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Bill Maxwell

Football, religion of the South

Throughout the South, nights are cooling, marching bands and cheerleaders are perfecting their routines and otherwise normal grown men soon will become raging maniacs.

Football season, high school and college, has arrived.

In other parts of the nation, TGIF means "Thank God it's Friday." Here in Dixieland, it means "Thank God it's football." Pacific Coasters, Midwesterners and Northeasterners love football. But the South is where football is a religion.

"Football mania" is the term that best describes the year-round mass psychosis that grips Southern cities and towns — Athens, Auburn, Austin, Baton Rouge, Blacksburg, Bradenton, Clemson, Columbia, Gainesville, Knoxville, Lakeland, Largo, Little Rock, Miami, Oxford, Tallahassee, Tampa and Tuscaloosa.

Football occupies the Southern mind 13 months out of the year. In many small Florida towns, such as Chiefland, High Springs, Live Oak, Newberry and Williston, community pride is directly proportional to the high school team's record.

Pigskin prowess is a matter of Southern honor.

As a native Floridian, I'm smug about football. We have four of the nation's premiere college programs, and three of them have been national champs. One of the nation's fiercest and oldest rivalries between traditional black schools, Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman, is played here annually.

Along with their counterparts in other regions of the South, Florida high schools attract college scouts like stink attracts flies. If a Northeastern coach wants a running back with rocket speed, he takes a trip down to Glades Central High in tiny Belle Glade. This campus on the muck is "Scatbackville, USA."

Scholars long ago started paying attention to the South's obsession with football. In his article "Geography of Sports," Oklahoma State University professor John F. Rooney Jr. writes that "football mania is still intensifying throughout the South. … Though football is a national game, the ability to play it well is inordinately concentrated in the South."

Because the region is obsessed with the sport, the South sends more football players to college and professional teams than other parts of the nation. Many men in Dixie, especially black fathers, start grooming their sons for football in elementary school.

Many social scientists believe the South's obsession with football has a negative side. Benjamin K. Hunnicut, a professor at the University of Iowa, argues that football, like many other Southern pastimes, such as hunting and stock car racing, reflects regional values and characteristics that crave so-called "blood sports and militaristic games."

James M. Gifford of Appalachian State University said that "Friday night in the autumn is the time for a major Southern ritual occasion. Football is the center of a complex cultural event involving more than players on the field." Football is, in fact, an instrument of psychic survival in the Old Confederacy.

Two years ago, when I lived and worked in Tuscaloosa, I appreciated Hunnicut's reference to "blood sports and militaristic games" and Gifford's allusion to "psychic survival." On weekends when the Crimson Tide played at home, Tuscaloosa became a virtual Confederate battlefield. A professor there explained that on an "important level, football is one way that Southerners subconsciously compensate for the failures of the Civil War."

This was powerful stuff, and I had no reason to doubt its accuracy. He said that Southern teams love to play Northern teams. They love whipping "damned Yankees" and other outsiders.

"The other football conferences hate playing the Southeastern Conference," he said. "When Southerners run out of outsiders to beat up on, they decimate one another. They often knock themselves out of contention for the national championship."

Many of the South's greatest heroes are football coaches. Steve Spurrier, the Old Ball Coach, is a legend. Although Bobby Bowden's teams have slid in recent years, the self-styled country bumpkin will be remembered as a savior.

Wally Butts, University of Georgia coach from 1939 to 1960, said of his greatest nemesis, the Crimson Tide's great Bear Bryant: "The definition of an atheist in Alabama is someone who doesn't believe in Bear Bryant."

That's Southern football.

Football, religion of the South 08/30/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 5, 2008 10:13am]
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