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    A Trip Through Armageddon

    By: Eric SanInocencio
    SEC Digital Network

    Birmingham, Alabama/Tuscaloosa, Alabama – We had our whole day planned. After my partner in crime Sean Cartell made a death defying late night return to Birmingham, our bags were packed for a trip to “Armageddon”.

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    “The Game of the Century” was upon us, as LSU and Alabama were finally set to square off in a game that had been hyped for months. Maybe even years, I’m not sure.  All we knew was that for this historic moment, the SEC Digital Network crew was going to be there. We couldn’t have been more excited.

    The LSU-Alabama game had reached epic proportions in terms of its historical importance, with all eyes in the sporting world fixated on Tuscaloosa.

    What is the best way to explain how our day went? Introducing “A Trip Through Armageddon”.

    First Stop: Checking “Out” The Visitors

    Our first stop was in our home city (Birmingham), as we ventured to a nearby Marriott for the pregame walk through. By “walk through” I mean checking out the LSU team hotel, as we hoped to catch a glimpse of the “Mad Hatter” Les Miles and his team as they prepared for their journey.

    Instead of seeing LSU coaches or players, I saw media members and school administrators. After a short walk past the hotel entrance, CBS’s Bruce Feldman (#FreeBruce) scurried right by me. Turning my head to the left, I saw LSU athletics director Joe Alleva strolling out the door.

    Another glance saw a legion of Tiger faithful sitting in the foyer, grabbing an early lunch before the trek to Tuscaloosa. At this same time, a concerned Marriott employee looked over at us, not sure what exactly we were doing. Good start to the day.

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    Second Stop: Lunch With Houston and LSU

    The trip was about convenience, getting as much done as we can in the shortest amount of time. Who can do all that work on an empty stomach?

    So, after our failed attempt at getting a pre-game photo opportunity, we headed to a nearby restaurant (Fox and Hound) to grab some lunch before we hit the road. Once we found the place (an adventure since Sean was driving), the first person we saw had an odd shirt on.

    As we got closer, I examined the embroidery on his outfit, trying to figure out who or what team he represented. The bright red color threw me off, because the only shade of red I expected to see today was crimson. Once I could finally make out the words, I was even more confused.

    The lettering said “University of Houston”. Wondering what he might be doing in Birmingham on this day, I entered the restaurant and it made perfect sense. The University of Houston, playing UAB (Alabama-Birmingham), was having an alumni luncheon in the same spot. The entire place was covered in red, with a collection of several people showing off their school colors. 

    With only a small section open for non-Houston folks, me and Sean grabbed a table in the bar. Once we were greeted by our waitress (sporting a Tim Tebow jersey nonetheless), we noticed a group of LSU fans sitting directly across from us.

    After some debate on whether we should introduce ourselves or not, I walked over and got their story, explaining that me and Sean were also headed to Tuscaloosa. We shared some jokes, I took a picture and we parted ways. Two hours in and we already had a story to tell.

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    Third Stop: The Drive

    There is only one way to get to Tuscaloosa from Birmingham. Ok, there may be more than one way, but there is only one main way. When entering it in Google for directions, Tuscaloosa lies 58.3 miles west of Birmingham, a short trip down interstate 20/59.

    The way most people drive, that is no more than a one hour trip by car. Today, we expected the worst, as fans from all over the Southeast descended on the city. In our planning we gave ourselves ample buffering time, knowing we had all day to make it. Turns out we didn’t need it.

    Perhaps because fans were already there, or because many were coming later, we made the drive in record time. There were no stops for merging, traffic or anything else that slowed us down. We turned onto McFarland Boulevard (the University’s exit) in less than an hour. But……

    Fourth Stop: The Drive Part II…..

    Again, we never expected the trip to be smooth sailing. A sold out crowd was guaranteed. Fans that didn’t have a ticket were still coming to tailgate, and the city itself was going to be filled with people all day long. We expected that. But, perhaps due to our quick trip down the interstate, our hopes were raised.

    That all ended when we got off the exit.

    The first red flag of how many people were in town should have been the cell phone service. After spending much of the drive over tweeting with fans and arranging meetings with co-workers, all of a sudden I couldn’t make a call. Every text I sent timed out, and each instance I tried to dial it was a busy signal. Mind you, we weren’t even on campus yet. Tuscaloosa was packed.

    Even with having made arrangements to get a parking pass and credentials, just getting near Bryant-Denny Stadium was a formidable task. Areas that were normally open parking lots had transformed into student centers, any place near the university now hosted a tailgating session. It should have been called “Occupy Tuscaloosa” as fans, RVs and tents formed little mini-towns among the landscape. It was incredible.

    We had no choice but to keep driving. At this point we didn’t even try to get near Bryant-Denney. We decided that any open parking lot would work, no matter the distance to the stadium. The amount of traffic and pedestrians out about made it not worth the risk, knowing the closer we got the more likely we’d get blocked off. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

    I’ve been to Alabama’s campus several times. I’ve covered events there, visited friends there (when I was in college) and even contemplated attending the school. I felt like I had a pretty good grasp of what the campus looked like. But, on this day, I saw parts of the university I didn’t even know existed. After striking out near the soccer and softball fields (normal parking on game days), we ended up touring the entire university, seeing new construction and student housing way off the beaten path.

    We drove (perhaps crawled is the better word) for nearly two hours, just trying to find a place to park. In hindsight though, it might have been the best way to experience “Armageddon”. As I was hanging out the passenger side of Sean’s car, I saw the madness unfold.

    I heard chants, saw some interesting outfits and experienced what the “Game of the Century” was all about. In that two-hour span I saw the city of the Tuscaloosa completely inhabited by college football, a scene that explains perfectly what this sport means in the South.

    After trying and failing to land a spot in lots on and near the campus, we settled for a nearby city.

    Literally.

    After crossing a bridge into Northport, Alabama, we found some parking space in a public park off the main road. These spots were so far away from the game, they didn’t even charge you to park there. We were finally in Tuscaloosa, or Northport. Armageddon awaited.

    Fifth Stop: Armageddon

    We decided to wear blue shirts for the game. As is normal practice, you never wear a color of a team that is competing, nor anything that appears to make you a non-neutral party. So as the gold, purple, crimson and white filled the Alabama campus, our blue shirts kind of stood out.

    It didn’t take five minutes of walking for us to get hounded by fans, confused as to why we weren’t yelling “Roll Tide” or “Geaux Tigers”. “We are working,” I told them, as we walked through the crowds. They’d look at each other, confused as to what we said. They couldn’t understand.

    According to the University of Alabama website, the campus covers just over 1000 acres of land. During “Armageddon”, all of it was used. Whether it was by Alabama tent or LSU RV, each nook and cranny in the space was accounted for. There was no way to avoid it.

    What astounded me most were the range of ages and the variety of people on hand to witness the event. You saw generations of Alabama fans (in some cases three generations) seated along the sidewalk.
     
    You saw LSU fans creating walls of purple, slapping hands with each other down the street as they approached the stadium.  This amazed me.
     
    Having not gone to a league school, it is still hard for me to properly understand how much college football means to SEC fans. They live and die with their teams. They create celebrations that turn small towns into large cities, even if just for only one day.

    We spent nearly three hours entrenched in Armageddon, taking in the spectacle that was the LSU-Alabama. We met countless amounts of people, even some that perhaps don’t remember meeting us today.

    In all, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. As game time approached, it was almost as if the game itself didn’t matter, just the celebration around it. Once the gates opened, that thought quickly changed, as chants of “Roll Tide” and “Beat Alabama” filled the air. It was time to play football.

    As I sat there looking over the scene, only one thought came to mind. “This will go down in history,” I pondered, taking one last glimpse over the madness. “I’m just glad I was here to see it.”