It’s not very often I look forward to getting up at 5 a.m. and going to a place I’ve never been before.
I am usually rater skittish when it comes to long drives in the car. Growing up in a small town, usually everything was convenient and close. An hour’s drive to go do something, while common because living in a small town can be terribly boring, is usually wrought with anxiety for me.
So to travel two hours in the wee morning hours to travel to Tuscaloosa, not knowing what to expect traffic-wise was terrifying to think about. I almost called in sick.
But in the interest of not letting anyone down, I swallowed my fears and did the thing and I am all the more better for it.
Tuscaloosa is a picaresque college town; small, but brimming with lots of potential. My first stop upon arriving at 8:15 a.m. was Druid City Brewing, the famous hideaway for all of T-Town’s eclectics. I was immediately greeted with a hearty handshake from Bo, the owner of Druid City... after I walked around the inside of the bar in circles on my phone trying to get ahold of him. It was pleasantly awkward experience.
The facility itself is very small; cramped, almost. But strangely, it works. Concert posters of previous shows line the orange walls and coloring book pages, drawn upon by customers, occupy the rest of the space. On the wall greeting customers was the famous Last Supper chalkboard drawing, depicting Nick Saban, Kent State’s very own, as Jesus, blessing cornbread and a large sweet tea with ice.
A truly Southern work of art.
I was delighted to make acquaintance with everyone that came to the brewery, including Jeremy, who worked in the next building over and had an interest in classic literature and modern writing styles; Bo, whose love of music was only rivaled by his love of gastronomic experimentation; Erik, the site manager of Roll Bama Roll, who would tell you his opinions on anything from Norwegian death metal to whether or not Les Miles stands in line for any bar in Baton Rouge even despite a nasty jaw infection; and even met members of The Pinx, a band that would perform later that night.
The tab was open, so despite it being 9 a.m., I opted for a grapefruit saisson. At a 9 percent ABV level, it was darker than I am normally accustomed to, but it paired beautifully with Bo’s hand-cooked green pepper andoullie sausage.
A tour of the campus was up next, with Erik leading the way. Bryant-Denny Stadium sits on the very edge of the campus, delineating the space between the campus and the rest of the city. Student apartments, book stores, takeout restaurants and even a dadgum graveyard can be found within the vicinity of its shadows.
The stadium can be seen on foot from over a half-mile away. It’s a monstrosity of an set-up, with seats thousands of feet in the air in a double-tiered bowl style. In true absurdist style, it is rivaled in size by the Phi Mu house next door, which is probably as big (if not bigger) than the White House on Pennsylvania Ave. (Yes, you read that right: the stadium sits at the end of Fraternity/Sorority Row.)
The tailgate was on the university quad, a grass field that was surrounded on four sides by academic buildings, including the broadcasting, business and education halls. The atmosphere was a pleasant, if overwhelmed one. The temperature had already reached 88 degrees at 10 a.m., and many were dressed up in full suits or formal wear, as is tradition for members of the Greek community. The regular student body also showed up as the 11 a.m. start time drew closer, with some opting for what some would consider clubbing clothes and others going with the more casual t-shirt or jersey and shorts.
Walking up to the stadium is certainly an interesting experience. The stadium feels slightly out of place among the academia and lush green fields that surround it and yet holds its own unique aura. Championship Drive has plaques of every national and conference championship inserted into the concrete and the statues of three of Alabama’s all-time coaches stand at attention, eyes turned to the stadium at all times. The band takes this trip from the library at the center of campus to the stadium, which sits about a mile away on the edge of campus in a tradition called “The Elephant Stomp,” which consists of a cadence form the drum line, some twirling from the baton girls and the rest of the band walking at attention and yelling “ROLL TIDE.”
My seats were in the lower bowl of the north endzone, amongst the faculty and staff. Where I sat was directly across the field from the student section and directly above the tunnel that Alabama entered out of.
You don’t really get a feel for how big someplace is until you sit directly in the middle of it. I’ve been to Ford Field in a sold-out game before, but even that was just a totally different feeling. Ford Field is kind of dark and crowded. This stadium somehow felt open and inclusive while cramming nearly 30,000 more people into it on what was considered a “bad day.”
The atmosphere was unlike any I’d been a part of. The band was large and sat in a tiered formation, constantly playing “Rammer Jammer Yellowhammer”, “Roll Tide” and the fight song “Go Alabama”. Every first down was heartily met with a hearty “ROLL TIDE!” and pom-poms pulsated in the air whenever a play for positive yardage for Alabama was made. The acoustics had this funny way of masking just how loud everything was; I didn’t think it was that loud until I left the stadium and couldn’t hear anything for the rest of the day.
There were no bad sight lines at Bryant-Denny, even if you were sitting in the tunnels to try and get out of the heat. I mention that because HOLY GHOST OF BEAR BRYANT was it hot.
I was suffering from sun sickness within 15 minutes of hitting my seat, which was mercilessly in the direct sunlight with no hope of shade. Considering Alabama was up 21-0 at the end of the first quarter, I decided to watched the next two quarters next to the food stand in the concourse, which was about twenty degrees cooler and had free water. The TV’s and radio call over the loudspeakers were also convenient.
I counted about nine people who had heat stroke or fainted in my section due to the conditions and I was thankful to have spent $8.80 on two bottles of water that could refill for free. Someone sitting next to me at the cooling fan half-joked he should sell T-shirts that said “I survived the heat at Bryant-Denny Stadium.”
I told him I’d give him $5.
I also had an engaging talk with a man I’ll call Bob (since I never actually asked for his name) about why it is that Group of Five teams continue to have difficulty achieving the same successes as Power Five teams and the expectations that fans have for a program such as Alabama’s.
I walked back out towards the end of the third quarter, just in time for Kent State to make a drive in to Alabama territory and try to score on Alabama’s backups. George Bollas and Myles Washington tried to will the Flashes to a score, but it simply wasn’t meant to be. Bollas dove for the pylon on fourth down and I thought he had scored.
I jumped up, screamed and waved my hat around. FINALLY, POINTS! I was immediately met with every eye in section 45 looking at me in disdain and a couple audible “c’mon, really?”’s. I yelled back “hell yes, Go Kent!” and proceeded to take a seat as the mandatory review took place, giving a thumbs up to a man in a camo hat, sleeveless black shirt, suspenders and jean shorts. It was met with a few chuckles.
It was called back. I have no shame for my actions.
Upon coming back to Druid City, I took part in an afternoon helping of pulled pork fresh from the smoker and Mario Kart 8, an apparently pivotal tradition at the brewery. I was asked to stay for he night to catch the show and partake in more (delicious) beer, but as I had not planned my trip that well, I took a raincheck. (I’ll be back Bo, promise.)
The experience was one that I was glad that I took. When I came home, I had a terrible headache and it hurt to look at bright things, but the sleep that night was great. It felt almost like this surreal dream, honestly.
You see a place like Alabama on TV and take for granted just how massive it is. Being able to be on the ground and feel tiny and insignificant next to it is fascinating and speaks to the importance of football in our culture.
Thanks to Druid City Brewing and Roll Bama Roll, especially Erik, for helping me experience Tuscaloosa in the most comfortable way possible. I’ll stay in touch.
Druid City Brewing, recently named one of the nation’s best college town breweries, can be followed on Twitter @DruidCityBrew. Roll Bama Roll provides a Crimson-colored view of the SEC and can be followed at @RollBamaRoll. Erik Evans, death metal enthusiast and law person extraordinaire can be followed @gothlaw.