In the middle part of the 2000s I was a grad student at Alabama. It was an important time to be in Tuscaloosa, or at least it felt that way. There were baby boys named Brodie everywhere. We still thought Prothro would come back. And Mike Shula was our crown prince, the returning hero who had led us out of the longest winter. We were 9-0 and it felt like 1992 was happening again.
As a commuter, I often parked in the shadows of Bryant-Denny. Sometimes as I walked to class I would veer close to the giant building, running my fingertips across the sloping concrete pillars that flanked the end zone. It seemed that my entire existence as an Alabama fan had been leading to this moment, to be here, to witness the ascension back to the top of the college football dogpile.
Every morning I would walk across sorority row as the Greek houses emptied their pledges into the West Alabama morning. Rows and rows of immaculate young women filled the sidewalk, their clothes and hair arranged perfectly for 8:00 classes. As I cut through their midst I held my hand underneath my nose, as the cocktail of a hundred different perfumes hanging in the air was too sweet to breathe without sneezing.
With the football program on the rise, the university had made a major push to increase enrollment. The incoming class had swelled to the point that there were not enough instructors to cover all of the sections of freshman-level courses that had to be added. As a last resort, the school reached out to its graduate students.
I was asked to teach several sections of 101 classes. Did I get a green parking tag? Because if I did, sign me up. In what seemed like the span of about seven minutes, I was standing at the front of an enormous lecture hall. 120 undergraduates stared at me from their seats with that glazed, sleep-deprived college look. The class included football players, cheerleaders, and lots and lots of frat boy bangs.
"What’s up." I said.
I began by explaining, very slowly, that I was an instructor. I was not a professor, nor did I have a Ph.D. I was a grad student, just a few years removed from being a freshman myself.
My speech had no effect; the room full of 19-year olds looked at me and saw someone who was eleventy billion years old, who smoked a pipe while watching PBS and had probably never even heard of Dane Cook. I was even, like, married and stuff.
Sometimes after class was over one or two students would linger around the podium and make small talk with me. One day it might be a nervous overachiever fishing for hints on the upcoming exam. Another day it might be the film student who wanted to explain the premise of his short film. And then sometimes it was something else entirely.
One day after class a pretty blond girl walked up to me as I stood at the podium fiddling with the computer screen, trying to turn off the projector.
"Professor Pierce?" she asked sweetly.
"I’m not a professor," I quickly corrected, as if the accreditation police were lurking in the shadows.
"…you can just call me Matthew. What can I do for you?"
"Dr. Pierce, do you have the exams graded? I really need my grade."
I shook my head and smiled. Sorry, but they were taking me longer than I had thought.
I looked down at the computer screen again. If I pushed this button, the projector should turn off. But why did it keep cycling back to the previous menu—
I hadn’t noticed her get so close. She leaned into my space, so that the edge of her chest rubbed against my forearm.
"Dr. Pierce, I really need my grade." She said again.
You know what? It wasn’t that important that I turn off the projector. I could just leave it on for the next class. I actually just realized that I needed to leave, at that exact moment.
As I left the lecture hall I was accosted by a nervous looking middle-aged man. The accreditation police? No, he introduced himself as an athletic tutor. He asked me about a particular football player, one who was registered to my class. I answered that I hadn’t noticed him in class lately.
The man took out a handkerchief and used it to blot his sweaty brow. He looked overwhelmed, as if I had just told him that he had cancer.
"Are you okay?" I asked him.
He shook his head in resignation.
"I…I can’t make him go to class. This isn’t good."
The man kept mumbling to himself, as if a great doom was slowly approaching and he was the only one who could see it.
A few minutes later I was sitting in my car performing my daily drive through the heart of the campus. Gameday was drawing near and the RV armies had already descended on the city. Maintenance workers were swarming the quad, readying the grounds for Saturday. LSU was coming, and this was going to be our coronation. The whole world would see that we were back.
A group of a dozen students and faculty were standing in a line on the sidewalk in front of the President’s Mansion, chanting in the direction of the white building. It was a protest: The picketers were holding large signs and looking positively earnest about the whole spectacle. I craned my neck to get a look at their cause, as spelled out on the placards.
END THE IRAQ WAR
NO WAR FOR OIL
My car inched past their little gathering, past the mallrat revolutionaries and the aging hippie professors. I wondered about the location of their protest, about whether they realized that the President of the University of Alabama did not set the country’s foreign policy.
As the roads carried me home, all I could do was smile. We were about to win the SEC. LSU was coming, and there was no way that Shula would let JaMarcus Russell beat us.