Tuesday, January 11, 2011

AUsome in Arizona

**This account of one man's experience of the 2011 BCS National Championship game in Glendale, AZ is dedicated to Brewer High School alum and former football player, Auburn Tiger #40, Chris Humphries. Chris, the Patriot family is proud of you, supports you, and wishes you well in everything you do. Go Patriots and War Eagle!**

Sunday, January 9, 2011

If you've seen Huntsville, Alabama at noon on the last Saturday before Christmas, 4:30am on a Sunday morning is the polar opposite. An empty South Parkway and I-565 led through a sleeping city to the airport that, except for the Bemigi State hockey team, was also very quiet. But not for long.

With three flights on major airlines leaving HSV around 6:30am, the terminal soon began turning orange and blue as the Auburn family of North Alabama gathered to begin their pilgrimage to Glendale, Arizona. They were hungry too. But as the line formed for biscuits and coffee, my mind turned to the hunger this family has known since 1957. There's not a doubt that this crowd of folks who have denied themselves thousands of dollars of profit from their BCS Championship tickets would go without food for the next two days if it would ensure the possession of a crystal football and a national championship.

They've been denied too long. 1983, 1993, and 2004 were years of famine among a plentiful harvest for this football-centered family. And no matter the cause being a failed national ranking system or an internal ethics issue in those years - both beyond the control of these individuals - at least those three times they've been left wondering, "What if?" That wont be the case for their undefeated team this year. In the next 40 hours they would be champions or runners up but there will not be any wondering. The hunger of surety has been quenched, but would be the desire of ultimate victory?

Beyond the familiar colors of my Alma Mater filling American Airlines flight 1361 to DFW, some of the faces were familiar too. Former Auburn classmates and friends filed into the MD S80. Brett Bryant, Wade Short, Scott Banister, and Patrick Sularin boarded and, out of my reflex to the majority of memories with these guys, I started wondering where we might set up a Rook game on the plane. Brett was traveling with his wife and the latter three were trekking together from their home metropolis of Arab. I had left my travel partner, Jon McAnally, in the terminal as he would be flying US Air through DCA and Julie Thrasher had flown out to Phoenix the night before. We aren't just fellow Auburn fans. Everyone mentioned here holds a degree from the university at the loveliest village on the plains. Like so many of the Auburn family, we are alumni. Any football fan can pick up a tshirt at Wal-Mart, but the Auburn family's high percentage of members with actual, close ties makes it a different creed from that of Alabama and many other SEC schools.

Arctic air had set in on Huntsville, making the temperature 18 degrees, and a low pressure was approaching along the gulf, setting up an unusual weather forecast of 8" of snow for the area later in the day. But we would escape first, only needing the wings de-iced due to a frost. As we waited on this process, the sun was rising, combining with the looming weather, to turn the sky to a beautiful orange and blue. Now I'm certain that God doesn't care whether Auburn or Oregon wins a game of infinitely lower importance than his eternal plan, but it was worth a smile in my heart that matched the peace of knowing how so many of the Auburn team and coaches exhibited knowing what was of ultimate importance as well.

Through the social networking tool of Twitter, I've been able to follow many of the Auburn players, including Nick Fairley, Terrell Zachary, Zach Etheridge, Emory Blake, Antoine Carter, Lee Zimba, and Phillip Lutzenkirchen. Then there is graduate assistant, Travis Williams, and offensive coordinator, Gus Malzahn's wife, Kristi. Beyond what is Auburn, the best common link among the posts from these family members is that, while very human and honest, they also exhibit their following of Christ. For many of this team, including head coach, Gene Chizik, their faith is the foundation of their ability to focus on their business immediately at hand with humility and integrity.

By no means does character or Christianity make one a favorite to win a football game. There are certainly some of the same with Oregon. But knowing where these fellow Auburn family members' priorities lie first makes the fanfare and excitement surrounding football much more enjoyable. As Matthew 6:33 says, "Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you."

A smooth transition was made at Dallas-Ft. Worth. Flight 501 to Phoenix was just as packed and with as many Auburn folks as our flight from Huntsville. Fellow aTeam Ministries worker, David Neal and his wife joined us. But most notable on this plane was Birmingham-based, syndicated, morning radio host, Bill Bubba Bussey of The Rick & Bubba Show.

Bubba was seated comfortably in first class with his family as he graciously greeted many of his fans as they passed. Anyone who has to shake that many hands and listen to that many stories deserves first class - even if his four seats did largely contribute to my inability to gain an upgrade.

Arrival in Phoenix was uneventful - the best air travel can be. Jon also arrived on time and we picked up Julie in Scottsdale who had been with Bradley and Cara Gilchrist, two more of the North Alabama Auburn creed.

As we prepared for dinner, my anticipation and anxiety shortly ramped up to dismay of the carpet in room 354 of the Hyatt Place, Mesa, AZ. There was a game to be played. A game, yes, but one that carried so much weight. Could Auburn come through and defeat Oregon or would we be the black sheep to let down the SEC and stop its streak of BCS championships?

More Auburn connections were made, joining father and son, Rick and Alex Umbach, from Columbia, SC, as we enjoyed dinner at Mastros Steakhouse. While many Auburn parties were getting started in Scottsdale, Jon, Julie, and I called it a night early. Gameday would be a long one.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Sometimes an alarm clock isn't necessary. This was one of those days. It was here. Gameday. The day we could achieve football supremacy had arrived, but would it be reached?

After I workout the carpet some more pacing back and forth, Jon, Julie, and I picked up Brad and Cara around noon. We arrived in Glendale before 1:00. But that was only to find that either we or the infrastructure at the Glendale sports facilities were tremendously ill-prepared.

South to north, there is the University of Phoenix Stadium, Jobing.com Arena, and Westgate - a restaurant and shopping complex in an outdoor mall type setup. And that's it. About 100,000 plus fans and about 50,000 worth of facilities. It would be a long day.

Although Westgate had five or six restaurants, all of them had lines longer than I can begin to describe. We settled to pay $20 each to get into the UnderArmour block party, which graciously gave us the ability to buy food from a vendor with a line only half as long as eternity. I'm pretty sure the cover charge was for the ability to stand in a space where it wasn't "elbows to buttholes"

A bonus was a visit from the Auburn cheerleaders and band who marched through, stopped, played, and cheered for 15 minutes. But the down side was a while later the same occurred with Oregon. Some would revel at seeing the O cheerleaders up close and in person, but Jon and I felt bad not having enough one's on us to properly tip. Where are their daddies and why aren't they protesting?

Deciding to move on toward the stadium, we walked past the Jobing.com Arena and came upon the designated ticket scalping area. This is an interesting concept, but seemed efficient. The going price had dropped to two grand, now about three hours prior to kickoff.

Upon reaching the stadium, we found a large group of the Auburn family. Players' families had to stand in line to get their tickets at a will call window that would only be opened when the team buses arrived, which had their tickets on board. Among these were some of our fellow Brewer family members, Chris Humphries', mom, dad, brothers, and girlfriend, Lindsey Scott. We enjoyed visiting with them and later would find that their game seats were a few rows in front of mine and Jon's.

Westgate wasn't alone in being caught off guard for the high volume of fans. The area surrounding the stadium had porta-johns. I think there must of been, um, a few hundred short. After waiting in line about 30 minutes to use one of them, I was making my way back to our group when I realized I was much less savvy and quiet possibly a moron compared to Oregon fans. As I rounded the corner of a parked vehicle, there stood the resourceful Oregon fan of the hour who didn't have to wait long at all to use his bumper urinal.

We had already formed our opinion of the Oregon fans the night before. There are always exceptions, but one shouldn't be shocked to learn that this game of football was also a clash of cultures. It was southeast versus northwest; conservative/liberal; biscuits/bagels; sweet tea/Seattle coffee; tree-cutters/tree-huggers. Appearance wise, it showed as well. They looked more like Canadian soccer fans than those who would enjoy football. Picture that teenage boy who's grooming lacks, hair needs cutting - the one you'd give anything to see get his act together and make something of himself - and put him in a 30 to 40 year old body and you got it. O!!! Given their school colors, I began to wonder why John Deere had given away clothing at a medical marijuana convention.

I had never seen so many people wanting in a stadium when the gates opened. This too would be a problem as security insisted on a light frisk of everyone, but also insisted on not providing more than four workers at only four gates into the entire stadium. Once inside and throughout the game, the facilities continued to lack in quantity of restrooms and concessions. A trip from your seat would cost you at least 30 minutes.

Pregame featured both teams' bands and then a good dose of patriotism, including of course, the National Anthem. Some Auburn fans around us did not know that a bald eagle would be flying during the "Star Spangled Banner." I had forgotten about it myself and everyone in orange and blue was ecstatic. The eagle could not have flown better if controlled by Auburn. It flew above the field but held its flight far past the end of the anthem. As the last note was hit, a musical transition was made: "braaaaaave...Waaaaaaarrrrrr..." The Auburn crowd - about 65% of the 78,000 in attendance - started right into our battle cry, timing it out with the eagle's landing.

GAMETIME!

Any recap of the game itself would no doubt be redundant. If you didn't watch it, you quit reading this a long way back. But my thoughts, emotions, and, at times, medical condition were unknown and maybe unstable. I won't say which.

Being off for 36 days proved detrimental to both teams. This is just one broken part of the BCS system. But Auburn's defense seemed to feed off the rest and played their best game of the season by far, holding a high-power Oregon offense to less than 75 yards rushing and only 19 points.

19 points. The game was tied at 19 points. Throughout the game and especially leading up to the game being tied, those moments of angst piled on and on. "Where are the paramedics and why aren't they here at section 136, row 35, seat 25? When the Ducks tied it, I became more interested in whether the facility-poor stadium had rather spent their money on a staff cardiologist and defibrillators. As it became more and more evident that cardio-pulmonary blood flow would need to be maximized to survive, every piece of bacon I had ever eaten flashed before my eyes in regret.

I quit bargaining with God over football games a long time ago. So long ago I was an obnoxious Bama fan then. But bargaining with myself was acceptable and if I could just make it out of this University of Phoenix torture chamber, I would exercise more. As for the moment, how was I to know that watching would require physical fitness nearing that of the players themselves?

It's just a game. Yes, but life is real and the longer Oregon hung around, the louder real life in the near future and forever more became in my head.

"Well, Auburn broke the SEC streak." "The Ducks flogged the Tigers." "Auburn couldn't finish." "The PAC 10 is legit." "Y'all let those tree-huggers beat you." "Roll Ducks Roll."

How could Jesus expect me to be Christian toward those bearing these words?

The heart palpitations continued - no - rampaged. And then there was the run. Michael Dyer ran behind the best offensive line I've ever witnessed but was tackled by a player on the Oregon defense - probably the best open-field tacklers I've ever witnessed. But no whistle? Nope. Wasn't down. I marvelled. Not at the run. The officials got it right. It was reviewed, but had they blown the whistle, a review finding that was wrong would be pointless. Suddenly, ever sorry call I'd ever witnessed by the striped brigade became healed. This was probably the best piece of officiating I've ever seen.

Now a BCS National Championship had come down to one kick. We made it! 22-19, Auburn wins as time expires. My heart could start gaining a normal rhythm again. No Bammers to face. The Oregon fan behind me with the duck whistle won't have fart quacks the rest of his life.

As reality set in, the Auburn family's thirst was quenched among the celebration on the field. As plentiful as the celebration confetti were the satisfied hearts of the family who had been denied. We prevailed.

As the crowd began to thin, I was reminded of Lindsey and the Humphries sitting further down. I went down to get a picture and exchange a "War Eagle," but got the surprise of the night to find Chris there in the stands. Chris Humphries: Auburn Tiger - Brewer Patriot - National Champion!!

The smile could not be wiped off my face or his, but inside I was overwhelmed for what this young man had achieved for his community. What's more, as this community would line up in the world of Facebook to offer their congratulations, they would do so without being able to disregard Chris's conspicuous priorities: "We did it!! All the glory goes to God."

There are no defenders of college football national championships. The teams change every year. But those young men with the right perspective on life can enjoy this one more. Whether the Tigers are on Twitter, Facebook, or The Tonight Show, they have chosen to do more than win a championship. They have chosen to win men and they will defend The Champion.

And one of them in particular made his entire Brewer family very proud. Chris Humphries is a Patriot, now Tiger, who understands football and championships. But, obviously, his understanding reaches farther than 50 yards in each direction: It's an understanding of eternity and to whom it all belongs. It's a reminder of what Brewer football must always be.