Somewhere, in the deep recesses of some file folder in our basement, or perhaps it was just thrown out when we moved, is a business card from an Alabama fan we met in 1988.
He resided in Dothan, Alabama, a retired ophthalmologist. He and his wife were sitting next to us at breakfast at the Courtyard by Marriott south of Birmingham, Alabama. They were clad in crimson and white. We were clad in blue and white.
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We started chatting about the Alabama-Penn State game that was to occur that afternoon at Legion Field. Neither they nor we could predict who would win. We cordially wished each other the best, knowing very well that neither of us really meant it. It was typical cordial college football fan banter before a big game among opposing team fans.
Terry and I had been wondering what the best way was to get to the game. So we figured this couple might know and asked them if they knew of a shuttle bus that would get us to Legion Field.
They told us they weren’t sure. Then they left the table to go to the breakfast buffet. When they returned, they said, “Why don’t you come with us?” We’re going by ourselves and the entire backseat is empty.
Terry and I looked at each other, a bit astounded, and immediately agreed. They told us to meet them in front of the hotel in 30 minutes.
Thus was my introduction to the University of Alabama Crimson Tide: sitting in the back of a luxurious Lincoln Town Car, two Penn State fans being driven to Legion Field by a pair of elderly diehard Alabama fans.
The ride to the game was full of stories. The husband, an Alabama alumnus, told us proudly of his son, who had made a major donation to the University of Alabama. The wife told us she had been attending Alabama football games for 70 years. Saw her first game in the 1920’s when she was just 7 years old. She regaled us with Alabama lore: how the elephant was chosen as a mascot, how the Crimson Tide got its name. Why she loves Alabama football. We had the sense that she wasn’t just quoting typical Alabama sound bites. She had lived through those moments of Alabama history.
The reserved parking spot they drove to practically touched the walls of Legion Field. They were off to a University of Alabama fundraiser tailgate, apologizing to us that they couldn’t bring us with them because it was by invitation only. We agreed on a meeting time after the game for the trip back to the hotel, and took off to walk around the stadium and soak in the atmosphere.
It was a miserable loss for Penn State. Alabama won 8-3. I don’t remember much about the game itself other than it was a tough defensive battle. But according to a Daily Collegian article about the game published on October 24, 1988 (click here), the Crimson Tide defense held Penn State to 71 total yards rushing. The offense couldn’t convert on any third down attempts (0 of 14). Total offense in the second half was 21 yards, with only two first downs gained. Tony Sacca, the quarterback, was 8 of 28 on pass completions for 98 yards, with one interception. Our defense showed up, kept Alabama to 8 points, but the only offense we could muster was one field goal.
It was the kind of a loss that you would just as soon forget. In fact, tight games like these are the worst kinds of losses, because they are winnable until the very end. Your hopes stay high for four quarters and then they get dashed as time runs out. You know you’re one big play away from victory, but it just doesn’t happen. If we get beat, we much prefer getting trampled. Then you know you played a better team. When it's close, you always have the sense that your team beat themselves. It's more frustrating.
When we returned to their car, our gracious hosts were waiting for us. We congratulated them on Alabama’s win, wished them the best for the rest of the season. In return, they were truly apologetic:
“We’re so sorry y’all had to travel all this way from Pennsylvania to watch your team lose.”
From some people after a game, such a comment would be considered a cruel taunt as you lick your wounds.
But this couple was very sincere. They knew what it was like to travel for the Crimson Tide only to be disappointed with a loss. They had tremendous respect for Coach Joe Paterno, and were very sorry the series was ending in 1990. They had traveled to Beaver Stadium once, and loved the Nittany Lions.
We exchanged business cards and told them if they came to Beaver Stadium in 1989, to please join our tailgate.
We never heard from them again, and in 1990, when we traveled to Tuscaloosa for a Homecoming Day battle, we were on a tour. It wasn’t realistic to try to find them.
This first encounter with the University of Alabama was one of the seminal moments in my early years as a new Penn State fan that convinced me that college football is something very special.
Due to this couple’s hospitality, that miserable Penn State loss to Alabama in 1988 stands as one of our favorite experiences we have ever had at an away game. It became the motivation for trying to make it to all away games for a season, something that has evolved into two decades of doing so.
They were the essence of true college football fans, of true sportsmanship, of the very best in college football.
That business card is lost forever. But if anyone recognizes who this couple is, please pass along our thanks if they are still alive.
Or find their son and forward this story. Let him know that I became a true convert to college football that day due to his parents. I am truly grateful.