“God & Football”

Chad Gibbs must be loving life right now.

You see, he’s an Auburn Tiger fanatic, and his team is 12-0. With a victory Saturday in the SEC title contest at Atlanta, Auburn will be in the national championship game.

Alabama lost to Auburn last Saturday in the Iron Bowl. Cam Newton has been cleared to play by the NCAA.

If you’re Chad Gibbs, it has been quite a week.

And if you love college football, love the South and grew up going to church, you’ll enjoy Gibbs’ book, “God & Football: Faith and Fanaticism in the SEC.”

Gibbs recently spoke as part of the lecture series at the Clinton School of Public Service (which I continue to contend is one of the greatest amenities of living in Little Rock; the lectures are all free), and he’s as funny in person as he is when writing.

Here’s how the book starts (just to give you a sample): ”Welcome to the American South, where God and football scrimmage daily for people’s hearts and minds.

“Perhaps you think this an overstatement. Perhaps you should exchange this book for one you can color in. (I’m sorry; that’s an awfully mean thing to say to someone who just bought your book.) Think of it this way: Suppose an alien were to visit Tuscaloosa, Knoxville or Baton Rouge — and if you don’t believe in aliens, you can substitute a Canadian. Suppose this visitor — we’ll call him Corso — were to spend a week observing the ordinary citizens of those towns. What do you think Corso the alien would conclude about the religious beliefs of those average, everyday people?

“Well, on Sunday morning he’d probably see them make their groggy, wrinkled-shirted way to a steepled building, where some sort of ceremony had begun 10 minutes before they arrived. Inside, he’d watch as they mouthed the words to songs, then struggled to stay awake while a man spoke for less than 25 minutes. Then, for the rest of the week, this place would be the furthest thing from their minds, unless by chance something tragic happened.

“Corso might be justified in concluding that church, for most, was a court-ordered punishment.

“On Saturday, Corso would see something completely different. The people would wake up early, carefully choose an outfit based on the good fortune it had brought them in the past, then drive, sometimes for hours, to a hallowed campus where some sort of ceremony is scheduled for much, much later in the day. All afternoon they would eat, drink and fellowship with friends, family and strangers. Then, when the time came, they would all enter a colossal shrine and join tens of thousands of similarly dressed and like-minded people. Inside, they would chant and sing until they lost their voices, and afterward they would celebrate like they’re at a wedding reception on Fat Tuesday.

“After he sees this, I think it’s safe to say Corso will think he’s found the one true religion — and he’ll probably convert on the spot.

“Football is big down here in the South. Real big. From peewee to junior high, high school to college, and even the NFL, Southerners love their football. And the fans of the Southeastern Conference are arguably the most ridiculously passionate fans in America.”

During the 2009 season, Gibbs attended a home game at each of the 12 SEC schools.

“I was looking for people more screwed up than I was so I could feel better about myself,” he told those in attendance at the Clinton School.

He was raised an Alabama fan but ended up attending college at Auburn. There, his passion for the Tigers exploded.

It was the man they called “The Godfather” in the SWAC — Coach Marino Casem, who was head coach at Alabama State in 1963, Alcorn State from 1964-85 and Southern University from 1987-88 and 1992 — who uttered my favorite description of college football.

“In the East, college football is a cultural exercise,” he said. “On the West Coast, it’s a tourist attraction. In the Midwest, it is a form of cannibalism. But in the South, college football is a religion, and every Saturday is a holy day.”

SEC football attendance will top 6 million people this fall.

Here’s how Gibbs’ book is described at www.amazon.com: “They spent thousands on season tickets, donated millions to athletic departments and for three months a year ordered their entire lives around the schedule of their favorite team. As a Christian, Gibbs knows he cannot serve two masters, but at times his faith is overwhelmed by his fanaticism. He is not alone. Gibbs and his 6 million friends do not live in a spiritually void land where such borderline idol worship would normally be accepted. They live in the American South, where according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, 84 percent identify themselves as Christians. This apparent contradiction that Gibbs sees in his own life, and in millions of others, has led him to journey to each of the 12 schools to spend time with rabid Christian fans of various ages and denominations. Through his journey, he learns how others are able to balance their passion for their team with their devotion to God.”

In an interview with www.saturdaydownsouth.com, Gibbs was asked about his favorite place to visit.

“Taking Auburn and my bias out of play, I would have to say Baton Rouge,” he said. “I was there for the night game vs. then-No. 1 Florida, and I was in the student section. Game day at any SEC school is great, but there is just something special about a Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.”

Gibbs explained the book this way in his interview with the website: “The book deals with how Christians, specifically me, balance the two passions in their life: God and football. So obviously my Christian faith is a large part of the book. The book also deals with family, specifically how growing up in the South watching and attending games with our parents, grandparents, siblings and cousins is a common bond we share. A friend of mine summed it up pretty well when he said: ‘Football is a great hobby but a terrible God.’ Going forward, I hope I will stop looking to football, or anything else for that matter, to fill the void in my life I believe only Christ can fill. This is the lesson of the book.”

Gibbs has figured out that spiritual books need not be dour. They can be funny.

When the book was released back in August, Gibbs wrote this at www.chadgibbs.com: “It’s leaving behind the small group of people who helped make it and going out into a scary place where people can read it, hate it and write means things on the Internet about it. So yeah, I’m nervous about letting go of my little book.

“I think about all the writers who went before me, folks like Harper Lee and Kate Gosselin, and how they must have felt when their books flew from the nest. How can you know if what you have written is good? I don’t think you can. Not at this point. You are too close. When I read ‘God & Football,’ I don’t think it is good or bad, only familiar. But when you read it, it will be good or bad, and what if it is bad? I can’t change it now. It’s too late. It’s not mine to change anymore. It’s out there, in the scary world.”

Having written a book, I can relate.

For the record, Chad, I liked it. A lot.

“Driving home, I felt a strange kindredness for the University of Arkansas,” he writes near the end of his chapter on Fayetteville. “Fayetteville reminds me a lot of Auburn, and the people were so friendly and welcoming. I’d like to think I’ll go back in future years, but if I’m honest, I’ll admit I probably won’t. That drive is no fun, and I certainly don’t want to travel that far just to see Auburn get its teeth kicked in.”

Post to Twitter

2 Responses to ““God & Football””

  1. George Baker says:

    Rex, as you may know, I was born in Thomasville Alabama, the street I lived on had seven houses and there were seven college football players on that street, three of which played in national championship games on the winning team. I often wondered if every where I was destined to live would be as tough as our street. The Stevens family, who lived directly across the street, had five boys, three played for Alabama and one for Auburn and one for then Livingston State. They are all mentioned in various books about Alabama football, Bruce being the most notable, not because of prowess but because he arrived at Alabama as a 188 lb. offensive lineman. This was in the seventies and even The Bear needed larger linemen. To make a long story short, Bruce persevered and became a starter by his junior year. The Stevens boys all became successful men, a lawyer, a school superintendant, a hospital owner, etc., all coming out of an environment that was Spartan to say the least. By the way, their dad also played at Bama. One notable thing about the Stevens family, their mom, Pauline was known to be the toughest of the group!

  2. rexnelson says:

    Coach Baker: There was something truly special about all of those football players who came out of Thomasville.

    When working for the Delta Regional Authority, I became friends with the current mayor of Thomasville, and we often would compare notes about what an amazing town it is when it comes to turning out college football players — Rex

Leave a Reply