Few rivalries in American sport compare to the intensity of the Alabama/Auburn divide. Every Alabama native has loyalties in this rivalry matchup, even those like me who attended college out of the state. I’m a Crimson Tide fan, and for nine consecutive years, I have managed to witness the Iron Bowl matchup in person from the stands of the two schools’ stadiums.
But this year, I am watching from afar. At the anointed hour for kickoff, I sit alone at a friend’s sixth floor apartment in the Chaoyangmen district of Beijing, China. A cold wind blows through the streets of the Chinese capital as the clock on my computer screen inches towards 3:30am, the anticipated moment of kick off for the big game.
I am in China as a part of traveling fellowship that takes me across the world for a year in exploration of citizenship and democracy issues. Fourteen time zones of separation make it difficult for me to stay in touch with family and friends at home. But they can’t keep me from watching this game.
When the moment arrives, I breathlessly click on the link to CBSsports.com’s streaming broadcast of the biggest rivalry in college football. But as the screen loads, the ensuing message makes my heart drop.
“Content not available for your geographical location,” comes the taunt from CBS. It may as well have read, “Enjoy missing the most important Alabama/Auburn game in thirty years due to continental blackout, sucker.” I am aghast at my poor luck.
Refusing defeat, I flash back to a conversation over dinner, in which a wizened expatriate advised me about a Beijing sports bar called “The Den” that showcases Western sports for 24 hours a day. Within seconds, I have a route to the venue on Google maps and I am out the door, determined to get to a television screen before Auburn’s Cam Newton has time to gallop down the field.
Several obstacles block deliverance from my sports purgatory, but most problematic is my inability to communicate with the cab driver. “Workers’ Stadium” (the sports venue adjacent to The Den) is not a phrase he understands in English, and I instantly regret not having learned even a few directional words of Chinese.
Hopeful that the Google map in my mind will allow me to pantomime my way to salvation, I begin gesturing to urge my driver forward. We blister off into the night at breakneck speed.
After the first couple of turns, it becomes clear that I forgot an important part of the route, as we are lost on the Chinese equivalent of an interstate. I motion wildly for the driver to take an exit, and we draw to a stop outside of a bank, both angry at the situation and my failure to learn directions in his native tongue.
I pretend to kick an imaginary soccer ball to communicate “Workers’ Stadium” to the driver, but he just laughs at me in turn. The bank’s night watchman proves similarly unhelpful, as he too lacks English skills. Uncertain that I can even find my way home at this point, much less to a screening of the Iron Bowl, I begin praying for a miracle in the freezing cold as the clock turns to 4am.
Just when things seem to be at a complete loss, two guardian angels come on the scene in the form of a young couple, holding each other close to keep warm as theywalk across the street.
“Yes, I speak English, where would you like to go?” the young man asks in response to my request for help. My heart leaps with joy as he rattles off a set of directions to The Den to the cab driver. We are back in business.
Before long, I arrive at my destination and hurriedly shell out the fare before bounding into sports bar. Inside, I find a sparsely populated room with big screen televisions on every wall. They are all tuned to soccer.
I fail to control the urgency in my voice as I ask for a television to be turned to the CBS feed from the United States. A manager motions for me to follow him to the satellite box in the back and we begin clicking through stations. I cross my fingers and silently urge him on as he goes through the possibilities.
He can’t find the game. No words are necessary to understand this, I can read it on his face as he turns to me and sadly shakes his head. “No!” I yell. “Don’t give up! You can find this thing. I know you can!”
I actually don’t know that he can. But the encouragement persuades him bring another staff member to join in the search, and within seconds, they pull up what may have been an illegal streaming feed of “Auburn vs. Alabama”. As images of crimson jerseys in a huddle flash across the screen, I shout in joy and jump into the air. Two very amused Chinamen stare up at me as I hug their shoulders, effusively thanking them in Chinese for their assistance.
I spend the next three hours yelling at the television, the only patron in the establishment attuned to the goings on of a football game halfway around the world. By the time I start watching the game, the Tide is winning 14-0, and others in the room begin calling for me to quiet down once the lead extends to 24-0.
“Give it up, mate,” says an Irish man to my left. “You keep screaming at that television screen you will cause yourself a heart attack. Looks your boys have this one in the bag.”
Before I can admonish him for jinxing the match, Auburn begins storming back. I watch helplessly as Alabama’s four score lead dissipates and Cam Newton rewrites the history books with this biggest comeback in Auburn history.
The Alabama cheering section in Beijing didn’t give up easily. Once the score tightened, more fans came onboard, and by the late second half I had an Irish cheering section to rival any watch party in Dublin. At 6:30am, when most in Beijing were still sleeping in their beds, this group was jeering at Auburn’s Chris Fairley more creatively than any Tide fan I have ever heard.
But the comeback was not to be. As the Auburn defense slammed Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy’s shoulder into the turf, ending his time in the game and with it, any chance the Tide had at mounting a comeback to rival last season’s fourth quarter rally, I joined thousands of other Alabama fans in cursing the football gods for allowing such a turn of events.
Still, as I emerged from my football watching sanctuary, squinting at the bright sunlight streaming down on another chilly Beijing morning, I stopped to say a prayer of thanks for my unlikely success at watching the game unfold in real time.
Separated from Bryant Denny Stadium by 7000 miles and an ocean, I definitely felt the disappointment of the loss. But more powerful, however, remained my sense of comfort in feeling back home for a few hours on the day after Thanksgiving.
And on the bright side, there’s now a room full of new Alabama fans in China.