Thursday, May 15, 2014

Taylor's Tiger Tales: The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry 2002

The Auburn Realist

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Now, I have to tell you all...the longer time goes by, the less I remember about each of these games. So, you will forgive me if this post isn't quite so long as the Iron Bowl 2010 or detailed. After all, it's been (gasp) over 10 years.

It was 2002. My girlfriend (now wife) at the time was a die hard Alabama fan. Her mother was born and raised in Tuscaloosa. Her father is a graduate from Alabama. Despite her entire family being dyed in the wool Alabama fans, I was (usually) welcomed with open arms. I admit that I stayed quiet in those years about being a Tiger fan. After all, Tuberville had just taken over a struggling program that had been wracked (again) with scandals. Those years saw the Tide and Tigers trading wins back and forth, with little else to really show for it.

I can't remember WHY, but Alyse had shown some interest in going to an Auburn game. I hadn't been to a game since 2000, myself. So, though the internet wasn't QUITE reliable enough to secure tickets just yet, I decided that we would make the drive from Huntsville to the game and buy some scalped tickets. After all, it was a great matchup....#4 UGA at #24 Auburn, who had quietly put together a fine season after loosing to USC in the first game. It was my first game with such a highly touted matchup. It is interesting to note that ESPN Gameday was NOT at this game, instead choosing Harvard at Penn. Talk about questionable.

Looking back, I find great irony in thinking about just what we were taking on. I had never driven to Auburn by myself, and my wife can attest that I still have no sense of direction. This was before the age of smart phones that had mapquest and I didn't own a GPS. I did have a map and a general idea of how to get to Auburn. I knew nothing about dealing with the game day atmosphere and parking. I didn't know anything about buying scalped tickets. All I knew was that I had $200 in my pocket and a full tank of gas in my riced out red Satern with the loud exhaust, and that would be enough. The rest would fall into place just perfectly.

At 4am, we were up and headed to the game. I still couldn't tell you which way we went, though I think it was some bastardized cross between the 65/85 route and the 65/280 route. I remember that we had missed an exist south of Birmingham. How, I don't know, since both ways have only one exit, which is precisely why I think we had taken some cross between the two usual routes. When you are a kid, you have really no idea of time, especially in a car. There is short. And there is long. When you become a driver and you make the same trips as you did as a kid, sometimes you have a perceived notion about how long it takes to get somewhere, and it's dead wrong. In this case, a silent alarm went off in my head and I decided to stop for breakfast at a Waffle House.

We had a large meal and afterwards, I swallowed my pride and asked for directions to Auburn. It seemed that the whole restaurant turned around and became deadly silent. They looked at me like I was crazy. Maybe because I was. Anyway, some crotchety old man gave me some directions. It involved looking for the half-barn with the tin roof, turn left at the white horse, and follow that road for 25 mailboxes. He didn't really tell me that, but it felt like it.

I was 19 and fill of bravado. I didn't need to write it down. So, back on the highway we went.

The bravado lasted for about 5 minutes when I realized that there was ZERO chance that I could follow backroads. Then, I had an epiphany. I got back on the highway (I assume it was I-65) and started looking for cars that were decked out in Auburn gear. After all, what were the chances that a car with the Tiger Tale and pompoms was NOT headed to the game. We found one such fan, got the Satern sucked up on the bumped, and started driving. We started seeing "Auburn-20 Miles" road signs, so we started feeling good. Where I went to from there, I did not know. But these folks ahead of me did. And that's when they did something I never expected.

In my mind, the SUV we were following must have wildly jerked it off the interstate doing 85 miles and hour with no warning. In reality, I am sure they were doing the speed limit and had their blinker on. I had a split second to make a decision. I had followed them this far. I might as well follow some more. So, I took the exit to God-knows-where. I am now fairly certain they took the Wire Road exit, which makes perfect sense now. But, at the time, I had NO IDEA where I was going, other than it was Country with a Capital C where they were leading me.

But, we did emerge from the woods and into the heart of Auburn eventually, which, frankly, amazed me. Ok. So now we were here. The next order of business was to buy tickets. I thought I would get smart. I would buy from the first guy I saw. Why? Well, because I didn't want to get into Auburn and compete with everyone else for tickets. The earlier I got them, the less risk...and cheaper cost. Right? (If you aren't laughing now, you obviously have not experienced the life of a scalper).

Again, I couldn't tell you exactly where we were. In my mind's eye, I THINK we were at the Goal Post when I saw my first scalper. Again, I can't be sure. It could also have been down by the train tracks where there is now a Dollar Store. I motioned for him to approach me.
"How much you want?"
"$100 per."
Again...realize that I had $200 in cash and no credit cards. I was 19.
" I can't do that. I have $200 and I have to eat and get back to Huntsville."
"Ok. I will cut you a deal. $190 for both."
"I don't know man....." At this point, another guy approached him, offering the same cash.
"Oh look, this guy will give me $190." I shoved my money at him and took the $10 bill. I now realize just how bad I was hustled. What were the chances that some guy who had been standing right next to him was suddenly interested in those tickets? None. It was his buddy, and it was all a setup. But, I didn't know that then. I was just glad to have those tickets.

Now to find parking. Again, not something that I had experienced. Everywhere I tried to park wanted money. And I had no money to give. I found an apartment complex on Magnolia. Despite the posted "No Parking" signs everywhere, I pulled into the back of the lot and behind a dumpster. I figured (correctly) if they were willing to tow, getting my car out from behind a dumpster would be a tall order.

When we got out of the car, we realized immediately that we had made a strategic mistake. The weather had made a turn for the worse. Being teenagers, the weather wasn't something we paid much attention to. It had been pleasant the day before, so why wouldn't it be the same today? It started misting. It was in the 40s and overcast. At this point, it MIGHT have been noon, but I doubt it. The game was at 3:30 and it was a long time until then. We made our way to Tiger Walk.

Being that this was Alyse's first game, she had not experienced Tiger Walk. I had told her what to expect, but I guess she either didn't believe me or didn't think there was any way that there could be 50,000++ fans on the corner of two roads in front of a stadium just to watch a team walk in.

This was perhaps the moment that made her an Auburn fan forever, as she watched the crowd with awe. Since we are short people, we had to stand on the concrete steps of the staff parking lot on Donahue Drive so that she could see. It gave an awesome view at the wave of Orange and Blue that swayed from the Athletic Complex to Jordan-Hare.

When Four Corners started and the gates opened, we rushed inside. I don't remember exactly where our tickets were, but I recall being in the endzone, perhaps the South endzone around section 15. Pregame started and we were both shivering when the band took the field. I know every team has some rendition of the same high energy march of the band, but Auburn's HAS to be among the best. That warmed our hearts a little.

The game didn't start out great as Jason Campbell tossed an INT that was returned 58 yards on their first possession. The Dogs ensuing drive was stalled at teh 28 where Bennett missed a 45 yarder. Ronnie Brown hits it up the middle for 58 yards and a TD to put the Tigers up by 7. UGA goes 3 and out, punts to Hood who sets up a terrific return for 32 yards. And then he fumbles, giving the Dogs the ball right back.

UGA uses the momentum to put up a fieldgoal.

On the first play of the new Auburn series, Jason Campbell tosses his 2nd INT of the quarter. It leaves every fan screaming to pull him or run the ball. Let's not forget that Campbell, until 2004, was a polarizing player on and off the field.

But the drive goes nowhere and the Dogs punt.

2 more series for both sides result in punts. The game stalls. But Hood makes yet another fantastic return on the last punt and doesn't fumble. It sets up the Tigers on the right side of the field. The Dogs key on Brown, trying to make Campbell throw the ball, which has worked in their favor. Instead, he pulls it down twice for big gains and tosses a short TD to Johnson.

The Tigers are up 14-3 at the half and things looks great.

Alyse and I haven't eaten since 8am and it is now around 5pm. We have 10 dollars to our name. We wait in line at the concessions stand. Upon reading the menu, we have to decide how we will spend our last dime. Knowing that we won't have any money to eat on we decide to eat hearty? No. We want to be warm. So we buy a hot chocolate and a funnel cake. Total cost? $10. We huddle back at our seats and enjoy what would become one of our most memorable moments and meals together.

Auburn kicks off the second half and the dogs put together a 5 minute drive and score a TD. It's all good, we think. 14-10.

The feeling seemed to be confirmed when Auburn puts together a solid drive that results in a 21 yard TD scramble for Campbell. 21-10

The dogs have a long series going. The run game isn't working, so Greene goes to work. An incomplete here, a completion there, and he strings together enough of them to move the chains. This is what he does and what made him famous.

And then it happened. UGA had reached the Auburn redzone, but continued to struggle with off-sides penalties due to the Auburn faithful. They were headed into our endzone, just a few yards from us. Greene runs up the middle, fumbles at the 6 inch line and Stinchcomb recovers for a TD. We all saw that the fumble happened short of the goal line and the replay clearly showed it. Yet, there was NO instant replay yet and the play was not reviewed. Today, that TD would not have counted and UGA would have had a 3rd and goal from the 1, a situation that the Auburn defense had and would continue to handle that year.  UGA kicked an extra point. 21-17.

How does Auburn answer? With 2 incomplete passes and rush for negative yards. Auburn punts. We are all getting a LITTLE nervous.

The first play of the 4th is a UGA punt.

Campbell tosses 2 more incompletes and takes a sack. Auburn punts. Again.
UGA answers with a 3 and out.
Auburn answers right back.
Not to be outdone, UGA adds another.
.....and another 3 and out by Auburn.
.....and another 3 and out by Georgia

Contrary to what you THINK the fans might be doing, they are loud and raucous. We all scream until we can't scream. We take a sip and scream again. It seems to be working. The fans are a 12th defender. The stadium rocks. I look at Alyse and ask her if she has ever experienced anything like this. She stares at me, then motions that she cannot hear me. I nod.

UGA has the ball and 2 minutes to go. They haven't moved the ball all quarter. Surely they won't start now. We pour it on. I have to imagine that 87.451 fans MUST move air enough to be felt on the field. A short completion. Then Greene hits a long gainer to Gibson for 40 yards to get to the 15 yard line. Oh boy. That one play was more than they had all quarter. An incomplete pass. A penalty. Another incomplete. Then a 3rd. THIS is what we expected. One big play. Just a fluke play. Someone fell. Someone missed a read. It was 4th and 15 from the 20. Essentially, they HAD to throw in the endzone. Really, that was the only option. The margain for error for throwing on 4th down just to get a 1st down was razor thin. Our defense was stout and they KNEW where the ball was going. Heck, if we did....they HAD to know.

Greene takes the shotgun snap and pumps. He lofts one. And, when I say lofts, I mean LOFTS. I could have run under the ball and I was in the opposite end zone! This was it! What an ugly throw! the nose was pointed the sideline. The ball fluttered. And #6..Willis..the tallest corner we have...SLIPS!
HE SLIPS! HE SLIPS! He doesn't make it up! Future all-pro Dansby is 3 steps behind! Johnson makes the easy grab and gets both feet in and two more for good measure!

Unbelievable! Shock! I had never been to a game where we lost! All we had to do was knock it down! But he slipped! How was it possible?

24-21 with 1:18 to go. All we need is a field goal. We can take care of it in over time....we just need a few yards!

Campbell comes alive on the first play and hits Johnson for 25 yards. We are in business! Duval is one of the best in the country. He can hit 50+. we just need another first down and we have a chance. Auburn takes a 5 yard penalty. Campbell tosses an incomplete.

Ok. Don't have to go for it all. Just get a small chunk at a time. 4 wide. In the gun. Another 5 yard penalty! WHATAREWEDOING!!!!!!!
2nd and 20. Wow. No sack. Can't take a sack. Anything but a sack.

He takes the snap. Looks up the middle. The pocket just collapses. Campbell holds the ball and gets popped. How! It was max protect 5 on 4!

3rd and 27.

The crowd is restless. The offense has completely self-destructed.

Campbell takes the snap. Looks. Looks. Scrambles. Picks up a few yards. Steps out of bounds.

4th and 20. This is it.

The snap. UGA #10 comes FLYING off the edge again, just completely unblocked! Campbell stays alive somehow...dancing in the pocket. But he tosses it to Smith who does the best he can, but is tackled short of the sticks. Greene takes the victory formation kneel and the game is over. There were a lot of mouths hanging open.

I wasn't so shocked at the late TD toss by Greene. Single plays happen. But the complete offensive meltdown we had just witnessed was epic. Rumors would begin to circulate regarding this series for weeks to come. They would revolve around the linemen abandoning Campbell. I heard lots of reasons. Having been there and having seen it, I couldn't refute the fact that they had simply given up. The Auburn line didn't manage to block a single UGA lineman in the last series.

We stalked back to the car, wet, cold, and defeated. Luckily, the car was still there, and there was no ticket.

Now, to get home. I had no idea of how to get out of here. So, we did what we had done earlier. I found a "47" plate and followed them. Surely they were headed home, too.

We followed them deep into Lee county where they eventually turned into a driveway. Now what? I backtracked and tried again.  I found an Auburn fan in their decked out ride. I followed them. This time, it led us to 85. I didn't pay attention to which direction we were headed until I saw the sign that said "Welcome to Georgia." That isn't right.

I stopped at the welcome station, bought a Mt. Dew with the change I found in my car. I was exhausted. I looked at the map. It told me all I had to do was follow 85 South to Montgomery, then 65 north. WHY HADN'T I DONE THAT BEFORE!

By Montgomery, I was dead tired. I pulled into a gas station around 10pm and slept in the car for awhile.

At around 11, I felt refreshed and we hit it again.

I made it all the way to the last turn before we got home when the blue lights came up behind me. It was 2am.

"What are you doing out so late?"
"We are coming home from the Auburn game."
"Have you been drinking? You look like it."
"No sir, not a drop. We are just very tired."
"If you went to the game, why are you just now getting home?"
"We got lost."
"How is that even possible? I don't think it is. What was the score?"
"Honestly, sir. I am very tired. My car is on fumes. I haven't done anything wrong. Can you just give me a ticket or let me go?"
So he did.

That may go down as one of the longest and emotionally draining days of my life.