I found the original recording of “What it Was, Was Football” by Andy Griffith last night. It brought tears to my eyes. I must have been four or five when this homegrown ‘Carolina boy’ developed his hilarious rendition of comedic explanation of the game.
It flashed back memories of my dad and uncle laughing out loud with such verve that mom’s only crystal bowl fell and broke on the pine floor of our apartment. Nothing could interrupt their guffaws and even then I knew this was a good thing. Everyone in my world knew this was a good thing. So nothing interrupted any opportunity for joy, real or imagined. “What it was, Was Football” by everybody’s lovable student, Andy, fit the bill.
It was the mid-fifties and the ravages of two wars, though not discussed, were prevalent. My family did what all families did in that day ~ they carried on. They dealt. Dealt with blindness and disfigurement from an errant explosion in Burma; long-lasting effects of being shot down as a P-38 pilot over the Asian Theatre; loss of a father, uncle and way of life. They forgave; they started over; they worked hard; and, they made something of themselves.
These two families kept their faith throughout. I knew this before I was four through whispering glimmers from the front step under my bedroom window. “Cigars under the Stars” my mom and her twin would say about the glorious nights of sharing life strategies that my dad, Felix, and uncle, Gene would keep. Frances and Felix, Julia and Gene took apartments side by side…kids in tow. They’d been doing this for years, first to help Gene through his dozens of surgeries, some just to help him to hear, if mainly in one ear. His blindness was a constant reminder of the reality of war. Never, ever did doubt creep in. I was in awe then and I’m in awe now.
Now, they were at Carolina, the school to give Gene a chance. Gene would be eligible only after a stint in front of a Congressional hearing to first change the law to allow this disabled veteran a chance. That was Felix’s bright idea. Later, the duo would explain their nerve on Capitol Hill by way of youth and the necessary fight for justice that youth embraces. Gene was told he’d be on probation and could only enroll if Felix was in each of his classes, something never in question. Gene brought back A’s to Felix’s C’s. Carolina in the Fall was a fresh beginning for both. And Carolina in the Fall meant Football.
It’s Fall that floods into focus. Football Was Fall…I could hear and feel the anticipation and excitement when my sis, cousins and I shuffled through the giant leaves on campus on our walk from Church toward Kenan Stadium with our folks. We’d stop at the nearby Carolina Inn for Ole Elmer’s rum rolls where we’d wait for Felix and Gene to come back from The Game. The roar of the crowd really was a roar. A roar mingled with Rebel Yells, whistles, dogs, laughter, joy and southern drawls. The exhilaration linked up every man, woman, and child within a 30 mile radius and is what Frances called Southern Fever.. Football Fever is what I called it.
It wasn’t about football really. More about crunchy leaves under humongous trees and picnics out of backs of cars and labs running with children and soft southern smells and a feeling that this was ours and no one could take it away..ever, and if they tried they would possibly be tarred and feathered. I loved it when Felix and Gene did the Rebel Yell and chuckled about it afterward. They knew all the names, numbers, and positions of ‘their’ players as well as those incidentals of rival teams, Duke, Clemson, State. Felix taught us all plays and strategies out of the Thanksgiving nut bowl, a wooden one that replaced the long forgotten crystal dish. Almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecans…11 for the 11 players. What was the quarterback? How strange I’ve forgotten. But I do remember the feeling of fall in the air and football frenzy.
Football was simply something to talk about outside of themselves and eased them, and thus their families, through Fall. Onward and upward to the next touchdown, the next field goal, through the next problem. Just like life. We can do it and if we fumble and even fall there’s always the next game. It’s faith that it Can be done and a fact that whatever there is to do Will be done. Fall, football, faith all so intertwined. Always the possibility of another down, always the ‘Hail Mary’ if desperation comes knockin’ at the door. “Faith will out”, Frances would say.
Fall Football aided in the survival process and lent a sense of normalcy to a community that needed it. Perhaps we need it now more than ever. A tradition that prevails and is comforting while the World tackles our spirit and tries to sack our very soul.
I listened again to “What it Was, Was Football” by Andy (alumnus are always on a first name basis). This time I laughed out loud so hard at its corniness that, as I gazed upon the very same nut bowl kept on my kitchen counter, I felt everything was going to be all right in the World. The Season’s not over and there’s Always next year.
D. Fletcher Raborn , BA SDG