Football in Dixie
You can argue, as many do, that in different parts of our nation different sports are more special (Indiana and basketball come to mind) but down in Dixie, football has few competitors.
Now, I’ll grant you that NASCAR runs football a good race – pun intended.
NASCAR is a sport with roots in the pleasures of regular folks, of which we have a bunch. All along a line beginning around Birmingham and running up into Virginia, a line that followed the hardscrabble farms and mill towns of the Piedmont, folks souped up their beat-up cars and ran whiskey from still to town. And when they weren’t racing “revenuers” they raced each other.
On the other hand, football began as the sport of Southern elites – the ones who could afford college. And there weren’t many of those.
But once it got started (in 1877, Washington and Lee took on Virginia Military Institute in the first football game in Dixie) it did not take long for the sport to filter down to high schools.
It helped that football enjoyed a seasonal advantage. Cotton was picked, tobacco harvested and corn pulled, so country kids and town kids could play together. Class distinctions blurred.
Lots of folks participated. Eleven on a team. Substitutions were frequent. And there were auxiliary groups – cheerleaders, bands, pep clubs – which made football a true school event.
Football was also a measure of a community.
How do you know local schools are good? The football team is a winner.
Where is evidence of civic pride? In the stands on Friday night.
The sport drew in parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, friends of the family, and just plain fans.
The following was equally intense among African Americans, for in the pre-integration South, teams and schools were the pride of the black community.
The advent of radio spread the game even more. The University of Alabama’s 1926 Rose Bowl victory put Dixie on the map, especially in the minds of Southerners.
Other events further broadened football’s appeal – the GI Bill sent more Southern boys and girls to college where they developed institutional loyalties that included loyalty to a football team. Then came TV. When ABC began broadcasting football, the pageantry and excitement was beamed right into Dixie’s living rooms.
Come September, everything fell into place. At the end of the work-week, small towns across the South closed down for the high school game, and on Saturday afternoon friends (and foes) gathered around the TV to watch a college contest.
Football also followed the trajectory of Southern history. In 1970, when an integrated University of Southern California football team whipped the Crimson Tide, that defeat, (according to Alabama assistant coach Jerry Claiborne) “did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King did in 20 years.” Of course, integration was more complicated than that, but when football fans at white schools began to believe that winning was more important than segregation, segregation didn’t stand a chance.
So, it seems to me, because of football, Dixie is a better place than it might have been.
That says a lot.