Words will never work. Photographs are pale, onion skin-thin layers of the event, so transparent that only the perceptible will see them. Video, with all of its attendant sights and sounds and cuts and edits, will never convey it.
We saw a little slice of the rapture. It was orange and blue.
“The moment before the chaos began,” I thought to myself when I took the shot of the opening kickoff. Oh, little did we know what the fates had in store:
Two good teams. Alabama, after this game, sits 62nd in the country in passing, 23rd in rushing, 14th in scoring and 36th in total offense. Auburn concluded their season 38th in third down defense, 44th in fourth down defense, 56th against the rush, 59th against the pass, 31st in scoring defense and 75th in total defense.
Auburn is now 105th in the nation in passing, fifth in rushing, 15th in scoring and 17th in total offense. Alabama wraps up their regular season 18th in third down defense, first in fourth down defense, 10th against the rush, 15th against the pass, second in scoring defense and fifth in total defense.
Add all of that up and you get the top-ranked team, the number four team, owners of three straight conference titles and the crystal clear memories of the last four national champions between them. Oh, and also maybe one of the greatest games ever played and the best finish ever witnessed in the history of sport. And we were there to see it.
They ruled this a touchdown, but instant replay changed the call. Nick Marshall did not score.
On the next play Marshall turned and gave the ball to Tre Mason, who scored his 19th touchdown of the season. He’s only two away from the school record. (Know who holds that? Some guy named Cam Newton.)
I said to my wife, on the second drive, that if Auburn was going to win Nick Marshall was going to win it with his arm. We were watching the Alabama defenders completely forget their responsibilities when he ran. He missed a big play early trying to take advantage of that, but the next opportunity came along and Bama showed their hand. They were terrified of Nick Marshall on the edges and getting to the open field.
Rightly so. He gained 127 yards, netting 99, while escaping the likes of Denzel Devall and his teammates:
When the fourth quarter began the box score looked like this:
Bama 0 21 0
Auburn 7 7 7
Auburn had struck first in the game, but Alabama overcame their own struggles to mount an impressive second quarter. The way the Tide finished the first half seemed frantic though, which felt like a good sign for the boys in blue. The Tigers marched out and struck early to start the second half, and it stayed at 21-21 until the final frame began:
Fourteen more points would be scored as the home field clock began its last countdown of the season. Alabama put one score on the board in the fourth, despite playing even stiffer than they had the entire game, as their play calling even more quixotic.
Then in the final moments, with Alabama perhaps finally feeling almost comfortable, they lined up to kick the field goal that would put the score out of reach. A 10-point lead would have been too much to ask. Auburn knew it. Alabama knew it. Everyone in the stands and watching at home realized it too. So Auburn blocked the field goal. Alabama’s kicker, already playing the game a kicker would have nightmares about, missed his third opportunity of the game. The Tigers fell on the ball. Alabama committed a senseless penalty that moved Auburn up to their own 35. But still, that vaunted Alabama defense. Surely the Tigers couldn’t overcome the circumstance.
Overcome they did. Nick Marshall guided the team the length of the field, covering the green expanse and turning white-clad defenders into dust on a two minute, seven-play march.
The first six plays looked like this:
Tre Mason rush up middle for 7 yards to the AU42.
Tre Mason rush up middle for 1 yard to the AU43.
Timeout Alabama, clock 01:43.
Tre Mason rush up middle for 5 yards to the AU48, 1ST DOWN AU.
Tre Mason rush over left guard for 5 yards to the UA47.
Tre Mason rush up middle for 3 yards to the UA44.
Tre Mason rush up middle for 5 yards to the UA39, 1ST DOWN AU.
And on that play Auburn saw what they’d been waiting for the entire game. The Alabama defenders were finally getting too antsy. So Auburn ran the same zone read, the same play they’d just called, the same play they’d used all night and all year.
This is what they did: Nick Marshall showed the ball to Tre Mason. Mason is now destined to break the school record for single season total yardage (currently held by some fellow named Bo Jackson) after rolling up 233 yards against one of the best defenses in the universe and after having the nerve to appear, as a Birmingham professional polemicist wrote, “totally convinced that the Tigers can do to the Tide what they did to Georgia, Texas A&M, etc., etc., etc..” He was confident, yes, and he played like it, yes. And he put up those same kinds of numbers, most emphatically yes, and all night long. But Mason had done enough with the ball. His last job was to throw his body into the line one more time, this time as a decoy.
The previous six plays it had been Mason-Mason-Mason-Mason-Mason-Mason. But now it would be Marshall, who would roll to his left and look for the corner. Then, with a magician’s sleight-of-hand, he swapped the ball from his left hand back to his right. With the world watching this running quarterback flicked the ball to Sammie Coates, now completely forgotten by the Alabama defenders. Coates waltzed in for a 39 yard score. An extra point tied the game.
Now Alabama returns the ball to their offense, full of a star running back, a road-grading offensive line and a two-time national champion, sudden Heisman Trophy-darling quarterback. They had 32 seconds on the clock.
In retrospect, they should have had 31. In three plays they moved from their 29 to Auburn’s 38. The clock, now famous, expired. But Nick Saban, more famous and more furious, demanded time be put back on. The officials reviewed the play and found he was correct. (He was correct.)
Alabama would have one second. They could throw it into the end zone. Or they could try for a field goal. They chose the latter. They chose … poorly. Alabama opted to put in a freshman kicker who hadn’t seen the field all day. His teammate had missed three, so in came the younger guy. He lined up, gave it his best and it tailed away from the goal post, just short of giving the freshman kicker football glory.
In the back of the end zone stood a lone Tiger. He caught the ball and bolted up the middle of the field. He threw his entire body weight into his left foot and bent to the sideline. A wall was formed. The guys in white were cleared:
Chris Davis wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school. He was barely recruited at all. He has an amazing degree of talent and he’s been a team player for his entire career. Also, our friend that runs the best tailgate on campus, claims him as her own. People in her section think she is actually Chris Davis’ mother.
And so as the stars exploded and heaven opened and the horns blared their triumph. I looked at my wife and said “Do you know who that was? That was Chris!”
And I could only imagine a fraction of the pride or our friend, Kim, felt for Davis, which meant I could not conceive of the pride his mother, Ms. Janice, must have felt at that same moment as her son sprinted into immortality, nothing short of immortality:
The official scoring report reads like this:
Adam Griffith field goal attempt from 57 MISSED, kick to AU0, clock 00:00, Chris Davis return 100 yards to the UA0, TOUCHDOWN, clock 00:00.
Chris Davis has played four seasons. Yeah, he had a big punt return for a touchdown earlier this year. He absolutely is leading the team in tackles. None of that matters anymore. You ask anyone, any child or adult, who has ever played the Iron Bowl in their yard or living room, and they will tell you that Chris Davis is going to live forever:
They did not keep them off the field tonight:
People that were at the first Iron Bowl in Auburn remember the sky covered in an orange and blue haze. The old shakers were paper and that day, in 1989, they’d been thrust so vigorously into the sky that they were being obliterated by the forces of physics, distorted and compressed and expanded by the angst and joy and verve of thousands of people realizing an age-old dream.
There was none of that tonight. There was a crescendo. There was a lightning bolt and a thunder crack and the simultaneous explosion of a third of the planet’s fireworks. There was a big bang. There was a roar to move sensitive earth-measuring needles. The earth opened up and swallowed Alabama’s championship hopes and right along side that fissure ran War Damn Chris Davis.
Whether he knows it yet or not, he will never be the same.
Few of us ever will be.
That’s a lot to say about a football game. But it was that kind of game.
We saw a little slice of the rapture. It was orange and blue.