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Shi: Auburn-Alabama and the new Big Bang

Auburn 34, Alabama 28.

Auburn is the Big Bang and it has created something we have never seen.

“Outlined against a blue, gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again,” wrote Grantland Rice about Notre Dame, and the names Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden passed into eternity. “He sent his sacrificial lambs out to slaughter the butcher,” wrote John Underwood about Miami, and so carved Howard Schnellenberger into living marble. This game deserves a better epitaph than the one I will give it. It calls for some grand pronouncement of an almost sacrilegious flair.

But it is the box score of the game that is truly heretical in its ignorance of the moment. Fourth quarter, tie game, one second left on the clock, Chris Davis, 109-yard field goal return for a touchdown. Auburn 34, Alabama 28. The score doesn’t do this game justice. It never tried, and it never will.

Stanford beat Notre Dame, but all we can talk about is the SEC and its raucous finale of Auburn-Alabama. And for once, I have no problem with that.

Even as a West Coast man, I cannot tear my eyes away from the Southland drama that exploded into being on Saturday night. It was the single most unlikely play in football unfolding at the absolute perfect moment. It remains wondrous and unknowable, some quantum shiver in nature slowly solidifying in our minds. As I write, the eyes of a thousand sportswriters still flicker desperately across the ghostly pages of history, searching for some apt comparison or even just something to describe what happened — even just words.

Now, more than ever, there are no words.

Auburn reminds us that the limitations of language are nothing new. “Words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean,” an old teacher once told me. He was correct. And though we understand that sports is ultimately irrelevant to the active work of life, Saturday’s game is like any moment of true, visceral significance; we revisit it again and again because each time we try to express it we come up short.

This game will never leave us, if only because we will never understand it. History was made on Saturday night, and all history is simply conjecture of various degrees. No matter what he says in the decades to come, we won’t understand why Nick Saban ordered Alabama to attempt a delusional 57-yard field goal. We won’t understand why Stanford Stadium, of all places, erupted in cheers as Davis’ run for the ages unfolded on the screen. We won’t ever truly understand why a single football game meant so much to Auburn, or to anybody else. The answer is different for everyone, even if the outcome is the same.

We do know, however, that we appreciate the dramatic.

Put aside the fact that last season Auburn finished 3-9 and lost to Alabama by seven touchdowns. After winning three national championships in four years, Alabama was invincible.

People talk about how losses to Stanford and Arizona shattered Oregon’s aura of invincibility. The shadow of Alabama was infinitely more terrifying than that. Oregon merely ran up the score. Alabama was perpetual motion in the guise of a football team, an endlessly reloading death machine that strangled teams day in and day out.

Nick Saban called his achievement a “process,” and it seemed as though all of college football was being processed through the world’s most soul-crushing meat grinder. Every time Alabama lost a game, it was as if the world had turned upside down and decided to spin the other way for good measure.

The feeling still persists. Alabama is not gone. Saban is still one of the greatest coaches of all time. The Crimson Tide is still loaded with NFL talent across its entire roster. But that only magnifies Auburn’s glory.

On the biggest stage in the South, with the finest team of the decade coming to town, every legendary play was accompanied by an equally legendary moment. Even if we consider how well Auburn played on Saturday night, we’re never going to divorce it from its context, nor should we.

Against Stanford, Oregon blocked a field goal and returned it for a touchdown, something I had never seen before in-person. Even so, at the end of the day it was all for naught. Oregon will remember its crushing defeat, not its abortive comeback and certainly not that play. Oregon lost, and so the Ducks will remember the touchdown for its flukiness, not for the greatness that it nevertheless required.

Auburn slew the giant of all giants on the very last second of the game, and whether the play was fluky or not is irrelevant. Auburn actually won.

But even if we choose to focus on Auburn’s opportunism instead of Alabama’s blunder, could such a victory be bittersweet? Possibly. After Auburn beat Oregon to win the national championship in 2010, the Tiger faithful celebrated by rolling toilet paper over the trees at Toomer’s Corner. It was a tradition that Tigers had celebrated for half a century and that, it seemed, would last for centuries more. Then, an Alabama fan poisoned the trees and they died. The trees are gone now. After such a great victory, the men and women of Auburn must have been reminded of that.

Tradition died. Tradition also remakes itself.

We celebrate tradition as a way to hold on to our history, and our rituals immortalize those that came before. As the unlikeliest of all plays defeated the unlikeliest of all opponents, Auburn gained a piece of history that it will never lose.

The Four Horsemen rode once and they still ride now, long after they were gone. On Saturday, they welcomed Chris Davis to the Elysian Fields. History will remember this moment. History never dies. History will always be here. Even if we cannot explain what happened, the shadows of past greatness will linger in the air, and that is good enough.

They say that at the Big Bang, all that has ever existed was compressed into a single point in space. On Saturday, America converged on a small town in eastern Alabama, and for a moment, Jordan-Hare Stadium held a country inside its walls. As sports fans, this game is part of who we are. We are here to witness the impossible brought to life in pads, a leather ball and freshly mown grass, and on Saturday night, all the vast expanse of college football lay before us — terrifying and compelling, obvious and unknowable, transient and immortal, and all at the same time.

Winston Shi’s editor felt like a vandal defiling a work of art as he edited this column. Send Winston some much-appreciated feedback at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Winston Shi

Winston Shi is an opinions columnist and senior staff writer for The Stanford Daily and was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also sits on The Daily's Editorial Board. Previously, he worked at The Daily as a staff writer for the sports section. He is a junior originally from Southern California and majors in history. In his free time, he likes to read, travel and write about himself in the third person. Contact him at wshi94@stanford.edu.
  • Shaun

    Exquisite words for an exquisite moment.

    War eagle.

  • great AU Fan

    Mr. Winston: An amazing article and perfectly captured the feelings of the Auburn “family.” In my heart you have become one of us. While i am not an AU grad, my husband and many friends are…..we all are in the “family.” I pray you can one day attend a game in Auburn. Thank you for putting these words that so many of us felt but failed to express. WDE

  • Lindy

    I believe you have responded equally as well as Winston has written. Though I was in the stands and watching as a 60 year old Auburn fan, I was proud to see the grace with which the Alabama faithful responded to the last second loss. I have never experienced a game in which I merely wanted to say good game and head for home more than that night.

  • Booth

    Winston, your Big Bang is as close to a unifying theory of metaphors as I have read. Others here have before now referenced the famous “Punt Bama Punt” game of 1972. Sadly, it was not televised, though Alabama was #2, and AU was #9; the film images extant are poor and don’t do it justice: but it was the previous Big Bang. The tradition of rolling Toomer’s Corner began apparently that night (because our RB Terry Henley had predicted we would “Beat the two out of Bama”). I say apparently because most of the student body did not know a tradition had begun, because we were in Birmingham for the game…and it was a looong time before we beat Bama again. Ten years. Now, it may be another ten years before we beat Bama again – Elephants never forget – but your wonderful column captured how some things are worth all the suffering and all the defeats. 41 years later, I still remember the sheer joy of THAT moment, and the years of defeats are nothing. It is what “games” are all about and what most Bama fans never get, so busy are they, counting national championships. That is why America cheered.
    Thank you.

  • Auburn alum

    Great job on describing the elation we as Auburn fans felt and how miraculous our season and the win was. Thanks for putting into words what we feel!

  • Chris Duke

    Excellent column. I had the pleasure of being in the stadium for the game, and as an Auburn fan, I experienced every emotion known to man. As the Tide lined up for the 57-yard field goal, there was the conceding part of me that thought “if he makes this we go home, which might be less painful and tedious than losing in OT”. However, as Chris Davis retuned the ball for the distance, I was in the stands near the sideline where Davis tight-roped his way in bounds. The cynic in me was looking for a referee that had spotted the play out of bounds, and visually scouring the field for flags. Seeing no such concerns materialize, and swept up in the euphoria of those around me, I finally joined in the pandemonium. I was seated with a group of veterinary alumni (AU-CVM), and we had a visiting Canadian veterinarian in attendance. In a hoarse voice a few hours later, I asked him what he thought of the game. He replied “what emotions-up and down and up and down-but it ended in the “up” mode!” ‘Nuff said, my Canadian friend. Welcome to the best in American college football.

  • Sandrad

    Winston, this is a great article. I’m an Auburn fan/grad. I was there. This is the perfect description of that game/play. I was there and it was UNBELIEVABLE! It was like watching history unfold! Winston, just to let you know, the trees are gone but the tradition goes on. Now we ROLL the whole block.

  • Again

    Another Auburn grad here. Thanks for the terrific description of the event and the moment. It will certainly last all of “us” a lifetime.

    Judging from the spontaneous reaction from your fans, the “process” has become something to initially awe, eventually fear and ultimately loathe as most of us do. To the Stanford faithful – “Welcome home.”

    War Eagle.

  • ce4au

    From an Auburn native and alum, thanks for this awesome article!! Best of luck to Stanford in the Rose Bowl…I’m definitely a fan, and now not just because one of your Cardinal players (Davis Dudchock) has some strong Auburn and AU ties. War Eagle and go Cardinal!

  • Auburn fan

    I was also there in the stands at Jordan-Hare and at some point, realized that I was repeatedly screaming, as if being chased by zombies, as Chris Davis ran the 109 yards back. Thank you for your article and War Eagle.

  • Edith Terry

    Winston, your father just sent me this story — it came out of a discussion with a former Florida congressman at breakfast this morning — and it is truly wonderful. Speaking as a former journalist, and an Alabama native, it’s a fabulous piece of writing and does justice to Auburn’s last-minute hat trick as well as to the crazy devotion of football fans to their sport. I can’t tell a football play from a bunch of guys running around in hard hats and shoulder pads, but I do understand writing and your editor was spot on in his epilogue.

  • Edith Terry

    PS, and Winston, thanks for mentioning the tree murders. That was a heinous act and possibly created the bad karma suffered by Bama in its hour of need.

  • Claire Hunt Kayser

    I, too, am a 46-yr-old graduate of Auburn, and sat at the 50 yard line for that game! No words can truly describe the moment. This may be the most well-written, most articulate writing of what that game means. Also, to be a writer not at all connected to Auburn, Alabama or the South and gaining such insight from an “outsider” made this all the more interesting to read! Thanks for sharing!

  • tamsmoore

    Thank you, Mr. Shi. This is a gift to the Auburn Family….thank you for understanding and seeing that moment for what it was. Tammy Moore, Class of ’85, BSN

  • MemoryMan

    Beautifully crafted piece by a brilliant wordsmith. This ‘Bama fan still can’t believe what happened… 4 missed field goals, including the one that broke our hearts. Even so, Roll Tide!

  • BC

    well written article! it was definitely the best iron bowl in history and yes no words can be explained. WAR EAGLE.

  • Betty Burgess

    Jerry, you are definitely correct. I expect that the name “Winston Shi” will become as well-known to this generation as Grantland Rice is to older generations.

  • Betty Burgess

    Seventeen days and an SEC championship game later, we Auburn fans are still blissfully reeling from the magic of the 2013 Iron Bowl and the entire football season. What began with extremely low expectations has steadily built and then finally crescendoed into the hopes of winning the BCS crystal ball on January.

    I’ve attended some of the most memorable Iron Bowls in modern history, beginning with the 1972 “Punt, Bama, Punt” game played in Birmingham’s Legion Field in 1972, continuing with the memorable 1989 game, the first played in Auburn, when “We Beat the #2 out of Bama” became a popular bumper sticker, and continuing with 2010′s “The Comeback” game in Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa when Cam Newton led the team to a 28-27 victory after trailing 0-24 in the first half. I doubted if I would ever witness another Iron Bowl that could compete with these three, but, of course. I was happily mistaken.

    Being in the stadium on November 30 and watching our team, which had been winless in SEC play only a year ago match up with the #1 team in the country, apparently headed for a three-peat national championship, was exhilarating. However, the last minute of the game, with two scores within 30 seconds, including that exquisitely executed 109-yard-run by Chris Davis, left us at a loss for words to express the magnificence of the event. Thank you for finding them for us.

  • AuburnIE

    Great articles and War Eagle!

  • Juliana

    Thank you for giving Auburn the compliment it fails to get from so many sports writers….Auburn’s success this year comes from a man who believes in giving second chances to those who have made wrong decisions in life…Malzahn lives his Faith, he doesn’t talk about it, his Faith is in action…he has been given this gift from our Creator, and he uses it to help those who need guidance in their lives to make men who can think for themselves and make wise decisions, to give back to our society and to make men who will be strong family leaders to make a more Godly society….from what I have read this football team prays together and studies God’s Word together….there is where the victory comes from….they love playing football, but they love God too, realizing they can do nothing without HIS guidance…..Alabama needed a humbling, and Auburn was rewarded by trusting our Heavenly Father for all things….Even winning a football game!

  • AUGirl

    Thank you so much for expressing what Auburn fans felt in their hearts, and weren’t able to put into such elegant words.Our family has a few Bama fans, but has 27 Auburn graduates,and counting in the extended family (two of those graduates are my twins) We screamed like crazy during the “Punt,Bama,Punt” game, and never thought such a moment could be repeated. We are glad that we now have the “Big Bang” for this generation. No matter our record,we are not usually shown respect. As AU prepares for the National Championship, for some reason our largest local newspaper The Dothan Eagle, continues to devote most of the front page of the sports section to Bama! This is what I mean. It hurts, but reading your article, I realize that the Auburn Family is finally understood nationwide,and I thank you!
    Also, I hope you will consider it a compliment that all season I have claimed to everyone that Stanford belongs to the SEC in spirit, if not in geography! I loved watching them play this season.

  • AuburnFan

    We just witnessed one of the greatest college games ever played between Auburn and FSU. Against all odds and a worthy opponent which is practically a NFL lineup, the Tigers have clearly earned the respect it deserves! This game, and the game against Alabama, will be remembered by many for a very long time. This column helps the fond memory last much longer. Thank you!

  • ShugDyeBoCamDavis

    A Stanford Cardinal, whose mascot is a tree, has penned the best article about the game, whose victors celebrate at the site of a once great Oak.

    War Eagle!

  • Ed Tully

    I’m a 40 year season ticket holder at Auburn University. I’ve attended hundreds of football games at Auburn and other places. My oldest daughter and I were there that Saturday night as we had been so many times before. We witnessed a game and a finish unlike anything we had seen before. I’ve been in Jordan Hare and seen incredible wins as wel as a few shocking losses but nothing even comes close to 11/30/13. I’ve seen and been a part of the Auburn Family experiencing ectasy becaus of great plays or great games go crazy but I have never seen Jordan Hare as it was following this unbelievable finish. Bedlam, pandemonium, going berserk – these mere words are inadequate when attempting to describe the scene that unfolded. I was at the ’72 “Punt Bama Punt” game. This game beats that one by a magnitude of at least 10, or should I say 11.