VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – It took a bad break — a flat tire and bent rim — to open a window for MAS to view both Southern hospitality AND a classic intrastate football rivalry — Alabama vs. Auburn.
Indulge me, please, while I explain.
Last month, MAS set out on his “Deep South Sojourn.”
He planned to combine sports with two more of his passions — U.S. history and American culture — during a 4,500-km car trip up through the Florida panhandle, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
MAS obtained press passes for the Mississippi State vs. Kentucky and Ole Miss-Idaho college grid games as well as the Saints-Bills NFL contest.
In between those clashes, he would hit as many sites as he could squeeze in — including the Civil War battlefield at Vicksburg, Mississippi, the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham and, yes, even Elvis’ birthplace and museum in Tupelo, Mississippi.
(MAS posed for a pic at the latter wearing his souvenir “Vegas” sunglasses and a sneer while mumbling “Thankyuh, Thankyuh vurrymuch…”)
But I digress.
Just past Tallahassee, Florida, MAS exited the Interstate onto Highway 231 north heading toward Montgomery, Alabama.
Shortly thereafter, he had his rendezvous with tire damage — in small town Dothan, southeastern Alabama.
There, after nine hours on the road, a tired and ticked MAS swallowed his pride and let two unfailingly polite young men change his flat for him.
They called it their “good deed for the day.”
One of them, Sebastian, had tattoos up and down both arms and talked of karma. MAS will never again be disdainful of body art or dismiss Buddhist beliefs.
The other fella’s name was Vincent. Think Keanu Reeves in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” as you picture this exchange:
Vincent (while flicking his ponytail): Where you from, sir?”
MAS: Vero Beach, Florida.
Vincent (head bobbing): EXCELLENT! What brings you to Alabama, sir?
MAS: SEC football games and sightseeing.
Vincent (with another flick and head bob): EXCELLENT!
I took down their names and addresses and told them I wouldn’t forget their kindness.
My rinky-dink spare forced me to stay overnight in Dothan.
As I set out the next morning, I feared having to stay there until a new rim arrived, which would throw me off my precise schedule.
When MAS entered the large waiting room of Stevens Tire Co., he felt like he had, instead, entered a shrine to Alabama football.
On all four walls — from floor to ceiling — were photos, memorabilia, banners, framed newspaper clippings and so on celebrating the Crimson Tide.
(The room’s throw rugs were souvenirs of SEC rivals — so you could walk all over them.)
It was more museum than waiting area.
I chatted up the personable general manager, Brock Stevens — a diehard Bama season ticket holder — and asked if he had read “Rising Tide”, a recent book on the Bear Bryant-Joe Namath years.
Brock said he was unaware of it.
We talked for 15 minutes or so as the phone rang off the hook.
When I told him of my SEC road trip, he jokingly — I think — said, “Wow! I don’t live but five minutes away; let me run home for some clothes and take me with you, will ya?”
While I waited for the repair — fortunately, Brock’s men just re-bent the rim — I heard a lady in her 80s say, in a syrupy drawl, to another octogenarian: “Looks lak we got ourselves anutha Bay-uh (Bear Bryant, legendary Tide coach) and they got thimselves anutha Shug (Jordan, a highly successful former Auburn coach and contemporary of Bryant).
“Uh-huh,” affirmed the nodding man.
She was referring to current coaches Nick Saban and Gus Malzahn who have Bama (10-0) and Auburn (10-1), respectively, going great guns this season.
It seemed that all everyone in town talked about was the two big in-state rivals.
In Dothan’s Walmart, I heard a female shopper/Auburn fan whoop that team’s battle cry “War Eagle!” in teasing a male worker who was a Bama follower (they’re fond of calling out “Roll Tide!”).
“You sure ‘nuf earned braggin’ rights,” he conceded. “That was a mighty big win over LSU your boys had Sat’day.”
Later as I tried on a Bama ball cap, a lady walked by and chuckled: “Thank Gawd, you got the rat (right) colors!”
And on and on — every place in Dothan and beyond.
If there’s any serious rancor involved in the side-taking, MAS couldn’t pick up on it. It seemed more of a fun-to-hate ’em deal.
It has been 40 years since Auburn upset undefeated and second-ranked Alabama, 17-3, on TWO blocked punts returned for TDs. Yet, you STILL see Auburn bumper stickers that read “Punt Bama Punt.”
MAS learned later in his trip that there are no geographic or socio-economic lines drawn in the rivalry.
“It’s mostly just family tradition that determines who you root for,” explained Bobby Warren, a technician at Birmingham’s historic Legion Field (former site of the yearly “Iron Bowl” game between the two schools).
“Your mama and papa’s favorite becomes yours too.”
Getting back to the tire shop, Brock is smart enough to also include a few Auburn items — some pennants, Tiger alum Bo Jackson photos and action figures, etc.
Hey, Auburn fans buy tires, too.
Passions should be peaking right about now — the two high-flying teams meet next Saturday for the SEC West title and a shot at a national championship.
When I reached for my credit card, Brock stopped me and said “No charge; but if you’re ever in Dothan again, stop in and see us.”
Your Bryant-Namath book is on the way, Brock.
With that, MAS was on HIS way, able to keep on his tight schedule — three games in spread-out locations over four days — and with a warm feeling inside.
I guess it’s true what they sorta say: When life gives you lemons, you make southern-style lemonade.
MAS has left the building.
Contact Man About Sports at: firstname.lastname@example.org