Mississippi born, but Auburn football proud for 20 years running

Auburn fans celebrated big time in 1997 when the Tigers beat Alabama, 18-17. (Elsa Hasch/Allsport)
Auburn fans celebrated big time in 1997 when the Tigers beat Alabama, 18-17. (Elsa Hasch/Allsport) /

My story is a tad bit different than other Auburn Tiger fans. I did not grow up in Auburn, or the state of Alabama for that matter. I did not attend school there. I grew up in Mississippi, about an hour away from Hattiesburg, where the Southern Miss Golden Eagles reside.

Just a few hours north of my family resides Starkville and Oxford, home of the Bulldogs and Rebels. Mississippians do not understand my love for Auburn athletics. Some have gotten mad that I do not cheer for a team in my home state, but it is what it is. My story and fandom revolves around an old sofa, a Coca-Cola and the 1997 Iron Bowl.

The date was Nov. 22, and my dad had taken me to see my grandparents for Thanksgiving in Semmes, Ala. As I sat there talking to my grandpa, he switched the channel on the television to football. I was 7 years old in 1997. We had one television in our home with a mom who hated football unless the Dallas Cowboys or Green Bay Packers were playing. Needless to say, I was excited to watch football. I asked my grandpa who was playing. I had no idea who these two teams were. He looked at me wide-eyed and said, “Son, this is the Iron Bowl!”

I was clueless.

He was not.

This was the biggest game of the season. This was the rivalry. Nothing else mattered on this date except Tigers and the Tide. He, like the entire state of Alabama, knew what this meant. Especially for the Tigers who had a trip to the SEC Championship Game on the line.

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After he composed himself, my grandpa said, “You have to pick a team. You do not have a choice. Pick one.”

Here I sat, having no idea who either of these teams were, hoping I would not disappoint my grandpa by picking the “bad” team. So, I looked at the TV and said, “I’m for the guys with the Tiger. They look cool.” My grandpa was happy. I had picked correctly.

What I did not understand was that the Crimson Tide were about to give me, my grandfather and every Auburn fan a near heart attack by the end of the day.

Alabama was led by quarterback Freddie Kitchens and running back Shaun Alexander. How the team entered the game 4-6 with Alexander on the roster still puzzles me, but they were. Auburn was led by now Texas A&M wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig at quarterback. Terry Bowden had coached Auburn to an 8-2 record — the two losses coming to Florida and Mississippi State.

The first half started with Auburn’s Jaret Holmes nailing two field goals in the first quarter. All looked good. I had picked the right team, my grandpa was happy and our Thanksgiving meal was cooking. However, Alabama stormed back, intercepted Craig twice in the second quarter, Kitchens threw a 14-yard touchdown to Calvin Hall and Chris Kemp kicked a field goal. Alabama took a 10-6 lead into halftime. The metaphorical turkey was beginning to dry out for our household.

It only became worse when Alexander found the end zone from 12 yards out in the third quarter. The turkey was now burning. Auburn retaliated with a touchdown, but the 2-point conversion failed, keeping a 5-point gap between the Tide and Tigers. Later in the fourth quarter, Holmes drilled another field goal to cut the lead to 17-15, but all hope seemed lost when Auburn punted with three minutes remaining in the game.

Here I was, a 7-year-old kid watching the team I picked lose in the first game I watched with my grandpa. This was not new to him. In the previous season Alabama defeated Auburn, 24-23, in a fantastic game. However, fate would not have the Tigers go down like this.

With around 90 seconds to play, Alabama faced a third-and-8. Kitchens dropped back to pass, spun around, and found Ed Scissum on a screen pass. Scissum. who had not touched the ball the entire game, fumbled the ball on the Crimson Tide 33-yard line. In a fit of excitement, I jumped up, grabbed my grandpa’s arm as Coca-Cola went flying everywhere. We went absolutely nuts. There was Coke all over the couch, the carpet and both of us, but neither of us cared. Auburn drove down the field and Holmes kicked the game-winner from 39 yards out with 15 seconds to play.

I will never forget that game. I enjoyed it with family, ate a good meal and began a 20-plus-year love affair with the Tigers from Auburn.

Even if I am just a young man from the Magnolia State.

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