SAT. JAN 9, 2016, GREENVILLE, SC: I live in the Upstate: the westernmost point of the slice of the pie that is South Carolina. And, on this particular weekend, I sit in the epicenter of all things Clemson football. On Monday the Clemson Tigers, undefeated and ranked #1 in the nation, play the University of Alabama Crimson Tide for the National Championship of college football. Currently, the Upstate is drunk with football, regaling each other with the exploits of Clemson’s favored sons (like Deshawn Watson, Wayne Gallman, and Jayron Kearse), and the possibility its hometown team will complete a perfect season by defeating the most reviled team in all of sports coached by the most resented of coaches: Nick Saban. I sit here alone wearing a crimson trimmed hoodie clashing with an army of orange shirts, hats, and tiger paw car flags.
Why would I, a long-term resident (25+ years) of a community deeply committed to its hometown team, choose to root for a University located in a state I haven’t lived in since I was three years old? It’s not because I am a graduate of Alabama (never attended there), nor because they are perennial winners (even though they are), nor that I like playing the role of the contrarian (not my thing), or that I happened to marry a pretty ‘Bama coed (my wife is beautiful, yes, but a coed of another University). It’s for one single reason: my Dad.
My father was the consummate Crimson Tide fan. He grew up in southeast Alabama — smack dab in the heart of Auburn country — and was raised within a family of “War Eagle!” whooping Auburn fans. But, for reasons I still do not fully grasp, my dad’s loyalties ran a different direction. He chose to become a loyal follower of Alabama football even before the storied personality of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant overwhelmed Tuscaloosa in 1958 where he made iconic his houndstooth fedora while mumbling about “guts” and “glory” in his signature baritone Southern drawl that more closely resembled a bear growl reminiscent of his nickname.
Back then, Alabama football was not the force of nature it is today. Two consecutive two win seasons in 1955-56 were a remarkable improvement from a 0-10 season the year before. Alabama’s only gift it could give its loyal fans was, then and now, their famous Million Dollar Band. In those days, the times the team was not on the field was more exciting than the quarters when they were. For whatever reason, that was the Alabama football program my father chose to fall in love with.
In the mid-1960s my dad, Dr. Clarence Donald Whigham, settled into his career in the Gulf Coast town of Pascagoula, Mississippi just a few miles from Mobile, Alabama. He opened up his medical practice and began building a great reputation as a fine surgeon and one of its leading citizens. As was common with his generation, he worked hard. Very hard. He worked seven days a week, hardly took vacations, and didn’t spend time on personal indulgences like fishing or playing golf. His one passion outside healing his patients was Alabama football. And I knew — every Saturday during football season — there was a time I could be with my dad. When televised, we watched Alabama football. When not, we listened to it on the radio. We’d boil a huge pot of green peanuts, pop open Coca-Cola bottles and watch the mighty Alabama football team run the wishbone under Bear Bryant all through the sixties, seventies, and up into the eighties. Great players like Johnny Musso, Jeff Rutledge, Ozzie Newsome, and Barry Krauss we talked about. (When I was eight years old, I penned a big #22 on my t-shirt and ran up and down our street pretending I was the mighty Johnny Musso.) During my childhood, Alabama began winning — a lot! They started winning a spree of national championships. But no matter if Alabama beat Auburn in the Iron Bowl or Auburn bested them, I relished those Saturdays when it was just me, my older brother Martin, and my dad enjoying Alabama football. And, if Alabama had a big game or a big win, sometimes my dad would pull out the charcoal grill, light the coals so they were white-hot and glowing crimson red, and grill big juicy cuts of ribeye brushed generously with butter for our entire family of six. Forget the score of the game — or who won or lost — it was my time to hang out with my dad.
My dad is gone to heaven now. I miss him something terrible some times. Don’t know if he still watches Alabama football — or even cares about silly things like that any more. He died before Nick Saban left the Dolphins to take over as Alabama’s head coach. So I don’t get to talk to him about the great Alabama players on its 2015 team like Derrick Henry, A’Shawn Robinson, Cyrus Jones, Calvin Ridley, or Jake Coker — or the players of recent championship teams like Dont’a Hightower, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy, AJ McCarron, Vinnie Sunseri, or Greg McElroy. I wish I could. I know we’d have a good time doing so.
Instead, I get to remember my dad during every down of every Alabama game every football season. I root for the Crimson Tide and I hope they continue to roll. No matter if they win or lose, I always win when they play. I win because, when everyone else is focused on the Alabama game on the television screen, I get to have a private moment to myself: remembering my dad when we used to watch Alabama football together … and suck back boiled peanuts … and know deep down inside that the tide of memories that roll are memories of good times, of love, and a deep sense of gratitude for the times we had together.
I miss you, Dad.
And for you, I will be yelling, “Roll, Tide, Roll!” this coming Monday night. I promise.