I originally wrote this for the Maple Street Press 2008 Alabama annual. With MSP's permission, I'll be republishing it here at RTT in four parts this week. Below is Part I. Keep in mind that I was writing to Alabama fans.
Forget the fact that the phrase itself is no longer technically correct in any given year. The Third Saturday in October, that special autumn day reserved for the Alabama-Tennessee college football series, either earns coaches legendary status, gets them fired, or makes them vomit. Sometimes, as in the case of Paul "Bear" Bryant, it makes them vomit and then makes them a legend. Regardless of whether the game now falls on the second, third, or fourth Saturday of the month, you know it's time for Alabama-Tennessee when even the sugar maples and red oaks don their colors and choose up sides.
Speaking of sides, you may have noticed that the note accompanying this chapter identifies me as a Tennessee blogger. Why is somebody who wears don't-shoot-me-I'm-not-a-deer orange even to weddings and funerals writing for a publication targeting Alabama fans? One reason, and if you tell any of my fellow Vol fans this, I'll deny it: We respect your program. My experience with the ‘Bama fans I've recently befriended is that the feeling is mutual. It is sometimes difficult to discern among all of the redneck jokes that ironically flow in both directions each October, but make no mistake, the respect is there. The programs both revile and revere each other.
Don't believe me? Try this experiment the next time you're in Knoxville. Wear your crimson. Get there early and look for a multi-generational Tennessee tailgate, preferably one with a kid (he's in the Eric Berry jersey), a dad (the guy in the No. 16 jersey manning (heh!) the grill), and the kid's grandfather (the white-haired gentleman snoring in the lawn chair). Go right up to the dad and introduce yourself.
After the initial shock, the entire orange-clad clan is likely to urge you to have a drink, a burger, and a chair.[i] You'll then spend the next couple of hours before kickoff in animated conversation, joyfully taking turns tormenting each other by re-telling your favorite memories of the series and reminding your hosts of their most painful moments at the stadium. It may just be the time of your life.
So grab yourself a drink and some food and settle in to the folding chair. Let's talk about the Third Saturday in October. Don't fret. I'll play the part of both protagonist and antagonist. Let's start by waking up grandpa, whose daddy told him all about The Beginning.
The Beginning: 1901, 1903-1909
Alabama hosted the first seven games of the series in Birmingham, including the very first in what Grandpa calls "nineteen aught one." Call it an omen or a portent or whatever ominous-sounding word you want, but the game had to be permanently interrupted with the score tied at six when an official's controversial call sparked a riot that could not be quieted before the sun retired for the evening.
After a one-year cooling off period, the teams resumed the series in 1903. The next six games, like the first, were played in Birmingham, and Alabama pretty much had its way with its visitors except for the game in 1904 when Tennessee employed the novel approach of actually throwing the ball carrier, whose uniform was equipped with special handles, down the field. They won 5-0.
Other than the 11 points scored in 1901 and 1904, though, the Volunteers didn't score a single other point in Birmingham those first seven seasons. It was 1909 before Tennessee decided that it was time to have the game in Knoxville where we could stage our own riot, which we did. Hey, at least we had the good sense to finish the game first. And we did y'all one better, too, actually pelting official R.T. Elgin in the head with some projectile the local media described as a "missile" for the audacity he displayed in actually enforcing a penalty against our beloved Vols in Knoxville. What? The score? Never you mind about the score, son. The riot's the important thing here.[ii]
[i] Or beat the pulp out of you, one of the two.
[ii] Browning, Al, Third Saturday in October (Nashville: Cumberland House Publishing, 1987, 2001), 5-9.
Coming tomorrow: Feet, surviving certain death, and helmets that make you bald.