YOU GET 29,000 mornings, if your life is the average length, and some of those mornings follow sleepless nights, and sometimes your head feels like broken glass, and sometimes you rise in a stumbling frenzy because every minute you spend getting ready is one more minute you're late for work.
But once in a while you have another kind of morning—charged with anticipation, alive with possibility—and you get out of bed thinking maybe today will be incredible. In Alabama they get this feeling on Iron Bowl Day. This state has more college football fans per capita than any other state, and these fans wait all year for the day the Auburn Tigers play the Alabama Crimson Tide.
"If your team wins," says David Housel, former Auburn athletic director, "you're a better person on Monday than you were on Friday. You're certainly better than the person whose team lost. That's how people feel, and that's why it's so big, and sometimes so poisonous."
On Nov. 30, 2013, the day of the 78th Iron Bowl, Alabama is ranked No. 1 in the country. Auburn is No. 4. The two teams have never been this good on the day of the game, which means very few mornings in Alabama history have been so charged with anticipation.
The first rays of the sun cross the Chattahoochee River at 6:20 a.m. When the sun rises at 6:28 in Montgomery, Crimson Tide placekicker Cade Foster is asleep in a hotel where the team is sequestered. Last night he turned in at a reasonable hour and lay in the dark, thinking about field goals. Eyes locked on the target. Three steps back, exhale. Two steps over, exhale. Nod to the holder and go. No reason to worry. This season he's missed only once: 11 games, 11 wins, 11 through the uprights.
The sun rises over Mobile Bay. A minute later it rises in Birmingham, where two women sleep in a house with a red velvet cake in the kitchen cupboard. Neketa Shepherd baked it for her older sister, Michelle, and Michelle has hidden it in the cupboard so she can eat the whole thing in her own sweet time.
At 6:35 the sun rises in Tuscaloosa. At Cade Foster's one-bedroom apartment his father, Dan, puts on the coffee while his mother, Kelly, sleeps on the pullout couch. They drove nine hours from Southlake, Texas, to spend Thanksgiving with Cade before the game. Above the television is a papier-m√¢ché elephant head, a gift to Cade from his mother, and a poster on the wall shows him kicking off in the 21--0 national-championship victory over LSU in 2012.
Cade's rifle is in the bedroom, under the bed. He keeps it for target practice and self-defense.
At 6:37 the sun rises in Carrollton, near the Mississippi line, where the outline of a man's face is visible in the attic window of the old courthouse at the center of town. The face has appeared there since 1878, ever since the night a mob gathered on the lawn and told the sheriff to hand over Henry Wells. He'd been a fugitive for two years, suspected of burglary and arson, shot twice in the leg during his apprehension, and the vigilantes wanted him dead. The sheriff hid Wells in the attic. The vigilantes stood firm. Wells could see them through the window. Then a bolt of lightning hit a tree near the courthouse and sent a ball of fire toward the attic window. The fire tempered the glass, leaving it intact but imprinting it with the rough portrait of a terrified man. The mob dispersed. Henry Wells lived to see another morning.
One man's disaster can be another man's miracle. Today the state of Alabama will experience plenty of each. Ninety people will be born. One hundred and fifty will die. Some large portion of the other 4.8 million will go to bed thinking about the final second on the scoreboard clock.
MID-MORNING at the Renaissance Hotel in Montgomery. The Auburn defensive players have gathered to watch a video pep talk from Will Herring, a former Tigers linebacker (2003–06) now with the Saints. Herring has a square jaw, big neck, brown stubble, dark glasses, backward camouflage hat. He gathers force as he goes, like a boulder rolling downhill.
"Sure, they may have more four-, five-star athletes than us. They probably got more future NFL talent than us. But lemme tell you what they don't have. They don't have our heart. They don't have our passion."
The Tigers have lost the last two Iron Bowls by a combined score of 91–14. But this season they've won time and again when no one thought they would. Two weeks ago they beat No. 25 Georgia 43–38 by scoring a 73-yard touchdown on fourth-and-18 with 36 seconds left.
"Now I don't care if you're from some inner city near Miami. From some farm town way out in Arkansas. Or from right here on the red clay. You chose Auburn. And that makes us family. Family's willing to fight for each other. Family's willing to die for each other. Now nobody's giving us a chance. But I'm here to say that today, Nov. 30, 2013, the mighty Crimson Tide will fall in Jordan-Hare Stadium. Let's go, AU. Owww!!!"
The speech takes one minute. The players will later say it gave them chills. Outside the temperature rises: 40, 45, 50. The tide rises in Mobile Bay. Both teams get on their buses and head for Auburn's stadium.
At 11:41 a.m., the sun reaches its peak in the sky over Carrollton. Across the street from the old courthouse sits a viewfinder that for a quarter will provide a closer look at the image of Henry Wells in the attic window, but the indelible portrait did him no good. A few days after the lightning struck, Wells died from his wounds in the courthouse basement. The sheriff understood the nature of crowds, the desire for spectacle, the things the vigilantes might do if they found the body. That's why the most famous man in Carrollton is buried in an unmarked grave.
CADE FOSTER takes the field at Jordan-Hare, still resembling the middle linebacker he played at Southlake Carroll High. He's 6'1" and 225 pounds, and he bench-presses more than 400. As a freshman he had nine tackles in 13 games. During his sophomore year he chased down Florida return man Jeff Demps, a world-class sprinter. But now he can feel his right leg getting tired. Tendinitis in his left leg makes it hurt to plant his foot. In a normal pregame routine, he takes 11 kicks and makes them all. Today he misses three or four.
His parents watch from high in the bleachers, looking past the barrier of rotunda holly that runs parallel to both sidelines. These are serious thorn bushes, nine or 10 feet across, installed to prevent a recurrence of what happened here in 1986. The Tigers might have gone to the Sugar Bowl that season if Georgia hadn't rolled onto the plains and pulled a 20--16 upset. Afterward, the Georgia fans rushed the field, desecrating the Auburn logo, disrespecting the police, behaving so badly for such a long time that the groundskeepers sprayed high-powered water hoses in the air. In came the thorn bushes, which have generally worked. It's been 12 years since fans rushed the field at Jordan-Hare.
Early afternoon in Birmingham. Michelle Shepherd drops her children off with their father and returns home to get ready for her friend's Iron Bowl party. She and Neketa wear matching crimson T-shirts that say BUILT BY BAMA. The sisters like football, but they love basketball. Neketa made first team all-state for Demopolis High back in 1999, and Michelle was at every game. They take vacations in South Florida to watch the Heat. Neketa would rather watch today's game at home, away from the raucous and divided crowd in Hoover, but Michelle wants to go. Before they leave, Michelle takes out her personal red velvet cake and cuts another piece.
The temperature rises in Sylacauga, where exactly 59 years ago, on Nov. 30, 1954, on a warm afternoon like this one, a meteorite fell from the clear blue sky. It pierced a roof, glanced off a radio, bruised a sleeping woman through two quilts and landed on the floor, a black rock about the size of a small loaf of bread. The woman opened her eyes and said, "I think the chimney's falling down." Her mother called the fire department. People all around town had seen the explosion in the sky, and now they converged on the home of Ann Elizabeth Hodges to see the falling star and the woman it had touched. An eyewitness named Billy Field would later say the cars were lined up like it was the Alabama-Auburn game.
The woman's husband got home from work and saw a parade of strangers outside his house. As Eugene Hodges pressed through the crowd, someone said, "Hey, buddy. Go back and wait in line like everybody else."
KICKOFF, 2:41 P.M. On the first play from scrimmage, Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon goes for 31 yards into Auburn territory. Cade Foster watches and prepares. That summer he trained with Morten Andersen, the leading scorer in NFL history, who taught him that the kick begins on the sideline: He should look at the space between the uprights, focus on the target and stay 20 yards behind the offense as it moves down the field so that when it's time to head out for the kick, he's walking toward the uprights and the target is getting wider, and the kick is getting easier. This one is 44 yards, inside the left hash. Foster lines up. Three steps back, exhale. Two steps over, exhale. Two seasons ago those steps were too short, complicating the approach, making his foot drag or his knee bend, throwing everything off. With practice he got the problem fixed, but fatigue has made it return. The kick sails wide left. Foster goes to the sideline to wait for another chance.
The game is sloppy all around. Alabama bites on play-action, leaving receiver Ricardo Louis open deep, but quarterback Nick Marshall throws it behind him. The Tigers punt. The Tide punt, or try to, but Auburn defensive back Ryan Smith gets a partial block. Then Marshall takes charge, hitting receiver Sammy Coates for 21 yards on third-and-18, sprinting past the Alabama defense for a 45-yard touchdown. Ten minutes in, Auburn leads 7--0.
Outside the stadium everything slows down. Nielsen ratings show that nearly 60% of homes in the Birmingham market are tuned in. The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency sees a significant drop in crashes, arrests and citations. The Alabama Center for Health Statistics reports 69% fewer weddings than on an average Saturday. The Shepherd sisters eat chicken wings and Ro-Tel dip at the party in Hoover. The second quarter belongs to the Tide. Quarterback AJ McCarron throws a touchdown pass, and Foster buries the extra point. After an Auburn fumble, Tide receiver Kevin Norwood burns senior corner Chris Davis on a double move and hauls in a 21-yard touchdown. Foster's extra point goes just inside the left upright. The Tigers punt again. Alabama scores again. This time Foster puts the extra point down the middle. With 3:48 left in the half, Bama leads 21--7, but Auburn scores at the end of the half, cutting the lead to seven.
Night crosses the Georgia line, moving south and west. Tracy Wolfson of CBS Sports catches Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn before he leaves the field at halftime.
"If it's a close game in the fourth quarter," he says, "I like our chances."
EARLY FOURTH QUARTER, full dark, no moon. Auburn has rallied to tie it at 21. An Alabama drive stalls. Foster comes on for a field goal, 28 yards from the right hash. Kick is up. Kick is good. Kick is erased. False start, 77 of the offense, five-yard penalty, repeat fourth down.
This time Foster stubs the ground first, raising a small cloud of dust, and the ball spins weirdly to the left. No good. Game still tied at 21.
Around this time, Alvin Willis, a maintenance worker for the city of Auburn, and Catrina Cook, assistant director of environmental services, leave for the intersection of College Street and Magnolia Avenue. When Auburn wins, fans celebrate by hurling several tons of toilet paper in the air. The tradition began in 1972, when the Tide came in ranked second and Auburn beat the No. 2 out of 'em.
Thus, Willis and Cook miss the fourth quarter so they can stand at Toomer's Corners with a crew of 16 and a knuckle boom truck in case they have to clean up. The fans used to paper the old oaks that stood above the intersection, but three years ago, after the Tigers won the 2010 Iron Bowl, an Alabama fan poured herbicide on their roots and killed them.
Auburn punts. Alabama scores on a spectacular 99-yard touchdown from McCarron to receiver Amari Cooper. Foster's extra point wavers left but goes through. Tide 28, Tigers 21.
The Tide get the ball back and drive inside the 15. A field goal would give them a 10-point lead with less than six minutes to go. It would be 30 yards, about the same distance as the kick that was wiped out by the penalty. But Alabama goes for it on fourth-and-one. Auburn gets the stop and the ball with 5:34 to go.
Alabama's D forces another punt, but the ensuing drive stalls after a holding penalty. On comes Foster with 2:41 left. The kick is 44 yards. Three steps back, two steps over, nod to the holder and go. Everything feels right. The ball is true coming off Foster's foot, the trajectory low for better distance. Battles rage along the line of scrimmage. Auburn's Gabe Wright jumps too early, but he hears a thudding sound to his right. His fellow lineman Nosa Eguae has blindly put up a hand and blocked the field goal that would have clinched the Iron Bowl for Alabama.
THE LAST MINUTE ticks away as Auburn marches into Tide territory. Fifty seconds. Forty-five. Nick Marshall takes the snap and rolls left. He tucks the ball and lures the defenders, then switches hands at the line of scrimmage and pushes a weird little duck of a throw over their heads to Coates for a 39-yard touchdown. The game is tied at 28.
On the Alabama sideline Cade Foster sees the backup kicker warming up. No one has told him he's being replaced.
Tide coach Nick Saban seems content to play for overtime. With seven seconds left from his own 38, McCarron hands off to Yeldon. The defenders, expecting a long pass, drop back in coverage and leave a gaping hole. Yeldon bursts through the line and gains 23 yards before stepping out-of-bounds. Ten million people watching the game on CBS see a graphic that says END OF REGULATION. But officials are checking the replay.
"After review," referee Matt Austin says, "the runner's foot touched out-of-bounds at the 39-yard line with one second on the clock."
Saban sends out the field goal team. Dan and Kelly Foster look for Cade. When he was in high school, they took him to the stadium on days off so he could practice his kicking. Dan was the holder. Kelly retrieved the footballs. "We're proud of you no matter what," they told him. "We love you no matter what. You don't have to play football." But he wants to play, and they love watching him, and now they find him on the sideline, just another spectator. Saban has put in Adam Griffith, a redshirt freshman with a strong leg, to attempt a 57-yarder to win the game.
"Girl," Michelle Shepherd says to her sister, "this game is getting heavy."
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn calls timeout. He sees the backup kicker on the field and wonders what Saban is planning. "Let's put Chris back there," an assistant coach says. They assign their punt returner, Davis, to the end zone in case the kick falls short.
The snap is good. The hold is good. The kick is short. It falls from the night sky into Davis's waiting arms. When he catches it, his right foot is already planted for takeoff. He tears out of the end zone, looking for a seam up the middle, then sees an opening toward the left sideline. One by one, he sprints past the Tide linemen. His teammates on the field-goal-block team are blockers now. Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard is one of the better tacklers on the field, but he's cut down by two men in navy blue. Davis runs on.
On long returns the kicker himself serves as tackler of last resort. Foster may be the best-tackling kicker in college football, but he can only watch as his substitute gets blindsided by a 284-pound defensive tackle. Davis crosses midfield with a clear path to the end zone. God is good, he thinks as he runs for the winning touchdown.
A disaster. A miracle. The face in the window, the falling star.
AS DAVIS crosses the goal line, others cross into delirium. His teammate, defensive back Jonathon Mincy, is so overjoyed that he grabs Davis around the middle and throws him to the ground. The Tigers pounce on their hero. Davis can't breathe. Neither can defensive end Ladarius Owens, trapped alongside him at the bottom of the pile.
A sort of kamikaze Pied Piper makes the first foray across the wall of thorn bushes, and each follower helps clear the way for the next. Fans pour onto the field like water from a ruptured dam. Someone scatters a loved one's ashes. Someone looks Malzahn in the eye and snatches the visor off his head. Fans steal pylons, chunks of turf, thorns from the conquered bushes. Eight or 10 guys pick up a costly exercise machine from the Auburn sideline and carry it toward the exit. The crowd is so large and persistent that 300-pound Auburn lineman Alex Kozan needs a full hour to wade through it and reach the locker room. Outside, the toilet paper is flying. It hangs from the trees and curls over the wires and collects on the ground like snow.
At the apartment in Hoover, Auburn fans laugh at Alabama fans. "Y'all ain't gonna be No. 1 no more," someone says. The Shepherd sisters laugh too, because even though they're wearing Bama T-shirts, they would rather be watching the Heat.
"It doesn't really matter," Neketa says.
Another Tide fan overhears them, a woman they don't know. "Do you not realize Alabama just lost," she says, "and you're sitting here laughing?"
Outside in the parking lot, the woman, pulls a gun and shoots Michelle Shepherd in the chest. Michelle dies there, at 36, leaving behind three children, one sister and an unfinished cake in the kitchen cupboard.
THE AUBURN fans wear navy blue and they wave orange pom-poms, and in covering the field they make a sort of Impressionist painting, a night sky full of exploding stars. David Housel remains in his seat for a long time, taking in the colors. He's 67, and in all his life he's never seen anything more beautiful than that dark-blue sky and those orange stars.
You were a child and you wanted those stars, to pull them from the sky and hold them in your fist. You wanted to see what it was like, and if you couldn't reach the stars then maybe you settled for the flame of a candle, angry when someone pulled your hand away, angrier when no one did. And even after you touched fire for the first time, you kept thinking of ways to touch it again. This is how mobs form: heat, light, desire, the actual emotion less important than its burning intensity. They caught Henry Wells, and a mob gathered on the courthouse lawn. The star fell on Ann Hodges, and a mob gathered in her living room. Chris Davis crossed the goal line, and a mob took the breath from his lungs.
Now Davis escapes in the dark, visits his family at their RV, watches a little football, eats some chips and Ro-Tel dip. And then, instead of going downtown and getting crushed again, he goes back to his dormitory for the night.
On the ride back to Tuscaloosa, Cade Foster pulls out his iPhone and opens the Twitter app. He sees a sharp increase in followers, a long list of mentions. Someone tells @Foster_43 to kill himself. Another suggests he drink bleach. "I'm coming for you," writes a third, "you gonna die tonight." It goes on like that. Outside his apartment he finds a police officer standing guard.
The night is long in Tuscaloosa, almost 14 full hours, with barely a trace of the moon. Foster hears a knock at the door and assumes the worst. He goes to the bedroom for his rifle.
"Cade," his mother calls from the living room. "It's your buddies." Foster comes back without the gun to see three teammates who are here to make sure he's all right. He will be, eventually.
When they go, his mother gives him a hug. "The sun will come up tomorrow," she says, and the tide falls in Mobile Bay, and the bars close in Auburn, and the world turns, another mile every four seconds, carrying Alabama toward morning.