The following piece was originally published in The South Carolina Review, Volume 40, Number 2, Spring 2008. (Yes, I'm proud.)
As college football dawns yet again, think of this as a cultural ode to the populist gods hidden right between the eyes — and the grill/altar.
Ask a stranger if he is a religious man and be prepared for a thousand responses, not the least of which is the always colorful and excruciatingly blunt, “Hell no!” But of course there are a thousand ways to be religious, and most of those ways often look, strikingly, a lot like religion, as we know it.
Consider a late October Saturday in Clemson, South Carolina. Humidity is forcibly relinquishing its total dominance over the air space, with gentle coolness now asserting its right to fly. Autumn is just beginning to reveal the natural world’s yearly signs of death; at the outset the signs are wondrously alive in soft pallets of red, yellow and orange. And college football is busy making its myths, performing its cultural role as a would-be populist folk-religion.
In due time even a casual observer can be made to see that the feverish passion, sustained seriousness, daily integration and weekly pilgrimage of a typical college football adherent in the South bear an almost eerie resemblance to another kind of adherent who sings praise choruses, eats the Eucharist, obeys the Sabbath or argues with his brother about the succession to Muhammad. The difference is surely only a matter of degrees.
To attend a college football game in most places in the South is to ready oneself not only for sport – competition, strategy and a wide array of intense emotional expenditure – but also for participation in the veritable cultic rite that surrounds the game itself. Not surprisingly, this particular rite, like most rites, seeks to maintain a specific function: to create and re-create identity and meaning through a local narrative. In this way, then, the narrative of college football in a state like South Carolina becomes as quintessentially vernacular as dancing the “Shag” at a wedding reception, hearing a Civil War battle revisited point-by-point in a barber shop or going to church on any given Sunday. In fact, with its own necessary rites, going to church seems the most apt analogy for what is often on display on Game Day in dear old Clemson.
Food, Drink and Priests
Mark “The Packman” Packer, a sports radio talk show host based out of Charlotte, North Carolina, has poetically dubbed the interface of college football and Southern culture: “Southern Fried Football” (Packer). In this terminology food provides the perfect raw material for the metaphor, precisely because, like football, it too inspires religious adherents (think: New Orleans-style cuisine versus Charleston’s Low Country cuisine or the various barbeque debates from Memphis to Mobile to Raleigh). According to The Packman, the creed for Southern Fried Football is simply the following: “Traditions. Tailgating. Pigskin. Babes” (Packer). Not necessarily in that order.
Whatever the order, the place of tailgating in the Saturday proceedings is as unmistakable as the place of wafer and wine on a Sunday (or, given the highly Protestant South, the place of a tiny cracker and some juice on the fourth Sunday of the month). In Clemson, it is not altogether unlikely to witness scores of football adherents carting the supermarket aisles on Wednesday or Thursday, stocking up in measured anticipation, evidencing a total mind/body/spirit preparation. Food is discussed incessantly in the run up to Saturday – and sometimes with fastidious detail, like a vigorous, dogmatic banter about what exactly happens to the wafer and the wine. And in some cases the drinking is actually receiving a more thoughtful treatment. “The serious revelers don’t just bring beer anymore,” said David Joachim, author of The Tailgater’s Cookbook, commenting generally on the college football tailgating scene. “They bring the whole bar. Cold beer is year round, but the cocktails change with the season. They make bowls of sangria or pitchers of mojitos. They heat up spiced cider, put out a few bottles of liquor and let everybody spike their own” (qtd. in Johnson). Cheers to diversity!
As is maybe universal among religions, certain adherents always appear to rise to the top with their level of commitment and practice, leaving other adherents to wallow in the mire of complacency, guilt and inadequacy. Tailgating adherents are no exception. Take for instance, Big Dog, as he is affectionately known.
Big Dog, it must be said, is an absolutely stellar Saturday adherent and thus a fine priest of Saturday services. Though he often dons a flowing Hawaiian shirt over his large upper frame, his attire should not confuse or fool anyone: Big Dog is reverentially serious about tailgating. He drives almost five hours every Game Day in his Ford F-350 diesel truck, which has a custom-made hitch and on which his colossal, black, roll-top grill rests like a portable altar. Bishop Big Dog’s tailgating menu usually gets released through his son, a student at Clemson, a few days in advance of the holy day, setting off wild, carnivorous delight among all his soon-to-be parishioners.
From his grill/altar, and with a spirit matching the nobility of his name, Big Dog serves the regular attendee and the complete stranger with an equality of grace and hospitality, though how the enemy would fare around his table (i.e. parking space) is anyone’s guess. A few minutes before it is time to shut down the grill/altar and enter the sacrosanct stadium, he can be seen smoking a long, fat cigar – a choice that would not exactly be welcome at most church potlucks. Here, however, it is a hopeful symbol of victory and undoubtedly a celebratory ode to the day’s righteous revelry. As one veteran tailgater at the University of Mississippi put it, “We may not win every game, but we’ve never lost a party” (qtd. in Hamilton).
In his novel Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis acutely captures the festival atmosphere evoked by relentless religious piety. In Glome the people blissfully go about their sacrificial rites in order to appease the gods and continue the script. Orual, who would be Queen and would dare to question the gods, is quite literally overwhelmed by the smell of it all – “a reek of holiness,” in the words of Lewis (62). Similarly, there is an arresting, almost atmospheric smell wafting around Clemson on Game Day. This peculiar presence works its way through dorm courtyards, intramural fields, academic buildings, parking lots, athletic merchandising shops, bars, restaurants and neighborhood streets. It infuses anything and everyone with its distinct holiness-aroma, which is somewhere in the vicinity of barbeque pork and Bud Light, with a hint of banana puddin’.
Preparing for the gods
In the film Unbreakable, ostensibly about comic-book heroes in human form, M. Night Shyamalan introduces the subject of football early as a parallel storyline and American cultural lens through which to see the hero-god motif. On the train ride before the infamous crash scene, a female sports agent sitting by David Dunn (Bruce Willis) talks up one of her football clients by declaring, “He’s going to be a god” (Unbreakable). The dramatic irony thickens: Dunn, now in his 30s, was a college football legend who had exchanged the potential glory of professional football for a relationship. Now he quietly inhabits the dull uniform of a Security Guard and dutifully protects the football stadium, the place where the gods live.
On fall Saturdays the Clemson gods live in an oval temple appropriately named Memorial Stadium. Its nickname – Death Valley – further solidifies its religious and, by extension, cultural use: a place where the foes of the gods come to be slain and the gods are vociferously praised. Instead of red, orange is the color of blood in Death Valley as almost 90,000 adherents file in. “Solid Orange: It’s about Pride,” so the mantra goes.
The choice of apparel for an occasion such as this is not to be taken lightly. The gods will be present, after all. So while the college football narrative is generally an open, come-as-you-are spiritual experience (many adherents go simple: t-shirt and jeans), the Southern cultural influence beckons the consideration of wearing your Sunday best, on Saturday of course. Fraternity gents with their white oxford shirts, striped ties, khaki pants and boat shoes and sorority ladies with their elegant and wispy dresses, pristine make-up, pearls and heels channel something of a bygone era of Southern gentility – as well as, perhaps, the ongoing connection to old-time religion.
On the other hand, there is an increasing trend toward sporting bright orange overalls for this all-important rendezvous with the gods. This so-far minority fascination, albeit a socio-economic clash with high propriety and a down-home flaunt of the notion of Sunday’s best, seems in this context a concerted nod to land, to roots, to the mythical agrarian South. Even if the meaning of overalls has been re-appropriated, the burgeoning folk populism is enough to make Wendell Berry proud.
Invoking the gods
Then comes the supreme liturgical moment: the invocation of the gods. This liturgical moment in Clemson’s Death Valley is more realistically a series of small moments, each with their exacting fit in the ceremony of Saturday and each cumulatively contributing to the narrative’s myth-making.
Hear “God Bless America”make its entitlement appeal. Listen to a formal prayer for a harvest of safe violence on the field. Say the Pledge of Allegiance in unison (the military bishops often appear, via satellite, to lead the communal oath-swearing, or if fortune is smiling, the archbishops in jets perform a fly-over instead). Next, the national anthem is chorused with the requisite note-holding corresponding to the idyllic notions of freedom and bravery. The common chant for dear old Clemson follows, ringing out from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The pre-kickoff liturgy in Death Valley is thoroughly drenched and dripping with all manner of sacredness and gravitas, but there is still much to do about the gods. By now the gods should be arriving anytime; the climax is almost here. The earth trembles to the sound of Zombie Nation pouring through the speaker system. By now the euphoric anticipation of a triumphant entry crescendos, like an eschatological orgasm about to explode. Messianic dreams are ready to be fulfilled in ten-yard increments. The gods are near, and once the sirens pierce the air, the gods have arrived. In Clemson, behold the gods arrive on a chartered coach, escorted by numerous servants of the state in police-cruisers. All that is left is for the gods to be received.
Receiving the gods
As the story goes, Frank Howard, a former head football coach at Clemson, was given a rock in 1966 (Clemson Tigers Official Athletics: Howard’s Rock). Birthed in the geologically rich Death Valley in California, by 1967 Howard’s Rock had become a symbolic fixture at the top of a relatively small hill within the football stadium, a hill that leads down onto the field itself, and a hill the players must descend. But first the rock must be rubbed.
On the National Park Service Web site, Death Valley National Park gets the grand and spiritual description, “A place of legend and a place of trial” (National Park Service). Ditto for Death Valley in Clemson: The rubbing of Howard’s Rock by those who would be gods, before entering the valley to engage the game, has become an intoxicating mystical blend of ceremony and myth, a wishful antidote to such complicated and trying possibilities contained in the valley. Michael Dean Perry, a Clemson defensive lineman in the 1980s, describes the phenomenon of the rock: “The rock has strange powers. When you rub it, and run down the hill, the adrenaline flows. It’s the most emotional experience I’ve ever had” (Clemson Tigers Official Athletics: Death Valley).
The rock sitting atop the hill and overlooking the valley indeed functions to provide a religious-type cornerstone for the cultural narrative of college football in Clemson. With its commanding centrality and inspired meaning, Howard’s Rock (and the act of rubbing of it) is rather emblematic of the kind of experience that a Greek Orthodox Christian with her iconography – how icons communicate – or perhaps a Sufi Muslim with his twirling and dancing – the spiritual nature of physical motion – might find alluring.
While Howard’s Rock holds nowhere near the magnanimous religious and cultural import of, say, the Ka’aba in Mecca, it is a significant local shrine nonetheless. Adherents often visit the stadium-temple midweek to snap a picture of the encased stone. A replica is on display in the entry area of one particular supermarket, reminding adherents of the overarching story they find themselves in as they go about grabbing milk, butter or a loaf of bread. And, yes, “Rub the Rock” t-shirts are available for purchase to reinforce faith, memory and consumerism.
Strangely, all this pomp and circumstance surrounding a rock is more than a little ironic and somewhat contradictory in a religious context where the act of rubbing beads and praying the rosary – among other acts – is often seen and decried as too ritualistic or grossly superstitious. But Saturday’s adherents are caught up in the elation and the awaited salvation as their gods rub the rock on the holy mountain inside the temple. Such is the subtle but powerful sway of religion where we least expect it.
A section of loud and fanatical adherents scattered along the hill parts, making straight the path in order to make straight the way of the gods. Here come the gods running down the hill, coming down the mountain to be finally present among the people. Advent is here, and its incarnation wears a helmet and cleats.
Brent Musberger, an ABC Sports broadcaster, has called the Clemson tradition of rubbing the rock and running down the hill before the game “the most exciting twenty-five seconds in college football” (Clemson Tigers Official Athletics: Death Valley). Former Clemson running back Rodney Blunt once said: “When you get to the bottom of the hill, it’s like you’re in a hole and all around you is nothing but Clemson fans. It’s like the crowd is one big voice. You feel like little kings” (Clemson Tigers Official Athletics: Death Valley). Or maybe the feeling is something more – divine.
The sheer revelry and precise liturgy encompassing the rite of college football continue to reveal many of the cultural markings of religion, as we know it. In Clemson, South Carolina, with so much of Sunday being conscripted into Saturday every autumn year after year, a person certainly could not be blamed for wondering which narrative is the more earnest one – the story ultimately providing identity and meaning. In other words, the question is begged: To whom shall we pray?
Packer, Mark. Home page. October 2006. http://www.southernfriedfootball.com/Home/
Johnson, Pableaux. “Raise a Mixed Drink for Dear Old State U.” New York Times 29 November 2006, natl. ed.: D1+.
Hamilton, William L. “At Ole Miss, the Tailgaters Never Lose.” New York Times 29 September 2006, natl. ed.: D1+.
Lewis, C.S. Till We Have Faces. New York: Harcourt, 1956.
Unbreakable. Exec. Prod. Gary Barber and Roger Birnbaum. Dir. M. Night Shyamalan. Perf. Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, and Robin Wright Penn. DVD. Touchstone Pictures, 2000.
Howard’s Rock. Clemson Tigers Official Athletics. November 2006. http://clemsontigers.cstv.com/sports/m-footbl/howards-rock.html
Death Valley National Park. National Park Service. November 2006. http://www.nps.gov/deva
Death Valley. Clemson Tigers Official Athletics. November 2006. http://clemsontigers.cstv.com/sports/m-footbl/death-valley-quotes.html