and now my mom was telling me that they may never happen again. No more Auburn games, no more moments together in Jordan-Hare, no more Big Daddy. I remember having a pretty tough cry after the ride home, as I finally processed and made sense of the news. Even at the age of nine, I understood that the days with my college football buddy could very well be numbered.
Treatment would begin any day now, and it was just about time for school to start back up, which along with it brought another season of football — fall. But this time, everything had changed. Memories of years past — traveling to Auburn in late-August for the first game of the year, were quickly ripped away to be replaced by hair loss, weakness, and an inability to speak. We would instead be spending the first game of the year — at home — in silence.
“Hey, Big Daddy!”, I called after opening the door of my grandparent’s East Cobb home — no response. I had forgotten. The radiation from my granddad’s treatment took away his ability to speak. Instead, I received the next best thing — the widest and brightest smile to ever flash across his face. I could tell he was thrilled, as well as surprised to see me, but hey… I didn’t think twice about coming. The two of us had business to take care of — it was the season-opener, and we had Washington State to kick around.
Eventually, slowly but surely, my grandfather was nursed back to stable health. The hair (although there wasn’t much to start) grew back, his strength and weight were back to normal, and his voice? As strong as ever. Things were looking up for the two of us – almost as if the cancer never developed.
The following year, after watching the entire 2006 season at home, the two of us made our way to the Plains once again for Auburn’s season opener against Kansas State. It was truly a surreal experience. Sure, I’d been to Auburn too many times to count, but this time it was different. I guess it was one of those cases where you don’t know what you’ve got until it all goes south, as I had grown a new appreciation for our Saturdays together – something I would never lose.
Fast forward now to 2010 — the year of the cardiac cats. After an improbable season by our Tigers, it all ended with a single kick – a kick that would give many Auburn fans their first chance to call their school the best, the opportunity to claim the title for the first time since 1957. For me? I was just elated my grandfather and I could share an unforgettable moment like that together before he passes. With tears in our eyes, and arms draped around each other’s shoulders, the two of us looked on in University of Phoenix Stadium as Gene Chizik hoisted the crystal ball into the cool desert air.
As the years passed, my home life began to get progressively tougher. My little brother had been diagnosed with some severe special needs, which in turn caused insecurity, loneliness, and helplessness to meddle their way into my former upbeat self. At school, I felt out of place — at home, there was fear. Yet I still had the one saving grace that continued to push me down the rugged road – Auburn football with Big Daddy. Because when I make the drive from Atlanta to Auburn every week, it isn’t about winning or losing. Instead it’s about the experience we share with strangers from completely different backgrounds who share the same passion. It’s about loving something that is bigger than each and every one of us. And it’s that escape from life for three and a half hours to cheer for something over which you have no control.
This year, in our 18th season of going to games together, my granddad and I have one final rodeo before I head off to college. Between the two of us, we’ve witnessed it all in recent years – Wes Byrum’s kick to send the confetti flying, the Prayer in Jordan-Hare, charging the field after Chris Davis took it back 109 yards, and even major heartbreak that ended with a puddle of tears inside the Rose Bowl last January.
If it weren’t for my grandfather, I wouldn’t even have the slightest interest in college football – nobody else in my family does. Without him, I would have missed out on some of the greatest moments of my life, and I most certainly wouldn’t be writing this piece for you today.
So when you wake up on Saturday morning, remember why you hold such a deep passion for this “game”. Think back on what started it all, the moments that shaped you into becoming Auburn men and women, because only then can you truly appreciate your love for the orange and blue.