I have touched the divine in Athens on a Saturday night. I have been baptized in Jim Beam and Coke after a kick went through the uprights at the final gun. I have seen the face of God at the old Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, the day my alma mater, Georgia, beat Florida when Florida was No. 1 in the country. Thousands of fans ran down onto the field, and all of a sudden there was the Lord, kneeling beside me as we dug up chunks of turf. We headbutted each other, then hugged.
People say all the time that college football is a religion in the South. Some coaches take that literally. They drench their teams in pregame prayers and locker-room posters quoting from Ephesians, despite what their universities say about the separation of church and state.
But college football in the South is not religion, exactly. What we get out of it is more spiritual. It’s the search for something bigger than ourselves. It’s the hunger for that rare and precious moment of transcendence.
We love college football more in the South for the same reason we go to church more in the South. More than any other part of the country, we need to believe in a higher power. We need deliverance from the South’s many sins. We need to feel forgiveness for those who look down on us, and to be forgiven by those we look down upon. We need hope for the future in a place that can feel so bound by the past.
So we build our concrete temples and sing our common hymns and wait for a moment to carry us away.
Four seasons ago, Georgia played Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl, a semifinal on the way to the national championship. I was watching at home with a roomful of friends. It was one of the greatest games ever played. In the second overtime, the teams tied at 48, Georgia running back Sony Michel took a direct snap, swept left, slipped between two defenders…and suddenly, at the 20-yard line, there was nothing between him and the end zone.
Those few seconds, between the time Michel broke free and the time he crossed the goal line, were as close to spiritual ecstasy as I’ve ever known. It was the feeling we all search for in life—a moment of pure joy, a glimpse behind the curtain of heaven.
I’m a churchgoer. I’ve got a lot of unanswered questions, and some days I have doubts, but I believe in the soul and I believe the world we live in was a creation instead of random chance. I believe in redemption, because if you live in the South, you damn sure better.
College football rewards those who believe. A lot of it, on and off the field, resembles the Old Testament—nasty and brutish and tedious. But you live through the Old to get to the New. And one Saturday night, late in the game, your man breaks into the clear. You rise and shout. Rapture.