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My personal sports hell: The Clemson-Alabama National Championship conundrum

Why watching the title game was harder for me than most

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Introductions are difficult in writing and in real life, especially in front of a brand new audience.

So instead of a diatribe of what I do and how I came to be here, a story seems more appropriate considering the context of my new position.

My name's Chris Stanley, and I'm the new co-manager for Garnet and Black Attack. In order to really get to know who I am, let me tell you a tale about my college football fandom and how it came to be.

A little over a week ago my own personal sports hell was realized. Alabama and Clemson were playing each other for the College Football Playoff National Championship for the second year in a row — a scenario I couldn’t concoct in the worst kind of drug-induced hallucination.

It would mean I’d have to watch this game and no matter what, I would lose. Let me explain: I have a peculiar situation when it comes to my college football fandom.

I grew up an Auburn fan under my parents, who were both third generation Auburn graduates. All of my childhood Saturdays were wrapped up in the fanaticism that is college football in Alabama, which also meant growing up hating the Crimson Tide during a period where their program was going through a dull period.

Tommy Tuberville did well as the head coach at Auburn while I was growing up, but he made a point to beat Alabama as often as he could — six years in a row from 2002 to 2007 to be exact.

I actually remember going to an Alabama-Auburn game as a naive 11-year old. My Dad and I were walking down a sidewalk towards Toomers Corner when I noticed an Alabama fan walking in front of us wearing a crimson shirt with big, bold print on the back of it.

The print read “12-time national champions” with an assortment of trophies on the back. I stared at this for what felt like hours trying to make sense of whether or not it could be true. Remember I grew up with Mike DuBose, Dennis Franchione and Mike Shula as Alabama head coaches, who combined through 1997 to 2006 to go 51–54 and 3–7 against Auburn.

In other words, I grew up in a world were Alabama was about as relevant as a snowplow in Phoenix. Florida, Tennessee and Georgia — even LSU — were always the teams that struck fear into my heart as a fan. Never the Crimson Tide though.

After studying the shirt like it was an equation for rocket fuel on a chalkboard, I looked up to my Dad and asked “Dad, is that true?”

My Dad looked down at me puzzled.

“What’s true?” he inquired.

I then pointed to the man's shirt in front of us. Dad looked over and smiled, shaking his head.

“Oh yeah. It’s all true.”

The guy who was actually wearing the shirt then turned around to drunkenly giggle at my general lack of college football knowledge.

“Boy you just don’t even know,” he said with a mouthful of chew as he turned off the sidewalk and left to wherever he was going, probably to pound a Keystone Light and tell his buddies about the dumbass Auburn kid who besmirched the great name of Bear Bryant.

I looked up at my Dad with an expression I could only imagine was some cross between confusion and despair. Dad, still smiling, looked ahead and simply said,

“You really don’t know Chris.”

The next couple of hours were spent at Toomers drinking some of that classic, fresh-squeezed lemonade and walking back to where my Mom, brother and sister were parked.

During that time Dad explained to me what he had to grow up with. My Dad, born in 1963, grew up under the rule of Bear Bryant. For the first 19 years of his life, Auburn went 4–15 against Alabama and saw the Tide win five national titles.

I shivered in horror as Dad told the lore of the Doug Barfield era of Auburn football, a dark period where Auburn never beat Alabama and went 29–25–1 — never going to a bowl game in the process.

I vaguely remembered 1998 and 1999 when Auburn had bad seasons, but for most of my young life Auburn had always been decent enough to make a bowl game. So finding out Auburn had actually been bad at one point in time was simply inconceivable to my young mind.

I’ve never forgotten that moment. From that game on it sort of sat in the back of my mind that if Alabama used to be that good, they could get back there again — right?

“No!” I would tell myself. “Army used to be good too, but they’ll never get back to where they used to be!”

(Remember this is 12–14 year-old me talking, so don’t judge too hard on how absurd the above statement is)

Low and behold here we are now. Alabama was one second away from of a fifth title under Nick Saban and I still don’t know how to deal with it.

Alabama — the team Auburn sacked ll times in 2005 — is now the Arceus of college football and only getting more powerful. After a childhood of beating Alabama being as much of a staple as lemonade and Spongebob after school — now come Thanksgiving I couldn’t feel any more empty inside.

It’s weird to flip from one side of that coin to the other in the matter of a couple of years. It didn’t take Saban long to turn Alabama into the power it is, so I never had enough time to process what was happening between Tuscaloosa and Auburn.

It was Saban’s first year in Tuscaloosa my family packed up our stuff and moved from my childhood home of Katy, Texas to Powdersville, SC — a suburb of Greenville nestled just 40 minutes outside the campus of Clemson University.

Now my knowledge of Clemson football was incredibly limited, because why wouldn’t it be? Clemson’s best season while I was growing up was 9–4, not nearly enough to move the needle while I was living in the same state as Vince Young’s Texas and just up north Adrian Peterson’s Oklahoma.

However, if you’ve ever visited the Upstate you won’t be hard pressed to find people decked out in purple and orange. Even then it was incredibly off-putting how prideful a fan base Clemson was.

Let me remind you I grew up in a family with Alabama fans, and lived most of my life in a city with Texas, LSU, Oklahoma and Texas A&M fans. My bar was for obnoxiousness was sky high.

For example, one of my first interactions at my new high school whilst talking about college football ended with an argument on how I pronounced the word “Clemson”.

“There’s no ‘Z’ in Clemson!” The fan exclaimed, who will remain nameless in this article. “Why does everyone say it like that?”

If you say the word “Clemson”, it’s hard for the “s” not to have a short “z” sound to it — but to overcompensate many fans pronounce it “Clemp-son” to avoid the “z” sound.

I pointed this out to said fan in my 10th grade English class, but his response was,

“Well, there ain’t a ‘Z’ either!”

As strictly an Auburn fan I was a neutral observer to the interactions between Clemson and South Carolina fans at my high school. One thing was clear: The Clemson fans carried themselves like they were better and held their heads higher than anyone.

It was very similar to how Texas and Alabama fans treated Texas A&M and Auburn fans. I felt some sympathy towards South Carolina fans, mostly because of how apathetic many of them had become to their situation.

One South Carolina fan I came to know well was a guy named Zack Mcalister. Zack’s the guy I credit with really explaining the rivalry to me. Essentially he told me South Carolina fans were second class citizens in the Palmetto football world and they just had to deal with it because that’s how it had always been.

His childhood (1997 to 2008) saw Clemson go 10–2 against SC and that pretty much paralleled the rivalry since it started in 1896. The mentality of №1 and №2 was pretty well established in South Carolina. Clemson flaunts it, SC accepts it.

It’s a little different dynamic in Alabama. The Auburn fans never really seemed to accept being №2. Tiger fans as a whole would consistently buck up to Tide fans no matter what the situation, even in 2008 or 2012 when Auburn was abysmal in football while Bama was busy winning games.

While I was in high school I observed this rivalry from the sidelines as Clemson would beat Carolina in 2007 and 2008, but lose in 2009. The joy I saw come over the outnumbered Carolina fans at my school was like that of the second coming of Christ.

It just was something that didn’t happen. Like a solar eclipse or a good Ryan Reynolds movie. Even more so was the reaction of Clemson fans, who when they lose to Carolina act as if it never happened.

It’s incredibly strange. Tiger fans as a whole still walk around with that same “head-high” style but will not acknowledge the loss in any fashion. Almost like a hot girl who farts loudly in an elevator. Everyone in there knows it’s her and is staring intently in her direction, but she continues to stand proudly erect and act like she never broke wind.

Bama fans will react similarly when they lose to Auburn, so in essence I really felt some sense of unity with the Carolina fans in my school because when I went back to Alabama for the holidays I was their shoes.

While that’s not why I wound up going to the University of South Carolina, it did make me feel more comfortable once I settled in Columbia. After sympathizing with Carolina fans for the past four years  — I was ready to adopt South Carolina as my second college football team.

You could say I cheated to become a Carolina fan because I did no real suffering when I became one, but I certainly never regretted my decision. From 2011–2013 SC went 33–6, beat Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin in bowl games and most importantly went 3–0 against Clemson to eventuallty win five years in a row.

Let me tell you, when the hot girl farts audibly five times in a row it becomes much harder to ignore. It was a great time to be a Carolina fan and a student at the school.

The pinnacle of my dual allegiance came in 2013 when South Carolina beat Clemson for the fifth year in a row and finished 11–2 for the third year in a row and Auburn pulled off the “kick-six” against 11–0 Alabama and won the SEC championship.

However, I harken back to the conversation my father had with me on that Iron Bowl weekend back in 2003. He told me something that couldn’t ring truer today.

I asked Dad how he coped with growing up as an Auburn fan in an Alabama dominated era. He told me,

“You just have to savor the wins as much as you can, because it’s the losses that make looking back to those wins so much better. You can’t savor something that happens all so often.”

Had he not told me that I don’t know what I’d be doing with myself today as I set here and type this while weeping over a photo of Cam Newton and Conner Shaw. As of right now neither Auburn nor SC have beaten their in-state rivals since my euphoric 2013 and have combined to go 39–38 since.

All the while Clemson and Alabama have gone to be in the last two National Championships and reign supreme over the college football world -- I’m just sitting here at the bottom of the valley while my bitter enemies from both sides laugh atop their mountains drinking my tears and eating grapes from the vine.

Last season when Alabama won, my Auburn side suffered but my South Carolina side thrived on. This year was the opposite, but even still I feel like I would have lost either way. Even saying all of that, I've never once regretted my fan choice and I don't see myself changing anytime soon.

It's like my Dad said, it's times like these that make us appreciate the better ones. So I'll look forward to thinking back to those good times with y'all and looking forward to the better ones ahead. Go Cocks and War Eagle!