Sunday, February 28, 2010

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: a journey into the heart of fan mania
Warren St. John (2004, Crown Publishers)

And when did you begin to suspect you had a problem, Mr. St. John? a perhaps unhealthy fixation, let us say, on college football? "I'd gone to Columbia to study humanism and the great books--to become a rational being. Crying one's self to sleep over the failure of a group of people you've never met to defeat another group of people against whom you have no legitimate quarrel--in a game you don't play, no less--is not rational." Columbia, it should be said, was at that time engaged in breaking a record for the longest losing streak in college football, but that's not why Warren St. John was curled up in a ball on his dorm room floor. No, it was his beloved Alabama Crimson Tide, who had suffered their first loss of the season at the hands of the Auburn Tigers, the game every year Alabama most hates to lose.

"One of the most comforting experiences for anyone who considers himself weird in some way is to find other people in the world who are, in the same way, weirder." Well, Mr. St. John has found them, in spades. The scores of people who drive motor homes, (some of them "the sleek aluminum ones that resemble a 737 with the wings lopped off") every autumn weekend, to wherever Alabama is playing football, represent a summit of weirdness that cried out for further study. Good-natured weirdness, to be sure, especially when the good guys win, but how do these people do it? and why?

Well, sometimes writers have the best job in the world. He took a season-long leave from the New York Times, and went on the road with them. The first week he went with a couple of fans from South Carolina; the next couple of games he was a sort of wannabe, in a mere car; and after that he drove the cheapest RV he could find that would actually proceed down the road, guzzling gas at four miles to the gallon.

There's football in this book, but only in the same proportion that it enters into the tailgating weekend--which may begin on Wednesday or Thursday afternoon, for the self-employed, or those who have called in sick. Parking arrangements vary from campus to campus, but the RVs always wind up clustered together, their occupants sharing beer, food and stories while they wait for Saturday's game.

St. John has an ear for those stories, and an eagle eye for the characters he meets. He tracks down the couple he first saw on television, whose daughter was foolish enough to schedule her wedding for the day of the Tennessee game. (They made it to the reception.) He's friendly with a ticket broker in Tuscaloosa, who makes a nice living keeping track of how badly people want to see the next game, buying and selling accordingly.

He also makes some intelligent digressions into the psychology of fandom--the brain's chemical rush of victory, especially when there has been suspense, and the pleasure of belonging to an identifiable Crowd, no matter how broadly dispersed. Especially if your team is Alabama, and has been since you could first pronounce the word, there's nothing rational about it, and that's the way it should be.

Roll Tide.

An e-mail only edition,
October 2004

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