As I was walking through the Publix parking lot last night, on my way to get a New Year’s diet-mandated rotissery chicken, I heard this textbook Twanglish conversation between two Real Southern Men:
RSM 1: Hey, brother, how ya doin’?
RSM 2: Roll Tide.
RSM 1: I hear ya.
That was it. I don’t know if their conversation continued beyond that point, but they’d already had a pretty substantial discourse as it was. The old saying is that a picture is worth a thousand words, but it’s probably only worth about nine Twanglish words. We Southerners know how to pack as much meaning in as few words as possible. (We say them so slowly that anything more would require too much exertion. It’s too hot down here for that.)
Twanglish is the most sophisticated and virtually uncrackable code since those Navajo guys baffled Tojo’s boys in World War II. Let’s unpack this simple exchange, and you’ll see what I mean.
In the initial question, we see that these guys have a common history, probably a long one. The use of the word “brother” indicates that they have probably shared a beer, a pew or a tree stand in the past – likely all three, possibly in the same day. And that word can connote both a feeling of family and a sense of religious affinity. These guys are in it together, whatever it is.
Given that it’s preceded by “brother,” we can assume the question “How ya doin?” is not merely small-talk. He really wants to know. And he gets his answer in two words.
ESPN has famously poked fun at the ability of Alabama football fans to communicate a world of ideas through those two simple words. As the commercial brilliantly shows, it’s all about context. In this case, the words were uttered less than 24 hours after the Crimson Tide completely dismantled Notre Dame to claim the school’s third national championship in four years. That simple phrase communicated celebration, gratitude and an assurance that all was right in his world. You could have substituted that phrase with “How bout dem Dawgs,” “Gig ‘em Aggies,” “Sic ‘em, Bears,” “Hotty Toddy” or any number of Southern college war cries last night and the meaning would’ve been pretty much the same.
Conversely, a “Go Gators,” “Geaux Tigers” or forlornly rung cowbell would connote a time of duress and suffering, albeit temporary. As goes our football, so goes life.
People from other regions see our devotion to football in this part of the country as misplaced, or even delusional. They’re wrong.
Why has Alabama become a dominant force in college football? How has the SEC kept the crystal trophy safely below the Mason-Dixon for seven straight years and nine of the 15 years the BCS has existed? The simple answer is because we have better coaches and better players than everyone else. The real answer is rooted much more deeply in the culture of Tuscaloosa, of Auburn and Baton Rouge, of Gainesville and College Station and Knoxville … and of the South as a whole: it matters here.
More than half of Alabama’s players are from within the state. And the one year in the last four that Alabama wasn’t the national champion, in-state rival Auburn was. These schools recruit kids raised on a steady diet of Roll Tide and War Eagle from the moment they are born. (It is not uncommon for an expecting mother to receive a NCAA-regulation football at a baby shower, and crimson is always an acceptable gender-neutral color for a nursery.)
Boys who don’t aspire to be a Bama or Auburn player pick a side early on and devote a serious amount of “mental and physical toughness” (to borrow a Saban idiom) to rooting for and defending the honor of their team. And it’s no different anywhere else in the South … except maybe Kentucky and North Carolina, where basketball reigns supreme.
So, if Southern football is so dominant because football matters more here, the question then is: why does it matter more?
Because it’s not about football.
I’ve talked before about how the 1925 Alabama Crimson Tide became the first Southern team to play in (and win) the Rose Bowl, thus creating a new source of pride for Southerners. This at a time when the South was ridiculed for being backward, uneducated and sickly. College football at that time was a gentleman’s game, and football prowess was a mark of the superiority of the mind-body-spirit triad. If we Southerners could beat Northerners at their own game, then maybe we could prove everything else they believed about us to be untrue.
It’s been nearly 90 years since that game. Sadly, not much has changed. Sure, the South is hot in popular culture now. Country music is bigger than ever. Nashville and Atlanta are becoming the new hot spots for celebrity sightings and movie production, respectively. Heck, there’s even an Alabama native at the helm of the world’s richest and most influential tech company, Apple. And the airwaves are jam-packed with reality shows about the South. However, for every Duck Dynasty, there’s a Honey Boo Boo. The sad fact is, they’re not laughing with us; they’re laughing at us.
The hot t-shirt among Notre Dame fans in the weeks leading up to the championship game read “Catholics vs Cousins.” Nice. Of course, if their cousins were this pretty, they might feel differently about that. Let’s say newly minted celebrities AJ McCarron and Katherine Webb found out they were cousins. Could you blame him for ignoring that inconvenient bit of genealogy?
As Andy Staples of SI so aptly put it,
“I’m sorry, folks outside of SEC country, but a few facts are incontrovertible. They smoke better barbecue than you. Their women are prettier than your women. They play football better than your schools play football.”
Football matters here, because it is symbolic of the fight we all fight. Winning matters here, because it is symbolic of the victories we all seek. Trophies matter here, because they are symbolic of the respect we deserve but so rarely receive.
Poke fun at us if you like, our non-Southern friends, but don’t be surprised if one day you wake up, and we’re beating you at everything else. The vaunted Nick Saban “process” is about 24/7, 365 days a year focus on doing the right things and being “the best street sweeper you can be.” When our teams win, it motivates us to that same level of dedication, hard work and success. It’s an old-fashioned notion, but one we relish.
With that simple “Roll Tide” uttered in the grocery store parking lot, the Real Southern Man was telling his friend, “We won. Life is good, except the parts that aren’t. And I’m working hard to fix those.”
So, my Real Southern brothers and sisters, how ya doin’? Shout out those war cries. I’ll listen, I’ll understand, and I’ll reply with a heartfelt, “I hear ya.”
And you’ll know that I know exactly what you mean.