After the Iron Bowl

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On Monday morning the toilet paper is still here, hanging from the wires and trees around Toomer’s Corner and around scattered trees and other shrubbery all across the campus of Auburn University, all the way down the hills of Magnolia Avenue. All along that street, Auburn fans decided that the famous intersection was simply too far away to wait. The whole ghostly street is proof.

In person, the Iron Bowl is every bit as nasty and intense as you’ve heard. The pom-pom shakers, maybe silly in any other context, work with violent aggression after every first down, every completion. There are fewer cheers and more primal screams of pure-grain desire, the need for this to go the way you want it to go. Losing to either side, whichever you’re on, can’t be considered an option.

But Auburn went down 21-7, then pushed every ounce of itself back up through the hole dug for them, every breath heaved towards making it a game again, sliding out from underneath the Alabama Crimson Tide’s stomp-machine just as it was preparing to smother the football life out of the Tigers. At 17-16, which is a bar just off Toomer’s Corner, the fervor was thick and loud, every play seeming like another step towards an apocalypse of some sort. Confident screeches of “Roll Tide!” came, then nervous chatter and for Auburn, quiet hope and loud cries for this improbable rally to continue.

A beautiful punt and ensuing special teams play stuck the Tide deep. Then A.J. McCarron hit Amari Cooper down the sideline for 99 yards and plunged the dagger into Auburn. The Tigers climbed the uncharted hill and as they set foot on its plateau, realized there was nothing there and plummeted into the familiar and well-populated crimson pit of despair, its walls lined with Bammers who expected this all along, because of course, because it’s the Tide. There are no expectations for Alabama fans. There is merely the waiting game until their team delivers the brutal, punishing right hook. There is no BCS National Championship Game without them; the game simply waits for the Tide to arrive.

When Nick Marshall tickled the line of scrimmage and dropped a pass to a completely-alone Sammie Coates, 17-16 lost its damn mind, as the Tigers were alive for a few more fiery minutes. Bracing for overtime and the collective cardiac attack of an entire city, we moved inside as T.J. Yeldon was pushed out of bounds with slivers of a second to go. We were inside when the 57-yard kick looked good for a second, then off and then finally short.

And it happened so fast, the ultimate sinking of an entire dynasty in this most ridiculous fashion, that we weren’t even sure it was legal because of the total insanity of its chances. Throughout the game, Alabama flashed slim crevices exposing soft underbelly, tiny slits in its thick-armored skin–some dropped passes, those missed kicks, coverage breakdowns–but they’d survived them because they’re Alabama. While Alabama may have these small areas of weakness, they’re nearly impossible to hit squarely in that target.

Instead, when you get too close, a sledgehammer comes from behind, dumping you into a tranquilized state. It’s not an instant kill; rather a coma in which you’re queasily awake, watching as the elephant’s foot comes down repeatedly on your chest. You can see that and you can hear “Roll Tide” ripping through warm Alabama air, all that assumed and posturing ease as the fans act like that’s how it’s always going to happen. The Tide rolls, waves don’t stop, and you can’t do a damn thing but wait for the crash.

Chris Davis and Auburn changed that ending, which ignited 17-16 into a spontaneous combustion of ecstasy and unfiltered joy, the happy-stupid kind where nothing makes sense, movements are lost to the crowd and language loses nuance. We hugged people we did not know and ran out to the intersection of College and Magnolia to join an already-frenzied rolling of the wires hanging above the street, all those temporary structures made possible and made necessary by one Crimson Tide fan’s loathsome exemplary act of extremist fandom.

And now it is Monday and a blizzard of toilet paper still covers that intersection. Debris–cans and cardboard boxes and bottles and paper–line campus streets for blocks and blocks around. Tailgates never stopped, people just had other places to be. It feels like there is somehow a chance the city won’t clean up the mess of all this sacred refuse, the tossed-around memorabilia from a night no one can possibly see again, but which we kept reliving on Sunday through highlights and radio calls and now, today, through being here in the still-giddy aftermath.

The Tide fans at 17-16, the Alabama supporters everywhere in Auburn on Saturday, vaporized into thin air after that last second went off the game clock. We swear we didn’t see a single crimson-clad soul after it happened. No one knows where they went, or how they disappeared so quickly, but in one hit of perfection on a final play, college football’s reigning Undefeatable Big Bad, its lingering dread and overconfident fanbase released their collective grip on the sport, not to be seen on that night again.

Everything else in Auburn is still here. Everyone is talking about it like it happened this morning, not two days ago. It will be awhile before it’s normal here again, we’re guessing, so let the remnants of Saturday lay and the whiteout hang in the sky. It’s impossible to absorb enough, even with all this paper everywhere.

Photo by Griffin Gotta.

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