January 8th, 2010
09:25 PM ET

Good Tidings from The Elephant Men

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/01/08/art.al.tx.bcs.jpg caption="The Crimson Tide defeated the Texas Longhorns 37-21 in the Citi BCS National Championship game at the Rose Bowl on Thursday."]

Charles McNair

Order is restored, stars aligned. The Alabama Crimson Tide reigns as national champion of college football. A valiant effort by a worthy adversary, the Texas Longhorns, fell short, and the Tide rolled.

Those of us with Alabama affections know, in our fervent hearts, that more went on the night of January 7 than a football game. Here was something close to a primal annual rite, visible on television everywhere electricity exists.

We gathered Thursday night around the electronic fire. Like tribesmen. The Elephant Men.

The Alabamians.

We ate some red meat, drank some beer. We ran through some tribal lore from our native land, shared stories that link us and our families and friends in our uniquely colorful history. We’re men of reason, but we employed every superstitious device we know: The same set of clothes, unwashed, we wore to the last gathering. The same halftime order of lucky chicken wings. We were as careful about seating arrangements as those who plan state dinners on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Wherever we sat the last time the Crimson Tide won … that’s where we sat Thursday night.

We’d been in the same seats at the same table in the same tavern for 13 games in a row this year. The University of Alabama football team – that fabled Crimson Tide – ran the table in 2009 on its way to the national championship.

We suddenly superstitious men who met at Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta understand our behavior is shockingly counterintuitive. None of us carries lucky charms (that I know of). None of us makes our life decisions based on divinings of chicken entrails. No rattlesnake rattles or crystals.

One of us is the finest beat political writer in the South, a veteran journalist of the Atlanta Journal Constitution for decades. Another tribesman won the Pulitzer Prize a couple of years ago. Another is a genius electrical engineering Ph.D. teaching and tenured at Georgia Tech. Another is a partner in his law firm. And there’s me, the fiction writer.

We live in Georgia, but we’re from Sweet Home Alabama, always. Places called Montgomery, Florence, Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, Dothan. We’re Alabamian, no matter where we lay our heads. Who we are, where we were born and raised – it never goes away for folks where we come from. It’s DNA. The thread that runs so true.

We gathered Thursday night to celebrate the appearance of our state’s one great pride, its football team. During all those decades last century that Alabama ranked number 49 or 50 in every quality-of-life category – education, public health, infant mortality, good sense – we always had one peg where we could hang our pride: The Tide. Somehow, Alabamians were as good as anybody, anywhere, between the sidelines of a gridiron. It mattered, in a state where too many things shamed us.

Mind you, it wasn’t only a few flaky expatriates in Manuel’s who gathered on this night when snow fell over Atlanta and back in ‘Bama.

Across town, another group of tribesmen met at a private home. One of these Elephant Men heads a major unit of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. His buddies are developers, physicians, bankers. They’ve done well away from Alabama … but the mystic chords of who and what they are brought them together Thursday night.

Tribes also gathered in New York City, where the Alabama alumni group is one of the largest in the nation. At Mister Pockets in L.A. Meanwhile, The Longhorn Men, the Texas faithful, also convened here in Atlanta too, at Fox Brothers Barbecue, and in sports bars and living rooms all over Texas, and in other states wherever Texans work and live. I imagine that just like our Manuel’s tribe, The Longhorn Men walked through game day in a trance of anticipation, counting the cold-syrup-slow minutes until kick-off.

Why do millions of people carry on this way? Because Thursday evening was not simply about athletic competition.

The game displayed a primary way our overworked, overtrafficked, overworried and often overwhelmed society lets passion through its filters and baffles and into expression, into plain view.

When does that ever happen in these strange, staid times? When do we let ourselves be passionate? At the office? There’s Novocain in too many souls there. At church? We don’t even make a joyful noise singing hymns. At school? Just try it – dunce cap, anyone?

Here was the moment we let ourselves off the leashes, permitted ourselves to be passionate, full-throated, unchecked, unrestrained:

Two teams on a field. A championship at stake … it was national title number 13 for the Crimson Tide, if you’re counting. (I am.) We celebrated two waves of history and myth and memory lined up … as a silly football sat ready to be snapped.

I can’t wait till next year.

Editor's Note: Charles McNair is the Books Editor of Paste Magazine. He is also the author of Land O'Goshen, nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1994.

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