Hoover, Ala. -- They nervously clutch numbered Daniel Moore prints, chattering about how, if possible, they could direct him to sign in a particular area of the print, and maybe even with a particular message. The painting in question commemorates the Alabama Crimson Tide's 2011 National Championship season.
Would it be possible to get a "Roll Tide" next to his name?
What about a date?
Hey, what would y'all do? Would y'all ask coach to put a "2012" next to his signature? This thing's going to the framers next week. This is it. Only chance.
In an instant it's over, and as if the hand of God swept through the streets of Egypt, and if the divine force was a grumpy waist-high blur in a summer suit. He arrived, and He left just as suddenly, leaving only a trail of local TV cameramen. Yet in silver sharpie, He left his mark: on the print in question, steel-colored box letters frame an emphatic "ROLL TIDE," with a furious cursive signature to the right.
I've been standing against the velvet ropes for over two hours, but when He passes, I let the crowd shoulder me out of the way, resigned to my cruel fate: I forgot to bring a Sharpie, and after I'd borrowed one to get Damion Square's scrawl on my cap 30 minutes prior, I was admonished by its owner, "better get you one for later." No sharing when the big man comes, so I don't even try.
The younger members of the lobby pit produce cell phones, and one teenager nervously parks his dip in the other cheek to speak clearer: "Mama. Mama, wake up. I just met Nick Saban. Yeah! I know."
On the third and final day of 2012 SEC Media Days, for just under three hours, I joined the ranks of the Alabama sidewalk fan, one of the most infamous creatures in college sports and a presence annually dreaded at this event. I'm among the first in the herd that clogs the hotel's common areas, just as it does each year. I am the Alabama sidewalk fan, and I want to meet Nick Saban.
Through the course of the morning I managed to craft a character based entirely on the worst stereotypes of a "Bammer." Given my natural height, two weeks' worth of a patchwork beard, and sweaty, shoulder-length hair I let cascade from a crimson "A" ball cap -- plus a lit Marlboro Light before 8 a.m. and one XL "2012 Womens College World Series National Champions" t-shirt purchased at 5 a.m. in the Walmart in nearby Mountain Brook -- I earned an interview with a Tuscaloosa television station and a starring role in two sets of ESPNU's b-roll.
If you were a TV reporter assigned the story slug of "passionate Alabama fans gather to celebrate team," I made damn sure this was your bullseye:
Within 15 minutes I was approached by a Tuscaloosa area reporter. It's a shame my part was edited down, considering the marble halls of eternity this conversation deserves to echo through:
TV REPORTER: "Can you speak your full name into that microphone clip?"
ALABAMA ME: "Uh... hang on... It's Steven Norman. With a 'v,' not a 'ph.'" (This was a moment of true guile, as the only thing I managed to come up with was my real first name and my real middle name as my last name.)
TV REPORTER: "So Steven, talk about what it was like to see the players come through here this morning. Did you get any autographs?"
ALABAMA ME: "Oh man, I tell you, you know, seeing Barrett Jones and Coach and those guys coming through the lobby just now, it was like there was smoke, like they were comin' outta the tunnel at Bryant-Denny."
TV REPORTER: "Perfect. That's great. That'll work. You know, the good thing about being the local station is that we get to show a little bias for the home team."
ALABAMA ME: "Awesome, man. Roll Tide!"
TV REPORTER: "Roll Tide!"
ALABAMA ME: (again) "Roll Tide!"
TV REPORTER: "... okay."
Apparently, you only "Roll Tide" just the once. A third one creates a weird pause in the conversation's postscript (too much national title for one talk, I reckon!). But hey, lesson learned.
There was no altruism in this social experiment. To borrow Bruce Feldman's imagery, three days inside a hotel ballroom with over 1,000 media members is like going to a casino that, while free of traditional vices, still manages to inflict the same steady drain of stamina and morale. So I shed the collared shirt, church pants and press credentials and belly-flopped in social standing to stare up at Media Days from its lowest possible point.
The majority of sports media members all but sneer at the overzealous sidewalk fan, and that breed is never quite as wonderfully personified as by the Tide's faithful. Steven Norman didn't loiter in the Wynfrey lobby to ridicule Alabama, but rather to feel what we think of them.
Each year they clog the lobby of the Wynfrey, impeding nothing but annoying the ivory tower purely on principle. They're the patrons of Paul Finebaum, the anonymous trolls of pay site message boards alleging vast conspiracy theories against beat writers, and the go-to example used by critics of the sports media as the true constituency to which we work our trade. Even though this was the same week in which the New Yorker was shadowing Finebaum, maybe there's still a sense of dread among some of us that our real audience wants nothing of enterprise reporting, quality writing or our own cherished wit. They just want to know what time Coach Saban's gonna be at the hotel, so they can get autographs.
They were weird as hell, predictably, but not at all terrible, at least in containment. As the Tide players made their way through the lobby before 8 a.m., there were a few of the middle-aged superfan NASCAR-looking types, myself included, wearing head-to-toe Tide apparel save for the stereotypical jean shorts, but there were also a lot of young fans, almost twice as many as the middle-aged crowd. Barrett Jones swept through the line first, pausing with a young high school couple before being ushered along the SID staff. She was the sole exception to the stereotype: blonde, pretty, clad in a houndstooth cocktail dress with roses embroidered on the hem. She could be mistaken for a U of A sorority girl, save for the tattoo that started on her right shoulder and crawled a good five inches down her arm.
The day before I asked a volunteer worker for the league who identified himself as an undergraduate at Alabama about the crowd for Thursday's arrival of the Tide. "It will be insane, this whole place will get packed," he assured me. I asked if he expected to see any friends from school here.
"Man, none of these people are students or alumni. They never are. This is Alabama."
He then paused and asked that I didn't use his name.
Outside the roped-off area, there are four gentlemen with military haircuts and fresh black suits, each with corresponding gold lapel pins that indicate they're plainclothes law enforcement. I'll find out later that they're officers from the Hoover Police Department assigned to provide security for all 14 SEC head coaches and 42 football players set to visit the hotel over three days, but during the two previous days, I never saw them with another coach or set of players. Maybe I didn't notice them, but the idea that Saban arrives with his own security details only amplifies the mystique.
I feel it's my obligation to abolish one particular stereotype of The Bammer, or at least this flock: Throughout the course of my two hours, aside from a thick accent or five, there was nothing to loathe about these people. I'm sure the league secretly loves their presence, if only as an ever-present breathing reminder to everyone just how permeated this market is with the product.
There was some wince-worthy idolatry: "I mean, they should take Alabama through the back, just for security. You never know who's out here," said a bearded white male in his 40s clutching a book of glossy photos, wonderfully unaware of the irony in his concerns. But I overheard no derogatory statements based on race, gender or religion. The only conceivable sleights to a minority or gender were as follows:
1) Upon seeing my crisp, off-the-rack softball "National Champions" new hotness, an older Tide gentlemen approached to compliment my ensemble before realizing (in real time) that my particular silkscreen boast was in favor of ... a lady sport:
OLDER TIDE GENTLEMAN: "Wow, hey man I sure do like that one, where'd you get..."
OLDER TIDE GENTLEMAN: "oh...ok, that'sthesoftballthing, wellthat'sokay,son."
2) Some of your church-potluck level judgmental staring, aimed at a pair of women in their early 40s clad in Tennessee orange and sitting in the corner of the lobby with the gall to be arranging their own 8x10 glossies of Derek Dooley, Tyler Bray, et al, in plastic sleeves, all out in the open in front of God and Saban and all of us.
Now, I'm confident that despite the assumed stereotype of the sidewalk Southern college football fan, that particular disdain centered solely on the sight of "convict orange" and nothing else. While no words were exchanged during my time in the pit, I'd like to assume there's a certain beauty in the prejudice of sports, in that this pair of women would be shunned by the Tide collective for their team affiliation far before their perceived apparent sexual orientation (if at all). Is it a foolish dream to believe the acrimony of SEC fandom could re-channel deep-seeded prejudice?
Perhaps our society can advance to a point where instead of hearing some bigot at a tailgate exclaim:
"Look at them damn lesbians! The ones in Orange! Tell you what they need: Jesus Christ!"
We'll simply hear:
"Jesus Christ! This is Alabama! I tell ya what man, apropos of the fact I support anyone's right to a civil union under a broad and welcoming definition of 'marriage,' somebody oughta round up them f---ing Vol fans over there and solve this Godless problem called 'Tennessee.'"
For the record: I heard neither statement. Still, I believe that one day the children of our children will earn pariah status solely for the color of their Adidas dri-fit polos. (And that Bama fans will employ frequent use of the word "apropos" in casual conversation.)
Only once did I ever fear any kind of mob mentality, when a colleague recognized the disguise and nearly blew my cover entirely. I was surprised by how long it took, honestly, but such is consideration of those Tide fans. As much as you notice them crowding the lobby and clamoring for attention, you don't really notice them.
As he greeted me, various sets of eyes in the pit set upon us. These were eyes I'd conversed with about Finebaum, about season tickets, and about Brodie Croyle's wife going to my family's church (she really did), and thus eyes I'd earned affirmation and inclusion from.
With subtle dread I felt as if the zombie Tide guts I'd smeared on myself to move undetected had begun to wash off, and my true scent -- tipped by Hugh's team-neutral outfit and gender-neutral laptop bag -- began to waft through the crowd. Before a camo-capped Tide zombie could pick up a whiff of my musk (smells like Honda Pilot and an Ole Miss journalism degree) and figuratively (probably figuratively) rip out my guts, I concluded the experiment.
Shortly thereafter I changed clothes and returned to the ballroom in time for Saban to inspire a hushed, childlike reverence to a completely different group of people. The experience wasn't any better or worse than the lobby, to be honest.
While we’re here, let’s watch some of the many fine college football videos from SB Nation’s Youtube channel: