It is Friday and I’m at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Montgomery, Ala. According the local weatherman — speaking into an empty lobby — the weather in LA (Lower Alabama) is going to be warm and wet.
This Hampton comes with an open, ornate, balcony-surrounded lobby reminding one of an older hotel. In fact this Hampton was once called the Greystone Hotel where one could rent a room for $4.
The Greystone was used by salesmen and small town merchants trying to earn a modest living in this fertile, fecund state dominated by cotton. There is still cotton cultivation in Alabama, but now there is also manufacturing and government work at Maxwell Air Force Base where some of the now-sleeping guests will attend a graduation later today.
Montgomery’s economy was once connected to the slave trade. These slaves did not come from Gambia or Senegal. They were brought down from Virginia and the Mid-Atlantic States to plant, chop and pick the cotton on nearby plantations. They arrived by steam boat and were marched in manacles to red brick warehouses on Commerce Street — buildings that still remain and characterize much of Montgomery’s waterfront.
Today many of these same warehouses have been repurposed as restaurants, whiskey bars and lawyer’s offices. Last night Susan and I consumed duck fritters and country-fried oysters at one of these huge, remodeled warehouses — noting that at least one-half of the patrons were Black. It was impossible for us not to wonder what the trendy, bare-brick walls witnessed 175 years ago.
The Hampton’s lobby also has a display that is tribute to Bear Bryant, Joe Namath and Bart Starr making a lesser, passing reference to Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley — and yes, I know, that Elvis was born in Tupelo, Miss.
But the emphasis is Alabama and Auburn football and the fact that they are, effectively, the face that Alabama presents to the nation almost every fall Saturday afternoon.
Usually these two squads outrun, out-tackle and outscore their SEC opponents — and yes, I’m aware know that Auburn has struggled this year. What is less obvious is the fact that football has become increasingly cerebral and that almost every Saturday these teams out-smart their opponents.
Today there is an increasingly important role being played by offensive and defensive coordinators who sit high above the field. These men — so far there are few women — pay attention to the weight, knees and shoulders of opposing athletes. They look for the slower, smaller, less decisive players and direct their attack, or counter-attack, at those men.
These baseball-cap wearing men study the offensive and defensive strategies of their opponents and know what plays they have devised and when they will call them. Their analysis is then sent down to other coordinators on the sidelines who relay that information to the players who wait on the field.
The play-by-play strategizing is no secret and discussion of these competing strategies is now part of the pre-game program. Likewise, explanation of the behind-the-scenes game, using diagrams and creative video, is inserted during the ongoing televised presentation. In a real sense we have two games going on. The fierce, bone-jarring event in plain view; and the cerebral, not-so-obvious chess match between the glass boxes attached to the top of the stadium.
Alabama and Auburn have become expert in this two-tiered business. They recruit and (largely) retain the best on-the-field athletes. They also recruit and retain the best intuitive, strategy-focused, chess board-savvy men who bring their brains and their baseball caps to Tuscaloosa and Auburn.
In every State in this fractured Union there must be a positive thread that holds society together. In Alabama there has to be a source of pride, a sense of oneness, that make one feel good about this often-criticized geography. It is important to offset the negative news that buffets and bruises every one of us every single day.
For those who have been in a stadium when a running back bounces through a scrum of linebackers, then dances along a sideline for 60 yards and a come-from-behind touchdown, none of this comes as news. Those who have watched a one-handed catch in the end zone understand the involuntary exhilaration that can lift 100,000 people into unalloyed solidarity. Maybe it lasts for just a moment, but for that moment everyone feels connected to Alabama and happy about that connection.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.