For two decades in my life a couple of days on either side on August 15th was when my summer would officially end … and - thank God - the newest edition of “the great games” would soon begin in the most gloried of all sports - SEC football. It was once said, “Only in the South is college football a religion, and, mister, Saturdays down South are the Sabbath.” The late-summer prelude would start about right now when the Southeastern Conference “Skywriter’s Tour” would call roll in Birmingham. A carefully chosen group of the top sports writers from the SEC’s seven-state area would gather in Birmingham and, for the next 12-to-14 days, would visit every SEC campus.
We would travel on a Southern Airlines charter, a big Martin 4-0-4.
Legend had it that Southern Air Lines had bought the plane from the feds after it and its crew - and presumably many bales of marijuana - left it abandoned somewhere in the Everglades. Our plane was a cocaine runner in its earlier life, hauling dope from Mexico, and patches in the fuselage gave credence that she was battle scared. Even our plane had “panache,” you savvy? We figured the Skywriters were the aged airplane’s swansong, so to speak, and delighted in telling “rookie writers” its ‘nine lives’ were already in overtime, so its fall from the skies was imminent.
Our Chief Pilot was none other than “Crash” Wilson himself - and our minute-by-minute misbehavior may be best termed a mix between the movies “Animal House” and “Caddy Shack." The raucous road trip would end on the Wednesday before the first games of the season would be on the same Saturday. I was the youngest to ever be a member at age 20 and I had a string of 12 or 13 voyages. For years people have begged me to write a book on so many hysterical moments and my stock answer has been, “There has to be more prominent deaths for that to happen!” I never add, “Including mine!”
My greatest stroke of luck - this I really believe - is that at the zenith of these wonderful years all of us - coaches, writers, players - were genuine friends. This was prior to the expanse of the Internet, or “social media,” or HIPPA, or “got-cha’ journalism.” This was when sports were pure and when there were no “tattle-tales” in the ‘70s, the ‘80s, and some of the ‘90s. The way everybody looked at NCAA rules violations was simply this: “The speed limit is 55 mph and every team in the leagues is going about 65 when it comes to the rules.
But when some desperate-for-his-job coach starts going 80, or 85, three or four other coaches would turn him in. Don’t worry, they will confidentially supply the NCAA all the rope the investigators might need because that’s the way the SEC worked in those golden years. For years it has been said, “In football and basketball, the SEC polices its own.”
As my thoughts are always high with the advent of another year, I will be very surprised if, in the coming days, all of college football will not be shut down this season. Yes, I hate it, but I hate COVID much worse. As of 7 p.m. last night, the SEC and the Big 12 are still pressing to play but as I drove past the Manker Patten Tennis Center yesterday, a bunch of UTC football players, in full gear, were jogging towards the university practice field, each one totally unaware that just minutes earlier it was being broadcast over the radio their fall games will not happen.
The Southern Conference, much like the Pac12 and Big Ten, and many other conferences and teams, has cancelled fall play and is reportedly looking for a way to possibly play this spring. Yesterday college sports’ ruling body, the NCAA, cancelled all fall sports with the exception of FCS football. While there are very few who love the game and its people more than I do, permit me to give you three adages from a life as a newspaper writer that have never let me down:
* -- “When in doubt, leave it out.” No matter how chunky the news morsel you have in your pocket, if your belief in what’s in your report notes doesn’t pass the “smell” test, hold it until a story or two later. Give it time it will either grow better, or, in many cases, turn rotten. The coming COVID numbers (active cases, recovered, and deaths) are too heavy right now, and I predict “virtual learning” is our only answer today. An almost-certain uptick will close our universities, stadiums, and churches until either “herd immunity” and/or vaccines become available.
(NOTE: This from Wikipedia: Herd immunity (also called herd effect, community immunity, population immunity, or social immunity) is a form of indirect protection from infectious disease that occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population has become immune to an infection, whether through vaccination or previous infections, thereby reducing the likelihood of infection for individuals who lack immunity. Immune individuals are unlikely to contribute to disease transmission, disrupting chains of infection, which stops or slows the spread of disease. The greater the proportion of immune individuals in a community, the smaller the probability that non-immune individuals will come into contact with an infectious individual.)
* -- “Never assume anything. Never.” When you assume a belief in a news story, it will make the first three letters in the word ‘assume’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me.’ I don’t care how ‘macho’ athletics are, you’re dealing with a raging killer. According to the Johns Hopkins dashboard at 7 p.m. last night, there are 5,324,602 active cases with 68,674 new in the last 24 hours in the United States. Over 168,930 deaths have been reported, with 1,569 in the last 24 hours. While we have announced 2,679,694 who are “recovered,” with yesterday’s 31,321 just added, there is hope but we must double-down on masks, social media bashing, the 6-foot rules and constantly washing out hands.
* -- “Never underestimate the forces of human nature.” Only a fool tries to disrupt nature and, as the sanctimonious college presidents hurl their barbs and mental rocks at students who protest, what do you honestly believe will happen when nature’s law of human nature take place? I’m talking a bunch of college football players in a protective “bubble environment” on a college campus where they redshirt the Miss Americas.” I guarantee you, this ain’t gonna work.
Change is constantly moving. Yes, this is unprecedented and, yes, you're mighty right we are all heartsick, but we will get through this. I want the next generation to have new and bright experiences and laughter and memories as I do today, but it appears there will be many more hurdles those who follow must conquer. So, accept the new normal, adjust your stance to fit the turf, and understand that one football season lost means nothing to a new champion, be it on the field of play or in life itself.
Forget COVID when the vaccine is approved. The thrill of winning will never change.