Reporting Live From Jordan Hare Stadium, Some Guy.
After years of unsuccessfully trying to convince me to abandon my work as a nerd in the engineering world and accept a full-time position as a sports writer, ESPN The Mag finally offered me an opportunity that I couldn’t refuse: sole coverage of the greatest rivalry in sports, the Iron Bowl, Auburn-Alabama game. (Yes I’m biased, and I’m also right).
My good friend at the magazine, Alyssa Roenigk, explained the situation: Pick any game, cover it for The Mag and do anything I want. Without going into detail, I’ve got a reputation for white lying my way into things. The fact is, when you’re an astronaut, priest, food critic or limo driver, more doors open than if you’re … well, if you’re You. The rules: Don’t blow my cover – No biased attire – Be professional – No cheering.
I was born in the beautiful southern town of Auburn, Alabama. My family moved away through my high school years, but I returned to get an Engineering degree at the University. I grew up with pictures of Heisman winners Bo Jackson and Pat Sullivan on my wall. I loosely understood that our head coach Pat Dye and Ronald Reagan were the most powerful men in the country. I was the beneficiary of biased cultural conditioning. Auburn sports was life, and nothing was bigger.
Auburn University is a country mile or two from Georgia in the east. The University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa, is on the Mississippi side of the state. There is not a more distinct interstate rivalry in the nation. It’s a year-round fight. It never stops. It is viciously fantastic. And so, with any game in any sport at any level to choose from, I chose the Auburn-Alabama football game.
The night before the Friday-after-Thanksgiving game was as sleepless a night as I can recall since I stopped believing in Santa Clause. I showed up early. Apparently the media gate does not open up at sunrise for an evening game. Rookie move. I already looked like an idiot. I called my friend at ESPN, who was asleep on the west coast. She immediately laughed at my eagerness. I posted up with some security guards at the gate, practicing my ESPN lines and building up a little bravado. Of course I knew Stuart Scott, he owed me a beer.
With media credentials hanging from my belt (editor’s note: another rookie move), I walked to the football complex, which was closed to the public. It must suck to be the public. “Jeff Yancey with ESPN The Magazine, I’m supposed to be inside”. And boosh, I was inside. Amazing. Don’t think for a minute ESPN is not an omnipotent acronym.
Auburn’s Tiger Walk is the century-old tradition of players and coaches walking from the dorms to the stadium amidst a sea of fans, thousands deep. I found the man in charge of game-day operations and told him the truth: I was there to cover the game for ESPN and wanted to take part in the Tiger Walk. Twenty minutes later, I was at the top of the walk talking with legendary Auburn head coach Pat Dye, who was walking that day. As the players started the walk, Coach Dye hit me on the back and said, “Well, let’s go”. Coach Pat Dye, a man I’d admired and watched lead my team for the first half of my life had just hit me on the back and told me to follow him to the stadium … All my cool was gone. I was a grinning idiot.
Jordan-Hare, like most SEC stadiums, is impressive. As I walked into the access-only areas, I decided a Martha Stuartesque mom must’ve decorated the interior, but a rabid sports fan Dad was in charge of the walls and corridors. They were a homage to Auburn history. The first room I entered felt like an oversized family room. I stopped to pour over the life-sized memories and walk through a visual history of Bo Jackson, Cadillac Williams and Running Back U. Then I turned and realized I was at a neighborhood barbecue. I didn’t recognize anyone, so I assumed it was mostly the family of recruits, sitting around on plush couches, watching big screens, laughing and eating elite tailgate flavor. These people were having a blast.
I finally pulled myself away and continued my stadium tour. I turned a corner and saw the field. I had almost forgotten where I was. You know the schmuck in those potato chip commercials who pulls a label off a bag and gets magically transformed from his couch to the Big Game? I felt like that shmuck.
I found Bo Jackson on the sidelines, walked up and introduced myself. Not one of my thoroughly prepared questions made it from my brain to my voice box. My recorder was deep in my pocket as I caved and told him I was a fan (rules be damned), asked for a picture and talked some Iron Bowl predictions. I had just met a childhood hero on the very field where he had become a legend, decades earlier. Ear To Ear.
Five minutes into college games, the press is herded off the field, into their box. I managed to tuck my notebook away and stand on the 25 between the coaches and the athletic director. Standing shoulder to shoulder with athletic director Jacobs, I made small talk as if we knew each other. Surprisingly, he never asked me what the hell I was doing there. The one piece of advice Alyssa gave me was to act confident. You can pretty much walk into any situation without question, if you believe you’re supposed to be there, and act respectful and confident. She was right. Hiding there, I stayed on the field through the first half. By halftime, I was cold and hungry, so I decided to check out the press box, where I should’ve been anyway.
I wasn’t expecting dancing girls or a top-shelf open bar, but man, the press box is boring. It’s a huge, glassed-in aquarium, filled with people who, for the most part, looked like they had never stepped on a playing field without pen and paper. No cheering. Barely a word spoken. They all looked stressed, which reminded me they were working. They had deadlines or something. While they worked, I ate a lot of chili dogs and drank a lot of coffee. Outside of a special teams argument with a writer from Mobile at the chilidog tray, I was bored. I wanted back on the sideline.
In the final 10 minutes of the game, the press is allowed to return. Auburn had led the entirety of a game that no one had given them a chance to win. There was gnashing of teeth and a dust cloud as the media raced back to the field. Suddenly, they looked like athletes.
A close game ended with Auburn losing the Iron Bowl for the second time in eight years, and me getting a huge reminder about who plays these games. Not adults. In the post-game press conference, the leaders of the team were called into a huge, cold room where the media grilled them, one by one. Auburn had come in a huge underdog, and they led the entire game until the final two minutes, when their archrival pulled it out. Brutal. Their hearts were broken, but they sat there and did the last thing they wanted to do. They respectfully answered moronic questions (“How does it feel?”… Seriously?) with class, until every question had been answered. The kids in that locker room were far more disappointed than any adult fan in the stands. The pressure the media puts on these 18- to- 21-year-olds kids is enough to break most adults. Their maturity was amazing. I was the only ESPN reporter there, so I had the clout to ask questions. But I didn’t ask anything. And, after that experience, you will never catch me degrading any kid when he fumbles the football, while trying to win for his team.
All in all, it was a sports fan’s dream day. I met childhood heroes. I took part in pre-game traditions. I taunted friends in the stands via text. I heard moving, pre-game speeches. I heard disappointed men give inspiring post-game press conferences. I saw parts of my stadium I had never seen. But honestly, the experience was about perspective. It was a game I’ve seen countless times, for the first time. I’ve watched the War Eagle circle the stadium, but today I had to slowly pivot 360 degrees to watch his entire flight. I stood level with the players as they ran by me onto the field. I looked up at the cheerleaders when they were thrown into the air. If the football was in the air, it was above my head. When I stood next to Nick Saban I looked dow … well I suppose some things are the same no matter where you’re standing.
Watching a game in the stands is going to be tough now … which is why I’m submitting my resume along with this article. Dear ESPN The Magazine, I want in.