I Took A Right Turn Off Exit 118 And Wound Up In Tuscaloosa

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

It's Beer, Bands and Bingo - Hokie Style! An intimate look at the connection between Alabama and Virginia Tech - a 94 year old relationship on and off the gridiron...

Growing up in the west end of Richmond during the sixties, many of us little kids weren’t dialed into the world of football - yet. We were consumed with all things baseball like the 1968 Tuckahoe Little League’s World Series team comprised of guys like Ellyson, Stonebrenner, Pankovits and Mizelle. Let me first say, I’m considered a "Yankee" down here in Alabama, "…because anyone living north of Atlanta is." It wasn’t until the following year my dad, a ’51 University of Richmond grad, took me to see my first live gridiron action in the Commonwealth. I was hooked as the Spiders upended VPI, in their white uni’s and white helmets emblazoned with the orange filled state map, a la 2013, on the side, 17-10 on a crisp, overcast Saturday at City Stadium. My most vivid memory was the Spiders’ Walker Gillette snagging ball after ball from QB Charlie Richards and Ray Easterling’s slobber knocking tackles.

Anyway, I started to follow "VPI Gobbler" football more and more, especially the next four years with Don Strock. I’m that old that the original mascot looked more like a cardinal than a turkey. I remember the South Carolina game where he threw for 350 yards on 29 of 44 en route to a 45-20 beat down of cocky. Looking at Bruce Arians coming off the bench back then to today with him pacing the Arizona sidelines, that "Dunlap disease" gets to all of us eventually! My growing passion for VPI&SU football would take a dramatic hit the following Homecoming weekend in Tuscaloosa. Pops had business to tend to in Birmingham, so why not take squirt south, drop him off with family and we'd go ahead on and take in a game.

This Alabama vs. Va. Tech, a Historical Retrospective takes us back quite a bit as the relationship between the two schools dates back to 1932. It was ten meetings until we won our first game against the Crimson Tide some sixty plus years later and believe me THAT win doesn’t count in Crimson Tide football lore. You have to search pretty deep to find that line item…there is certainly no love lost for the Mike Shula coaching era down here.  I sat on a tartan-plaid wool blanketed steel bleacher surrounded by nearly 60,000 well mannered screaming fans totally overwhelmed at the sight and sound as I’d never heard such a noise. I relive those moments every year amongst 108,000 like minded fanatics who follow Nicky’s kids through "the process" today.

I still remember to this day learning the story of the elephant mascot as told by a wrinkled old curmudgeon sitting next to me as he reminisced about a game against Ole Miss almost 42 years earlier to the day, "at the end of the quarter, the earth started to tremble, there was a distant rumble that continued to grow and some excited fan in the stands bellowed, 'Hold your horses, the elephants are coming," and apparently the name stuck of these Red Elephants. Now, I don’t subscribe to the fact they were named after the local jeweler, Rosenberg’s, luggage tags as the team traveled for the 1927 Rose Bowl. Needless to say, I don’t remember a lot about the 52-13 pounding other than wondering if we’d ever stop them from scoring. In contrast to today’s game, it was similar to watching Forrest Gump run from one end zone to another until the crowd told him to STOP! I was also miserably lucky enough to witness a further humiliating ass whoopin’ the following year 77-6 in T-town. At least I know how Akron felt after we bitch-slapped them in ’95 (Ed. Note: 77-27 on Homecoming in a downpour, Hokies were up 57-0 at one point), and paybacks are hell and deservedly so to a team known as the Zips! When I tour the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, and the Bryant Museum today, it still pains me to see memorabilia of that loss forever etched into Alabama football history.

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When you think of the History of mascots, how do you come up with a turkey and an elephant? How does one denote fierce domination with either? Thank goodness he’s now called Big Al – a soft and fluffy pachyderm that every southern belle wants a selfie taken with, "…because he’s soo cute…" At least we retired the seven foot goose-necked Fighting Gobbler as he’d more likely fit in at Chuck-E-Cheese than Chicken Hill. And who can forget that fateful night in 2000, when lightning struck! It goes to serve Coach Corso right…never pick against the Hokies, lest ye smite thy rental car. From the days of VPI & SU employee Floyd Meade’s turkey to Wallace Wade starting the ball rolling in Tuscaloosa, the folklore and traditions are numerous and entertaining. "The O" as it’s known down he-yah is commonly referred to as "Rammer Jammer." An original tune to Ole Miss’ Hotty Toddy, The Million Dollar Band would get the crowd going with whatever team they’re playing as fans sang, "Hey Auburn, We're gonna beat the hell out of you! Rammer Jammer, Yellowhammer, give 'em hell, Alabama before and after every game. You have to understand the mentality and culture down here is far different than anywhere else and difficult to compare to other states and sports connections. One could say the oil fields of west Texas are similar in their nature and passion when it comes to football in towns like Midland, Odessa and Lubbock, who ONLY have football as community. Back home we have the Redskins, Ravens (excuse me the Colts forever), Orioles, Richmond (now Gwinnett) Braves and the Bullets (Ed Note: YESSSS, the Wizards don't exist).

Alabama, in all its hillbilly-characterized glory, is a small population outside of the medical and research universities of Birmingham, the aeronautical and space center of Huntsville and the transportation and port system of Mobile. Take those markets out of the equation and we’re no different than the stretch from Wytheville to Christiansburg – a rural expanse as far as you can see. So there are a lot of similarities.

Me, I’m a Pamplin guy from the 80’s and I’ve traversed my career throughout the US. Hell, I lived in Sioux Falls, SD for a stretch where they have 8-man football – swear to God! That’s as sacrilegious to me like folks eating with sticks! My neighbors were Ozzie and Harriet and they STILL are in black and white. In the summer of 2000, I find myself in Atlanta having the big orange box as my biggest client, but for some strange reason I keep having to travel to Birmingham frequently. After two years of beating a path on I-20, I decide to move the brood into Alabama, and unbelievably my IQ didn’t drop!

Believe you me, I had those preconceived notions of shoeless, wife-beater wearing, wheel-less cars covered in foot high grass around the trailer, true meaning of the word tooth-brush stereotypes, but my perspective changed somewhat with my mail man being my first adult exposure to Roll Tide! As I’m taking crap in from the moving van, he stops me and asks me where I’m from and we exchange pleasantries. In a moment of true ‘Bama spirit, he asks me who ya for? Being the southern etiquette-raised male, I reply with "pardon me." He says, "Son, who you root for?" Looking like the proverbial deer –in-the-headlights, he explains to me right-then, right-there I have to "proclaim" a team – Alabama or Auburn. "Alabama, of course," I replied, followed by his "good answer." The next morning, I find a Crimson Tide T shirt in with my mail, and over the next two years, we trade football stories, BBQ and beer whenever our paths crossed. I would suspect not too many people have that kind of relationship with your mail man regarding football certainly not in my Sic Semper Tyrannus of Vajenya.

One thing you need to know is football IS life down here period! Babies are pulled from the womb in Crimson and White gear here. I know we have cutsie logo outfits including maroon and orange onesies and baby cheerleader stuff many VT alums and fans buy. That’s incomparable to what I’m talking about. Babies have names like Bama, Bryant, Nicky, and Crimson. If you want to follow that rabbit trail, go read Harvey Updike, the guy who poisoned the Toomer’s Corner trees at rival Auburn – smh! I’ve been coaching little league football down here for nearly ten years and I see it on a daily basis. Mothers and Fathers alike believe little Johnny is the next Jay Barker or Mark Ingram, and they all invest in anything ‘Bama.

I have seen many man caves that are simply shrines to UA Football leaving me as much in awe and perplexed as to why. You have to live it to believe it. Since Nick’s arrival in 2007, the revenue trajectory of the University has been directly attributable to his success with hundreds of millions of dollars filling the coffers and cranes dotting the campus skyline. At we sit and bitch over 300-year old trees and where to put an indoor facility. Trust me I get it but, obviously my Blacksburg faithful environmentally and subconsciously do not. It’s a passion that pervades the entire landscape of life down here. Football to Alabama is what DC is to politics. It’s the Yankees vs. the Red Sox, dogs and cats living together, it’s mass hysteria 24/7/365. Noted columnist and radio personality, Paul Finebaum, has made a successful career in print and talk radio of nothing but Alabama Football every day of the year so much so that ESPN has funded his gregarious legion of fandom. Football is not relegated to just the boys either.

Our distaff members enjoy a fine place in football lore here too.

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When Constance Brooke Pellington III and William aka Billy Jo Bob, give birth to a little girl, she’s not left out in the cold…oh nooo! She’s an aspiring "Silver Sticker!" What’s that you ask? Come now, you know this…the glittery baton twirling blondes gracing the sidelines when the Million Dollar Band plays. Some of these girls are on scholarship! I’m not kidding. This is serious business – these gals aren’t your flag corps dance team variety cast off’s. This is the University of Alabama’s "Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader version" – they are…the Crimsonettes…well, bless your heart! For over forty years, they are what sparklers are to the Fourth of July, bedecked in crimson glitz, overflowing of enthusiasm and Crest White Strips spirit. There are literally generations of mother-daughter legacy’s where baby girl began dance lessons at 5 and years later she’s generation three as a Crimsonette, and you thought Honey-Boo-Boo was bad. You get the idea! The 26-girl squad is damn near all Miss America’s, wholesome and pretty. I have a cavity they’re so sweet. The one question I had to have answered was, "What happens if you drop a baton?" In semi-robotic fashion and in unison I might add, they echoed, "you don’t!" One can only assume they’d receive the same chastised scorn AJ McCarron did on national TV regarding the butt spanking. So how do you get a million dollar band? In 1922, probably one of only five years in a century of Alabama football when they sucked, Atlanta sportswriter C.W. Pickens commented after Ga Tech’s 33-7 victory, "You don’t have much of a team, but what you do have is a million dollar band," and the label stuck. I digress; y’all don’t want to hear about silver stickers, bands and babies. Where’s the beef you ask?

The Food. The Beer. The Tailgate. Now, we’re not talking Atomic Buffalo Turds and Mudbugs of Arkansas and LSU fame, no sir. We’re talking multi-million dollar Prevosts that travel the SEC circuit from late August to the Georgia Dome – home of SEC Championship hosted by, you guessed it, University of AL-uh-BAMA! There are tailgates of every shape size and venue on every Saturday in the fall on college campuses in America. What makes Alabama unique is the depth and breadth of the quality of food that’s tough to beat. Hell, there’s tailgate competitions between ALL SEC schools, and I swear there’s a championship for the bestest, most fastest race to the Portolet every weekend here. From Presidential Park, Tutwiler, Coleman, Student Rec, Moody and the NEC hundreds of RV’s begin their weekly trek on Thursday’s before gates open 6pm on Friday’s with dozens of off campus RV lots and convenient shuttle service to and from Bryant-Denny. I seem to recall The Dairy Barn and the Duck Pond as our lots of choice. However, to take in the real experience of game day T-town style, it’s the Quad. We have the Hokie Club Point Priority System (seriously? What the hell? I thought we’d encourage more numbers and grow the dad’gum venue – don’t get me started) and Chicken Hill which I personally prefer, yet the dynamic and sheer numbers of fans around Tuscaloosa, family and guests is astounding. From company’s leveraging the corporate relationships to Billy- Bob’s crawfish boil sit side-by-side at the Quad in their makeshift 10x10 tent or their glossy Crimson and White logoed paraphernalia not too different from the beautiful sea of Maroon and Orange in Blacksburg. Dreamland Barbeque, Full Moon ribs, bacon wrapped jalapeno poppers, smoked paprika deviled eggs, dad’s bourbon-laced baked beans, Guinness and chocolate infused chili and mom’s mustard based potato salad are some of the typical fare. However, Shane Hill is the quintessential master of the tailgate in Alabama with recipes that rival some James Beard nominees. Today’s Craft beers tend to be the rage with Gen-Y and Millenials here, but most of us old schoolers prefer a more refined palate – just make mine cold damnit! From Wild Turkey to Woodford Reserve, it’s all here and it’s all an incredible atmosphere just like it is back home, but with three times as many people. To me, there’s nothing like a Thursday night in the Terrordome or a 50-degree Saturday in October at Lane with the majestic colors of the Blue Ridge Mountains as a backdrop; there’s a lot to be said for home. I’m more of a fan of the intimacy of Lane compared to the pageantry of Bryant-Denny, but it should be on your Bucket List.

Y'all want to know the crazy stuff, the head-spinning, fire-breathing frenzy that is The Iron Bowl where Auburn stands for – Alabama Usually Beats Us 'Round November - most years. Usually, this weekend in November has been preceded by the other date of significance in Alabama football known as "the last Saturday in October" due to the fact we don’t mention that state north of Alabama, i.e., Urban Meyer’s adoption of the term regarding those #$@^& MgoBlue people (who stole our BCS Bowl thank you Pac 12 refs). Lest you forget, weddings don’t happen on this date, work ceases the Tuesday prior, many a divorce and has occurred because of this vicious and sometime insanely hated rivalry. This culture is truly where houses are divided. It’s said you’re not a true Alabama fan if you marry one of those people from down there on the Plains. I’ve known no other and I’ve had the fortune to live in Columbus, been to Austin, and seen the 12-man, Touchdown Jesus and Pasadena all in their respective heydays. This rivalry is well beyond insanity as we talk about it every day once the game concludes until the next one begins. We have two seasons of talk radio here in T-town.

There’s football season and there’s the off season. We e even have a countdown to gameday which begins with 180 days as its starting line. You see we have personalities like "Tammy" who foams at the mouth in her zealous support of all things Auburn. There’s "Jim from Realtown," yea that’s the real name of it, who regardless of the score Auburn is beaten by, defends how they actually won the game. We have characters! Characters who’s life’s will is to support the only thing they truly know, care about and love – football in Alabama. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I’ve not been exposed to nor have I heard of such outwardly vocal passion emanating from 285 Spring Road, Blacksburg, VA loyalists or at least not to this degree – feel free to substitute insanity if you prefer. One thing we will always agree on between us Alabama and Virginia Tech fans …we absolutely hate those people who wear that gawd awful orange and blue!

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