“Welcome to the University of Alabama,” says Ashley, as she shakes my hand. Ashley is my liaison today. She is wearing a crimson dress and crimson shoes. Everyone is wearing crimson. Even the custodians are pushing crimson brooms.
Ashley leads me to my dressing room. I am doing a show at the Bryant Conference Center today.
Today, I will perform in a room filled with six hundred bazillion people. I will play my guitar and tell jokes about the rural singlewides from whence I sprung.
The lights are dim in the giant auditorium. The room is big enough to qualify as an aircraft hangar.
The sound guy shakes my hand. He is probably wearing a crimson underpants.
“Welcome to the University of Alabama,” he says.
The University of Alabama is not like your run-of-the-mill State-U. This place is Disney World.
Everything is big here. If you ask for a Coke, for example, they give you a two-gallon jug of Coke and several hundred shares in the Coca-Cola Company.
In the lobby of the conference center are monstrous glass cases with artifacts and oil portraits of Coach Bryant, Gene Stallings, and Joe Namath.
“This place is like the Vatican for SEC fans,” says the sound guy. “Only instead of Jesus, Mary, and Saint Peter, it’s Frank Thomas, the Bear, and Saint Nick.”
I am led into the auditorium to set up my guitar for soundcheck. Directly behind the stage is the largest video screen I’ve ever seen. The screen broadcasts gigantic slideshow photos of my face before the event.
“That’s a big screen,” I say.
“Biggest in the southeast,” says the sound guy.
My headshot is on a 32-foot, ultra-high definition, highly advanced, 4K, LED video wall that is roughly the size of a small subtropical continent. You could park a Buick in my nostrils.
“Has anyone famous ever been on this stage?” I ask the sound guy.
“Oh, sure,” he says with a laugh. “Nick Saban gets up on this stage all the time. All the Heisman Trophy winners have been here. National media fills this room whenever anything happens.”
“Yeah,” he says, a smile plays at the corner of his mouth. “Wow.”
And I’m wondering what in the name of Derrick Henry I’m doing here. I have no educational pedigree. I am a guy without qualifications.
Still, my life has intersected with the University of Alabama over and again. My father was a big fan of Alabama football. So am I. My wife bleeds houndstooth.
As it happens, I was born during the third quarter of Coach Bryant’s Liberty Bowl. His farewell game. The Crimson Tide did battle with the Fighting Illinis. I came into the world after Jesse Bendross ran an 8-yard touchdown and Peter Kim kicked a field goal.
At the moment of my earthly presentation, there was a television in the corner, broadcasting the game.
My father was sitting before the TV. His nose, an inch from the screen.
My mother was huffing. Throughout my delivery, the doctor would occasionally ask my mother, “How are we doing?”
At which point my father would answer, “Twelve to fourteen. Alabama’s ball. Third down.”
All my life I wanted to attend the University of Alabama. It was the emerald city at the end of the proverbial rainbow. The big dream.
All my friends attended Alabama. I married into an Alabama family. I went to games with my pals. I smuggled alcohol into Bryant-Denny Stadium in well-known orifices of my body.
But guys like me don’t go to college. I am an academic nobody.
After my father died, my educational life became a colossal shipwreck. I became a dropout and an abject failure. I was a faceless ‘neck working construction, playing music in beer joints. I was one of a million guys with an Alabama “A” on the back of his 27-year-old Ford.
I went to community college as a grown man. Got my high-school equivalency. Tried to make something of myself. But there is only so much lipstick you can put on a goat.
When I finally finished college, I tried to further my education by enrolling in a small university which shall remain nameless. I dreamed of becoming a teacher someday. Maybe English or literature.
But admissions turned me down. Educational deficiencies, they said. Which was code for “sorry white trash.”
For years I believed there was a ceiling above me that could never be transcended. I believed I was without value. I hated myself.
But somehow I started writing. Somehow I became me. Despite my own deficiencies. Somehow, there were other plans for me. Apparently, you can put lipstick on a goat. Apparently all things do happen for a reason. Apparently I’m not trash. Because here I am. In Tuscaloosa dadgum Alabama.
Before the show, a member of the university English department shakes my hand. He says, “Welcome to the University of Alabama.”
And the heck of it is, I think I really am.