My Dad, His Church and College Football

In case you’re reading this far in the future, this is a Saturday near the end of November. The year doesn’t matter because the routine has been established for decades. The end of the college football season is in sight. The football giants in my neighborhood are Auburn and Alabama. I realize the contentious nature of the local, super loyal fan-base makes this a sore subject and a may even offer a moment of great pain for fans of either team, but early in the football season it would’ve been a moment of delight for my father, the Methodist minister. He wouldn’t like it because either team lost, but because no matter who won, the next day more people would come to church.

His primary station was Montgomery, Alabama, a city with a population almost equally divided by allegiance to either Auburn University or The University of Alabama. The membership of my father’s congregation was divided in the same way for the same reason. It was that fierce allegiance by the fans who attended his church that dictated how well-attended any given Sunday-after-the-game would be.

If Auburn won their game, no matter who their opponent was, all of the “Auburn” church members would come, even those who seldom attended, maybe to give thanks for a victory, or maybe to gloat. It was the same for the “Alabama” members. Also, if one team won, but the other lost, then all of the winning fans would be in the pews on Sunday, and about half the losing fans, the good sports, would show up. The usual winning records of both teams almost guaranteed a church attendance of about seventy-five percent. My father could live with that.

On the other hand, and this is what my father secretly hoped for, if both schools had a really big game with other teams, and they both lost, everybody came to church. Once, I asked him why that was. He told me that some came to share their misery with the other side. Some came to beg, “Why, God, Why!” And some, he said, came to be thankful, as in “Dear Lord, thank you that if we had to lose, You made them lose, too.”

What he dreaded was a Saturday when Alabama and Auburn played each other, because he knew that the following day only half the church members would come to the service. Knowing how the winners huffed and smirked and gloated and paraded their victory with posture and expression, it’s no wonder the losers stayed away.

Sometimes, during the big game on Iron Bowl Saturday, as bragging rights were on the line, and smirking-in-the-church-pew privileges were up for grabs, as my family and I watched the game on TV, I can still remember seeing my father with a legal pad in his lap on which he was making notes for the next day’s sermon. Inevitably, the theme would be about posturing and pride. He would never make a direct reference to the game, but he would slip in cleverly appropriate phrases borrowed from the two school’s fight songs, like, “Roll on to victory,” and “Never to yield.” Also, without fail, his sermon would finally address the reality of the day, ending with, “Well…no matter who you are, no matter who you cheer for, God loves you and I do, too. Amen? …Amen!”