I don't really have a clue whether this story is at all interesting. And it's long. Fingers crossed, I'm telling it anyway.
Any readers of the JCCW who climbed aboard over the summer or in the wake of the Arrested Development post might not know that I do not currently, in fact, even live within driving distance of the team I love. The Soon-to-be Mrs. JCCW and I have temporarily expatriated to Ann Arbor, which is why the last post talked about getting one last mini-vacation in before you have to put on a sweater just to contemplate going outside. (Particularly, of course, if you were raised in "It's the last week of February, time to break out the t-shirts" Alabama.)
We'd made reservations for a nice little inn (sort of a bed-and-breakfast without the breakfast) outside Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park on the Leelanau Peninsula, where we'd planned to do the whole hiking-beach-scenic drive-winery tour thing. (Is there any activity more Caucasian than a winery tour? There's cross-country skiing, and past that, I got nuthin'.) The inn told us they had a common-room TV where we ... well, let's be honest, I could catch the K-St. game.
By the time we finish up at work Friday afternoon, take off, get terrifyingly lost in the Michigan backwoods in the middle of the night thanks to some errant and/or confusing Google Maps directions, and arrive, it's 1 a.m. No biggie, we said we'd be late, they said there'd be a key in an envelope taped to the front door. There's no envelope, though. We ring up the innkeepers using the available phone and this balding porn-stached guy pops out. "Are you sure you made your reservation here?" he asks. "And you're sure it was for three nights?" Yes, we are quite, quite sure. "Well, we don't have you in the computer," he says, "and we're full for the weekend." Uh-oh.
They do have one available room in which we spend the night, and they do apologize profusely the next morning for having booked us for next weekend. They also shunt us off to a more-expensive-yet-infinitely-crummier family motel the next town over. A plague on their houses! Said motel isn't a dump, but it does feature 1. teenagers outside loafing around on coolers, smoking, and laughing at high decibel levels at all hours 2. a mattress with all the softness of the Orgeron's black heart 3. that classic old motel smell. It has a TV, but the idea of spending the first real four hours of my college football season there makes me want to tie a brick to my leg and hop in Lake Michigan instead. We/I need an alternative.
And surprisingly, it turns out we've got an appealing one: a sports bar called Bench Warmers improbably located in Maple City, an inaccurately-named mid-peninsula hamlet so small the five-stoplight town I grew up in in Alabama could have stolen its lunch money. But, hey, sports bar.
We get there about 20 minutes before the Auburn kickoff. I'm a little bugged that there's no sound and that I'm going to miss what seems likely to be the only Ron Franklin call of an SEC game all season, but beggars, choosers, one can't be the other, etc. ESPN comes back from commercial and kicks off their highlight package with Michigan-Appy St. This alone should set off alarm bells, but it's not until after the second Appy TD that my ears really prick up. Afer Appy's third I say out loud, "Wow, did they take the lead into halftime?"
The guy eating at the table in front of me turns around. "You didn't hear?" he says.
And I know. Watching it unfold via highlight over the next 45 seconds or so is like watching the news report of something catastrophic, like a bridge collapse, after hearing it on the radio first. Sure, you know it happened, but in the case of something like this it really does take seeing to believe. But there that little I-AA kick-blocker goes, and it's over.
What's just begun, however, is the liquid sense of dread pooling in my gut. I'm a regular reader and fan of MGoBlog, to the point I co-opted his terminology for pre-season predictions for my own nefarious ends. I know Brian's classification for Appy St. was "Functional DNP," an attitude probably, honestly, even less chock-full of hubris than my oh-so-casual dismissal of Kansas St. ESPN has moved on to Holtz's mush-mouthed declarations of increduilty (or at least, that's what I assume they are ... for the first and just about only time during the evening, I'm glad the sound is off) and clips of Florida beating the piss out of WKU, but I'm stuck on the similarity between Brian's position entering this week and mine. I am convinced Auburn (and my poor, egg-threatened car) is in trouble.
By now, we're all aware that for the first 57 minutes of the game, the Tigers do precisely nothing to un-convince me. Not even the return of the Fog of Intimidation helps. And God bless Bench Warmers for existing, but with every game of the slightest interest to Michigan fans long since completed, the atmosphere doesn't help turn that dread outward rather than inward. During the first quarter, the noise in their little dining room ends up something like this:
Diner 1: So I tell her, look, we're just going to have to bite the bullet and buy a new lawn mower. The yard--
Me: SACK HIM! SACK HIM! GET HIM DOWN! GET HIM ON THE GROUND, DAMMIT!
Diner 1: ... uh, the yard, yeah, it's just too big to keep asking Gene to keep lugging that old Snapper across it every other weekend. He's a healthy kid, sure, but when the sun's out, I just think it's too much to ask him.
Diner 2: You looked at any Cub Cadets? My brother-in-law bought one, and he says--
Me: YES! GO SMITH! GO SMITH! RUN! RUN! YEAAAAAAH! *series of loud claps*
Eventually, Soon-to-be-Mrs. JCCW tires of our table being stared at as if it ought to be inside a well-built cage for the safety of the others and I do my best to focus on my note-taking, which I'm doing like a good blogger. As the Tigers continue to thrash about helplessly on offense and alternate series-to-series on defense between looking impregnable and looking, um, easily-pregnated, these notes end up turning into a series of personal questions for those involved and run thusly:
"Tubby, why is the defense still blitzing every other play when Freeman hasn't thrown further than six yards downfield in a dozen attempts? 'Hurries' don't mean much when the pass is completed and the QB has a thick protective casing of blubber."
"Hugh, Brandon, Al, why are we not even out of the first half of the first game and we're already to the point where we're going to have to revive the SackMeter? Is it the line? Is it indecisiveness in the pocket? Is it the receivers' incapability of getting open? With understanding comes forgiveness, fellas. Just help me understand."
"Ryan, Wes, it's really entirely too bad that you guys, freshmen playing in your first Auburn game ever in two of the highest-visibility positions on the field, are the stand-outs. Good job anyway. Glad to have you aboard."
"Tray, please feel better."
"Brandon. Brandon Cox. I defended you on the blog, I defended you to skeptical Michigan fans, I defended your honor in front of my father this summer. I'm well aware that having the back of fans like myself ranks very low on your list of what motivates you. Your offensive line has not been a great help. But for the record: you haven't had my back or the backs of any Auburn fans who have stuck up for you tonight. At all."
"ESPN, it's sad how little surprise and anger I can muster at your decision to flip SEC fans the finger again. I mean, of course you cut away to show the entire last at-bat of a game precious few of us care about and linger painfully over pointless applause instead of, say, showing the highlight during commercial ... all while our team's season is on the line in some ways. Of course, because you hate us. We know that. All my rage is spent."
"Tubby, it's 13-9 in the fourth quarter, fourth-and-five on your opponent's 30, after your offense has gained 59 yards on the only thing even resembling one of those newfangled 'drives" they've heard so much about ... and your decision is to send a true freshman in his first game on to try a 47-yarder you wouldn't have banked on V*****n himself making last year. Where's the aggression? Where's the balls-out gambler of old? You're telling the offense, flat-out, you have no faith in their ability to cross the goal line. None. There is no way the football gods will reward this with a good kick."
"Quentin, Sen'Derrick, Jerraud, et al, let no one disparage your name if Auburn loses this game with Kansas St. still stuck on 13 points. 13 points, particularly when the offense you faced opened with such airtight execution, is a remarkable feat. You are the men we expected you to be."
That's the last thing I write (or, the gist of the last scribble I scribble). Because on Auburn's next possession, Kansas St. (or, arguably, the officials) hands Auburn not one but two 15-yard, automatic first-down penalties, and the offense--whose final six plays of the possession gain 0, 1, 0, -1, 3, 2--still cannot even cross midfield. The Auburn offense, somehow still while under the direction of Al Borges, looks as if it will not make the end zone if it plays through Labor Day evening. I'm not walking out, but at this point, I resign myself to defeat. We've moved to the bar now with the dining room's closure, and some old guy has noticed my Auburn t-shirt and Auburn hat and asked in the third quarter why I sounded so frustrated.
"Our offense has looked horrible," I tell him.
"Oh, you're still within a touchdown," he says. "You're right there with him!"
I don't have the heart to tell him that we are at home and favored by nearly two TDs. And when after the nightmare of a possession mentioned above--when we punt the ball back to K-St. with 6:09 to play and still in need of a touchdown or nothing--the guy turns around and says "You're right, they don't look good." I may not be as miserable as the Michigan fans, but I am rapidly approaching renting an apartment in the same miserable building.
The Auburn defense stands tall again and forces K-St. to punt from their own 17. AU will start at their own 43. I try to grasp that last straw of hope. And then ... then
Cox hits Rodriguez for 12. An incomplete pass. And then Cox makes the sort of play he's made for going on three years ... Second-and-long, last chance, nothing happening, he takes a couple steps forward as if to scramble for a yard (for the umpteenth time this game) before nonchalantly flipping the ball towards Rodriguez as he tightropes the right sideline. It is a ridiculous-looking pass, a lost wobbler. Rodriguez catches it.
GO! I yell. Rodriguez does, down to the KSU 30, at which point he fumbles, only for Tommy "
Pass to Swinton for 16. First-and-goal. I'm standing up now, clapping, muttering Come on Auburn, Come on Auburn. Stewart loses 2 GOTTA BLOCK GUYS Offsides on K-St. ALL RIGHT ALL RIGHT Cox rolls left COME ON lofts it to the back of the end zone ... McKenzie is there! YES! YES! YES!
There's clapping, a quick jump and double-fist pump, a double high-five for the Soon-to-be-Mrs. ... and aside from a couple of whispers of "Auburn fan," or "took the lead there" the rest of the bar is silent. Not being the sort who really enjoys making a scene, it's a peculiar feeling, probably the way a man raised by chimps feels when he plunges face-first into a bowl of soup in a fancy restaurant and then gets the vague feeling no one else is doing the same thing ... or something.
I try to calm down as K-St. takes the field. The Soon-to-be-Mrs., her threshold for college football passed many sacks of Cox ago, gripes that KSU is going to kick a field goal and send the game into overtime. "No, there's no way the Auburn defense is going to let that happen," I tell her. "They've worked too hard. See, holy crap, Groves just ran right over that poor tackle! He's freaking possessed, I can't believe they're leaving that tackle alone with him. At least shift ... YES! GROVES! YEAH, GO! GO! YEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSS! GROVESGROVESGROVES!WHOO!"
That goes on for a few moments. A guy at the bar offers a high-five, which is nice. And then from beneath the bar the bartender pulls out a bicycle horn and lays it on the bar. "That's usually for Michigan games," he says, "but go ahead."
So I give it a few quick honks. It sounds beautiful. In the big room, there's almost an echo. Delirious on Auburn's Lazarus-like revival and the pure, unadulterated joy that comes with knowing a force of nature (and concerned citizen) like Quentin Groves is on your team, it sounds like a victory trumpet. "War Eagle!" I say.
There's no "War Eagle" in response, since I doubt there's another Auburn fan within a hundred mile radius. That's fine. There's a couple more high-fives as we walk out, and as we drive home, I'm torn. I know I've just watched an offensive performance just one notch ahead of "pathetic," seen our most indispensable player pounded into the same pulp that sunk us last year, in general witnessed Auburn play at a level that will not get them through a single week unscathed.
But I did so in the strangest setting, the most unusual circumstances I likely ever have and likely ever will again (save a trip overseas during football season, not exactly on the docket as of now). I got to walk out of the bar in Maple City, Michigan not only with my team a winner, but knowing I'd remember said win for as long as I'm telling pointless Auburn stories (i.e. forever)--and that on a day virtually every college football fan in that bar and the surrounding area will desperately try to forget. I feel more thankful, truly, than angry or worried.
And I feel like our car could use a bicyle horn.