"We'd like to let everyone on this flight know an important piece of information."
When you hear this sitting in seat 27D on a plane making the initial ascent from Atlanta, you hope not to hear certain things after it. The right engine just fell off and we have three minutes to impact. Our pilot has just suffered a seizure, and the co-pilot is having an allergic reaction to someone's cologne in first class. We've been rerouted to Detroit, and you will have to spend the night there whether you like it or not.
The flight attendant bellowed into the mike:
A slow rumbling sprang up from the back of the plane and rolled forward.
"WAAAAAAAAARRRRRRR EAAAAGGLE!!! AYYYYY!!!"
In retrospect, they knew they were going to win from the start. It should have been easy to see from the start. They came in huge numbers, as even this spillover flight to Las Vegas was fifty rows deep with people in orange hats, navy sweatshirts with the AU logo, orange and blue ribbons in the hair of the women, the guys ordering Bud Light after Bud Light from the Stewardesses, and the War Eagle chant cranking up in a wave every thirty minutes or so in the dark of the plane.
People only came out for games they knew they were going to lose for one reason, and they were headed to the right city for that: Las Vegas. I rode in a tube filled with the "Auburn Family" for four hours with a splitting sinus headache and a deep disdain for everything their school stood for in my twisted Florida fan's imagination: the venal rednecks who ran the elaborate tax dodge that was the university, the sinister boosters who bankrolled their program infamous for NCAA violations and skullduggerous dealings with coaches, and their excruciating habit of winning games by the cheapest margin of all, a single field goal booted through the goalposts by some floppy-haired cretin with a name like "Wes" or "Damon."*
*Foreshadowing is a literary device!
Only their in-state competition made them seem like the more palatable choice between fanbases. Isolated against the benign Oregon Ducks, goaded by a season tainted by scandal, besieged on all sides by the journalists, the NCAA, and the verdicts of a thousand message boards that Auburn really and truly were the seedy valedictorians of a conference of inveterate cheats, the Auburn fanbase had really and truly been through a conditioning test unlike any other. These were disciplined troops, and referred to themselves as "The Auburn Family." They took this to mean a group blessed with the kinship only previously though attainable through genetic bonding. Outsiders thought of something closer to the Borgias or the Gottis. Either way, the unity was formidable, real, and emptying the drink carts at an alarming rate.
"War Eagle!" sounded again on the landing. I needed cold medicine badly, and also a drink. The label says you are not supposed to mix those things. The label has never been stuck in a metal tube with Auburn fans for four hours.
Floating through the halls of the MGM Grand on a magic carpet of cold medicine, I attempted to board a blackjack table unsuccessfully and was thrown clear of the wreckage. A hundred dollars flew out of my pockets on the way. I only really remember a dour old Thai woman flipping over an ace, and then everything went black. I woke up on the floor with casino personnel staring at me and talking while putting their index fingers in their ears. Cold medicine really should not be legal.
A roulette table proved to be a softer landing spot. For color I chose the table closest to a cluster of Auburn fans shooting craps. They were losing, and losing badly, and putting more money in to likely lose again. A few desultory "War Eagle!"s sounded out every time they won, but the ensuing carnage dimmed their enthusiasms.
I sat next to a Chinese woman and an older gentleman. If Reba McIntire were Chinese, she would have been this woman: hair soaked with product and piled into a kind of three-dimensional Pac-10 logo attached to her scalp, a rhinestone-encrusted red shirt open to mid=sternum, nails painted with no fewer than five coats of polish with the consistency of Kevlar, and full heels she wore with the confidence of a Ranger in combat boots .
After watching her spread a hundred dollars worth of chips around the table per turn for ten minutes or so, I asked her in Chinese: "Are you making money tonight?" She answered in English.
"Yes, but he doesn't gamble." She pointed to the man, a dapper dude with a pencil thin white mustache, a bald pate, a camelhair jacket, and an uber-confident air of someone who owned his own island full of obeisant henchmen. He smiled, and then spoke in Chinese.
"My business is enough of a gamble."
This is when you should stop the conversation, since at this point you are most likely asking to be in the confidence a man who at this very moment is attempting a plot of great daring and complexity. Mr Chang--as we'll call him here--was likely entertaining his lady by dumping her at the roulette table while he sat quietly wondering the things important men wonder. Could be bribe the Senator? What would keep the Triads from deciding he was expendable? Would the shipment of rocket boots arrive in time for his men to get out of the casino after robbing it? You don't want to know what these men know, or are doing, or even think. It only ends up with you begging for your life in the desert at the business end of a gun to some scarfaced man named Huang, and if we're going to go out that way we're going to make sure to have a lot more fun in the process than this.
The woman and I would continue to talk, but interjecting every now and then the older gentleman dropped in.
"MY WIFE IS EXPENSIVE."
"GAMBLING LIKE THIS IS NOT SMART."
"DO YOU HAVE CHILDREN? WHY ARE YOU GAMBLING IF YOU HAVE CHILDREN."
"MY WIFE IS VERY EXPENSIVE."
When the unkillable Dr. Kwong of DragonFire Island is too drunk to make sense, it is time for everyone to go to bed. I would have lost more money, but while cleaning up the piles of little dollar chips at the Roulette table one skittered to the ground. I bent down to pick it up, and found a hundred dollar chip on the ground, a black pearl. If it was a bribe from Dr. Kwong to join his army of stoical henchmen, I didn't get the hint, and took the money and ran for my room.
Like me, a legion of Auburn fans decided Vegas was the place to enter their national title experience. They stood on the sidewalk outside the Bellagio watching the fountains in the forty degree air. You spend all season playing other teams in their collective living rooms in small towns like Auburn, Athens, Starkville, and Baton Rouge. If you have a good year in college football, your team caps the year by going to the other side of the country, playing in a strange stadium in front of fans forced to solder together a vacation in a place they would have only visited if this were 1954, and cities could win easy tourist dollars with bold proclamations like "available hotel rooms" and "warmer than Buffalo in January!"
If you were a fan of the theater, college football would be very avant-garde. You start in a theater watching a five act play. Then characters from are randomly relocated to other theaters hundreds of miles away, and the fifth act postponed for a month. They are given completely new dialogue and sometimes even new clothes, and then asked to conclude the drama. They forget their lines pretty often, and the result is an unsatisfying mess.
By starting in Las Vegas, you add an incongruous and expensive burlesque number to the beginning of the play's finale.
There were other signs this was going to end in a brutal manner. I drove to the southeast out of Las Vegas across the desert. Pure moonscape scrolled by, giving way to the high desert north of Arizona. Mountains made of three foot red boulders undulated around the highway; a sign reading "ELK NEXT 55 MILES" appeared.
You tend to look for elk after this. Ideally, the elk should be perched like the king of the forest over the landscape, his antlers perched on his head like a tribal headdress. I thought about how he should look a lot during this 55 mile stretch. Once I imagined he should have a cup of coffee in his hand and be wearing a terrycloth bathrobe. An elk looks a lot more comfortable like this than one might think.
I looked the whole time for elk but only saw one. It was a female lying in the median of the highway, stone dead. Even flying by at seventy-five miles an hour the course of events looked pretty obvious: a smear of black rubber in the highway, a halo of plastic, chrome, and glass surrounding the point of impact, and there, the one elk all those signs were about, a beautiful creature crushed by something it clearly didn't see coming.
Oh, the elk took its pound of car-flesh in the exchange. Whatever hit the elk was moving at an impaired rate of speed with a mangled front grill, and was likely spitting bits of its frame into the road along with various automotive fluids. The elk had a complementary piece driving somewhere between Phoenix and Las Vegas, a semi-truck easily identified by the matching elk-sized dent in its front. Not the finest hour for either, but at least the truck drove away.
(This isn't hinting at anything to come.) (It totally is.)
The displaced stage comparison is especially bad in Phoenix, a Sun Belt city with plenty of sun and, if the circumference of the city's general orbit is to be believed, a belt size of 52 miles or so. The stadium, a squat giant cactus of aluminum, sits 27 miles from the city center. The teams stay in Scottsdale, another twenty miles from the stadium in the other directions. A rental car is a necessity; a helicopter would be ideal.
Most of the fans orbit Scottsdale, where the media stay at Camelback and watch Nike project Oregon-themed messages in green laser on the backside of Camelback mountain. That's how extravagant the landscape of the Western United States is: you can freely draw all over it with green lasers without anyone really objecting. (Correction: this may only apply to Phil Knight, the head of Nike, who like all proper madmen plays with gigantic lasers all the time.)
You get some Raising Arizona moments on this open range. I walked into a convenience store to buy more caffeinated beverage and found one lone Auburn fan engaged in a conversation with the clerk.
"Do you know where the Auburn pep rally is supposed to be?"
The clerk's face redefined a redefinition of blankness.
"You know. Au-burn?" He pointed to the sweatshirt he wore and nodded at the clerk. He got more blankness.
"Don't know it. Maybe it's downtown?"
"Which direction is downtown?"
"Depends what you're looking for."
"I'm looking for the Auburn pep rally."
"Yeah, don't know where that is. Is it downtown?"
"I don't know. That's what I'm trying to tell you. It's the Auburn pep rally. " He pointed to the shirt again, as if the linked A and U would, through some act of Under Armour-branded sorcery, sear the answer into the clerk's mind. It did not.
"Oh, sorry. I really wish I could help you. But it's probably downtown."
The Auburn fan then looked at me. "You from around here? I'm looking for the Auburn pep rally."
I shrugged, but in my head I was thinking "I cannot help this man" in the Jeff Bridges Rooster Cogburn voice. In the desert it's every man for himself, bro.
In the stadium it became apparent very quickly who was the elk and who was the semi-truck. Both teams sputtered in the first half offensively, misfiring in the redzone and substituting brutality for points. Cam Newton took radio hits from the Oregon defense, the kind that broadcast with ever so slight a delay but with an obvious strength of signal. Casey Matthews' hits on Newton popped particularly loudly, though whether Nick Fairley's made any noise or not was hard to discern from row 14 on the 40 yard line. Every time the defensive tackle destroyed a double team the noise level in the building whipped needles off their dials.
(On a separate note, Auburn fans would be excellent shark attack patrol material. Just teach them to root for the fish, and they will roar an alarm every time a swimmer is about to be eaten. They'll be disappointed when the swimmer leaves the water unharmed, but no job is perfect.)
A row of men in their 30s behind me were orbiting drunkenly somewhere three miles over the stadium. Their bodies were in the seats though, and as the second half ground on into what was rapidly becoming an Auburn classic--i.e, the highest possible form of Auburn football, an ugly victory by a field goal--they started to think out loud.
"This is why I live my whole life."
"This is why I have this job."
"This is why I married the woman I married."
"I'm going to kiss you when we win. On the mouth. It's not gay if we do it like this."
"Just think about Bo Jackson when you do it."
"I think I'm going to make love to to that crystal trophy."
"Is that even possible?"
"Pass me that flask."
"What is this crap?"
"YOU TAKE THAT BACK ABOUT YUKON JACK HE'S NEVER LET ME DOWN."
"THIS IS AUBURN FOOTBALL BABY!"
When Oregon briefly tied it up late, the one with the Cam Newton jersey stood up. His face was one of grim determination, like Patton conducting tank traffic in battle He rose, and began to take off his jersey, only to reveal another Auburn game jersey with the number 24 in huge numbers on the front.
"It's time. It's time to put some Cadillac up in this. IT'S OLD-SCHOOL TIME."
The not-dead ghost of Carnell Williams did some work: Michael Dyer made his down, not-down run for glory, and with a second left Auburn's Wes Byrum kicked a chip-shot field goal and tore the roof off the place. Oregon fans didn't appear nearly as sad as Auburn's appeared happy, and maybe because they'd seen the same living analogy we had on the way down to the game. They had clearly been hit by a massive truck named Nick Fairley, the guy blowing up their blocking schemes, dragging down poor tiny LaMichael James time and time again, and leaving their title hopes dead in the roadside. They'd taken their piece, mind you: Cam Newton limped off the field, and played a merely excellent game after a season of inhuman performance. The damage both teams did to each other was all over the scoreboard.
Oregon would have to settle for leaving a beautiful corpse as testament to their national title campaign. They were the majestic dead thing left in the road. Auburn was the truck left in uncertain condition, victorious and moving somewhere down the highway, damaged but alive. It's not that seeing it in person was not spectacular, because accidents between two large objects never aren't something spectacular.
That also doesn't mean that running to the car afterwards, already late for a flight and passing dejected Ducks fans in the chilly desert air, it didn't feel like an accident, especially when I drove through a cop's flashlight-waving directions to cut through a parking lot to get to the onramp to I-10. If I'm wanted for failure to obey in Arizona, that's fine. I'm low on their priority list, as there's at least twenty counts of assault with deadly intent out on Nick Fairley of Auburn, and getting him into custody is going to be like arresting the Hulk. I'm small potatoes at this point.
This has all been made possible by the good people at Allstate, and for that and the entire Good Hands Roadside Rivalry Road Trip experience EDSBS thanks them. Also, they'll be wondering about the $2,400 in "gas charges" I submitted for reimbursement from Vegas to Phoenix. They're all legitimate, I assure you.