Thanksgiving weekend confession today: If I’m not careful, Thanksgiving can be, for me, an almost overlooked holiday. Fact is, I’m a football fan (Auburn University, to be specific) and while Thanksgiving is enjoyable, it’s also Iron Bowl weekend.
For those uninitiated in the lore of Auburn football, the Iron Bowl is the Auburn-Alabama game (or for Alabama fans, “the Alabama-Auburn game”). Sports experts tell us this is the most intense rivalry in college football.
Why so intense? In Alabama (I grew up in Auburn, Ala.), there are no pro sports teams so it all comes down to whether you are an Alabama fan or Auburn fan. Those who move into the state are told they must choose, “Alabama or Auburn.” There is no, “I like both teams equally.” Not possible.
On top of this, because this is an in-state deal, fans and alumni work together, attend church together, socialize together (except on Iron Bowl Saturday–when we separate). They even inter-marry, though this is a difficult test for any relationship.
For 365 days a year, Auburn-Alabama or Alabama-Auburn is a topic of conversation. Really. You can tune to a sports talk show in February and the hosts will be talking football recruiting. In March and April, the topic is spring practice. Then from May until August (and the start of fall practice), it’s all about predictions and smack talk. Then, the season and the intensity ramps up to epic proportions.
I grew up with this. I can tell you the score of the Auburn-Alabama game in 1969 (Auburn 49, Alabama 26), 1970 (Auburn wins, 33-28 after coming back from a 17-0 deficit), and 1971 (the two teams met undefeated and Alabama wore Auburn out, 31-7; I was nine and cried).
And of course, 1972, when Auburn blocked two punts in the last five minutes, returning both for touchdowns and a stunning 17-16 victory over the unbeaten Crimson Tide.
These games were more than 40 years ago and I can tell you most of the key plays.
And I’ll never forget the “Kick Six” in 2013, now known nationwide as the greatest finish in the history of college football. In a tie game, Alabama’s attempt at a winning field goal fell a yard short and Auburn’s Chris Davis returned the kick 109 yards for a touchdown, launching Auburn into the SEC championship game and a berth in the National Championship game.
This Saturday–two days after Thanksgiving–the two teams meet again. Alabama is undefeated, which is becoming a habit. Auburn is 9-2. The winner plays Georgia for the SEC title. If Auburn should win both games, they get into the National Playoff. If Alabama beats Auburn, they may make the 4-team playoff even if they lose to Georgia.
From my couch in Tennessee, I’ll watch as my hometown is inundated with 150,000 fans. Only 87,500 will get into the game, but with ESPN’s Game Day on campus, fans will converge from all over the state just to be in the vicinity. Auburn’s basketball arena, just steps from the stadium, will be full of fans watching on a big screen.
This week, I’ve focused too much on my Auburn sports web site, Auburn Undercover, to stay posted on injuries and any snippet of information that might give me hope that an upset is in the making.
And therein is my confession: I take this stuff too seriously.
Thankfully, I don’t cry anymore when we lose. When Florida State scored a touchdown in the waning seconds to beat Auburn in the national championship game, I turned to my wife and said, “But it was a great run, wasn’t it?” And it was.
But I do notice that the outcome of a college football game can affect my mood. I don’t yell at anyone if things don’t go well, but I’m happier when we win, that’s for sure. This is not good.
Please, don’t email me and say, “It’s only a game.” I know this.
And yet as I grew up, Auburn games were a family tradition. I didn’t miss a home game during my formative years (the 70s). Every home game was an event. A big event.
But here I am, middle-aged and knowing full well that the sun doesn’t rise and fall on football outcomes.
Fact is, whether Auburn wins or loses a game, my life is an amazing one. I still have a wonderful family, my income is unaffected (unless I pout and quit working–which is yet to happen), and I have the joy of sharing life-changing news of eternal life with anyone who wishes to hear or read.
So, I think of the Apostle Paul. The man made tents for a living, but he was not defined by his work or any other passions (I don’t think they had football in his day; correct me if I’m wrong on this). Then and now, Paul is defined by his love for God and his desire to serve as a “bond servant” (his words) of Jesus Christ.
I once went to a funeral where the deceased was decked out in his Auburn gear. I’m not opposed to this necessarily; it was a nice touch. However, when I go, I don’t want to be defined by my interest in an athletic program.
Instead, I want to be defined as Paul; who fought the good fight, finished the course and kept the faith (taking some lines from II Timothy).
Saturday then, I’ll watch my Auburn Tigers. They may win, they may not. Either way, there is a good fight in which I have the joy of being engaged. My goal should be to fight for the freedom of those I come in contact with; a freedom defined by a powerful, life-changing dedication to Jesus Christ.
Paul knew this, and his life revolved around winning others to a message which changed the known world.
While there is no harm in enjoying the Iron Bowl, it is little more than a nice distraction in a world where so much more is at stake.
On Saturday then, I’ll spend three hours wrapped up in a football game. I’ll cheer, I’ll likely do some pacing back and forth and I may (or may not) be thrilled with the outcome. When it is over however, it’s time to get back to real life, where a world still needs hope and where I can choose to be a part of Paul’s “good fight.”
This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful to be a part of the good fight. When we win this contest, the celebration goes on forever.