It was 1985 and there was a feeling in the air, at least with my family in Jackson County, Ala., that the Crimson Tide was on its way back to the glory days. My father’s logging business was expanding into lumber, and we had just bought a new van. Alabama was playing Georgia at Sanford Stadium in Athens, and we had tickets on the 50-yard line.

From the standpoint of talent, it was a leaner time for the Tide. There were no Mark Ingrahams, Derrick Henrys, Devonta Smiths, or Bryce Youngs. There were such future pro standouts as Cornelius Bennet and Derrick Thomas in the lineup, but from my father’s perspective, at least for this game, the hopes for the team’s future settled on an unlikely candidate: the punter, Chris Mohr.

It all started during the pre-game warmup. My parents, younger sister, and myself were seated in a much larger crowd of Bulldog fans. To make things even more intimidating, the huge scoreboard to our left blinked with oversized electric lights that read: “How ’bout them dawgs!”

I saw Dad look up at the scoreboard and frown. Then, as the two teams were warming up, he elbowed me suddenly: “Are you watching our punter? He’s kicking those balls nearly a hundred yards! They’re landing right in the middle of where Georgia’s warming up….”

At age 10, getting excited over the punter seemed a little off-the-beaten-path to me, but this was not the case for Dad. In fact, as Mohr continued to kick those high, long punts that landed deep into Georgia territory – and as Dad more than once glanced up at the sign that so clearly had rubbed him the wrong way – the latter got so exercised that on one of the following Mohr kicks, he stood up and uttered words that would live in our family forever: “Let the big dog eat!”

It didn’t go over well in that sea of red and black. In fact, two young men seated below us, Georgia fans, turned around and frowned, one of them saying a word that can’t be repeated here.

But things calmed down, the two teams went back to the locker room, and we were spared a confrontation, at least for a time.

It was a dramatic game, and the two young men, swelling up with booze and team spirit, were even more foul-mouthed than we thought. Things went back and forth between them and Dad through all four quarters as the game’s fortunes turned one way and then another, with Dad always reverting to his new and favored cheer: “Let the big dawg eat!”

Then came the fourth-down play with barely a minute left in the game. Alabama was winning 13-9 with the ball deep in their own territory, when punter Mohr, erstwhile hero of Dad and cause of his new favorite phrase, trotted onto the field, took the snap, and stepped forward only to have his punt blocked. The ball was recovered by Georgia and taken into the endzone.

The Georgia fans went wild. Rowdy and red-faced, with rattling shakers and pumping fists, for a time there was the feeling that the game couldn’t continue, that the crazed fans simply wouldn’t allow it. It was when this mayhem finally settled down that one of the two men in front of us turned around, and made a coarse recommendation for exactly what my father could do with his “big dawg.”

It was the last straw. “Let me tell you something,” Dad said. “I’ve got my kids here. You don’t need to be talking like that…”

We were terrified. My mother, sister, and I were surrounded by frenzied Georgia fans, and my dad was about to face off with two of them. At best we were about to get run out of Athens; at worst, Dad was about to get pounded into the stadium concrete.

But just as we were wincing in fear, an unlikely voice spoke up in our defense.

“He’s right!” said a woman behind us. “I’ve got my grandkids here!”

Others spoke up, too many to count. Then suddenly they were shouting: “Go, go, go, go,” in a rhythm reminiscent of barking dogs.

The two drunk men looked around confused, made a profane motion with their hands, and left the stadium.

In the excitement, we forgot about what was happening with the game. We looked up just in time to see Mike Shula complete a pass to Al Bell for a touchdown. Although it was small, we had a family celebration right there in the Georgia section. And the Bulldog fans seemed perfectly ok with it.

We waited around, long after the game was over, and much of the crowd was gone, still enjoying the victory. A lingering vendor wandered by, and Dad flagged him down and bought everyone a hot dog. We sat there on the bleachers and ate, and I couldn’t help but watch Dad and notice how much he was enjoying himself. There was kraut on his shirt and a blob of mustard in the corner of his mouth. Then he began to change. His jaws sagged and his eyelids drooped; there was slobber on his chin and the hair on the back of his head was standing up. Once I even thought I heard him growl.

In that moment, the stadium became a dog park that was as broad and imposing as all the world, and the hot dog he was eating was the ambrosia of the gods.

I think about this with all the changes that are happening in Tuscaloosa lately. Once again, Bama fans find themselves in the unknown circumstances present in Athens back in 1985. But I will be forever grateful that I was there that night all those years ago to see the big dog eat.     

Along with his father, Allen Keller runs a lumber business in Stevenson, Alabama. He has a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from Florida State University and an MBA from University of Virginia. He can be reached for comment at [email protected].

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News.

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