You should have been there
Alabama-LSU on Saturday night in Death Valley was a game to behold
By Steve Wulf | ESPN The Magazine
Originally Published: November 14, 2012
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Nov. 26 One Day One Game issue. Subscribe today!
THE FOUR NOTES from the “Tiger Rag” are hardwired — you’ve heard them a thousand times. Daaaaaaaaaaaa da daaaaa da. “Hold That Tiger.”
But you’ve never really heard them until you’ve heard them played by the right hands and lips of the Golden Band from Tigerland at the right time on Saturday night, in the damn right place known as Death Valley. Daaaaaaaaaaaa da daaaaa da. The fanfare flies straight to the hearts of the Louisiana State University faithful and makes even novices understand what Dan Borne, the voice of Tiger Stadium, meant when he penned his ode to LSU football: “It is the cathedral of college football, and worship happens here.”
And when the notes are played in the pregame show before the team faces No. 1 Alabama, they give chills to more than 93,000 people inside the stadium and an estimated 60,000 gathered outside -- even on an unseasonably warm night. "Hold That Tiger" separates this football game from any other. But playing those notes requires taking a breath. So let's step back to Nov. 2, the eve of the big game. On the northern edge of the LSU campus, the marching band is getting ready to rehearse, and drum major Collin Barry is slipping on white gloves that don't quite go with his T-shirt and shorts. "The march down Victory Hill, the pregame, the way we interact with the crowd during the game ... there's nothing like it," says Barry, a senior from Austin, Texas. "A lot of bands claim they're the best. But I truly believe we are."
At the other end of campus, the RVs have begun pulling into the lots known as Touchdown Village. Denizens shake their heads at the news that Dr. George Boudreaux, the legendary booster and inventor of the diaper rash ointment known as Boudreaux’s Butt Paste, won’t be coming with his outrageously rigged Buttmobile. Seems the Buttman’s mama passed away two nights before, and even LSU fans have their priorities.
Outside the stadium, fans gather around the wondrous habitat of Mike VI, LSU’s real-life tiger mascot. They watch him prowl through his ersatz jungle like a man-eater, then scratch himself on his tree post like a pussycat. Meanwhile, three dark Dixieland tour buses pull up outside the players gate, and out come the Tigers themselves, walking through the locker room and out onto the field — but not before reaching above the doorway to touch a reclaimed section of an old crossbar with WIN! painted on it. They watch a video on the screen over the north end zone to get psyched up, a mashup of highlights mixed with scenes from Marvel’s The Avengers and inspirational slogans like “Our Swagger, Our Process, Our Victory.”
Leaning against one of the goalposts is an unlikely Tiger, sophomore second-string fullback Connor Neighbors. He’s a 5’11″, 236-pound converted linebacker who made the team as a walk-on. He also happens to be the grandson of the late Billy Neighbors, a lineman in Bear Bryant’s first recruiting class at Alabama who made the College Football Hall of Fame; the son of Wes Neighbors, the starting center from Bear’s last recruiting class; and the brother of Wes Jr., a former Bama defensive back who is now a graduate assistant. Connor could’ve gotten a legacy scholarship to Alabama, but he wanted to earn his way to an elite program, and his family supported his decision. “They might’ve felt differently,” he says, “if I had decided to go to Auburn.”
When the video is over, the players file out of the stadium in eerie silence and reboard the buses that will take them to a cineplex for a showing of The Man With the Iron Fists. (Imagine the surprise of the usher at the 7:15 p.m. show when scores of large men enter the theater.)
Meanwhile, the party is already on at the Parade Grounds, where ESPN’s College GameDay crew will kick off its Saturday show. On Alabama weekend in Baton Rouge, sleep — or passing out — is merely a way to kill time.
Eventually, though, the sun comes up, the fog and dew evaporate, and alarms go off. Jacob Allen Nichols is the first to arrive at the student gate at 7:30 a.m., wearing purple high-tops with gold laces and carrying a disposable grill. “We’re going to make the ground shake tonight,” he says.
At 8, troops of Girl Scouts enter the stadium to begin draping 65,000 purple-and-gold towels over the seats. “Should take us about two hours,” says Mary Ann Yeargain, an LSU grad supervising the girls. “It’s gonna be a good day today.”
She’s right. As Dan Borne always says before a game: “Chance of rain: never.”
Louisiana State Police Sgt. Bryan Madden, who will escort LSU coach Les Miles, is a creature of superstition, just as he was when he was an offensive lineman for the Tigers. On this morning, he polishes his brass in the same order he always does — buttons, buckles, badge — and picks up his usual game-day lunch from KFC: a 10-piece order of chicken bites and a large lemonade.
The meal is much more elaborate over at Marvin “Big Ragoo” Dugas’ tailgate next to Carl Maddox Fieldhouse: crawfish, jambalaya, brisket, boudin, beans, beer. This is where the 40-strong Krewe of Ragoo gathers for every home game, with T-shirts reading “We Hell When We Well, And We Never Sick.” In truth, Big Ragoo is a sweet 63-year-old oil field engineer who trades hospitality with the same group of Alabama fans every year — they come to his tailgate in Baton Rouge, he and his wife go to theirs in Tuscaloosa.
Relations between the two sides are not usually that amicable. And the hostility starts young. A 2-year-old boy in an LSU jersey breaks away from his mother when he spots a man in an Alabama golf shirt and shouts, “Tiger bait!” The man can only laugh. At another commingling, an adult LSU fan says to a 10-year-old in crimson, “You know, you look like a nice kid,” and tries to shake his hand. The boy refuses, saying, “Do you remember what happened the last time we played you guys?” (Alabama 21, LSU 0.) The LSU fan responds, “I just threw up in my mouth.”
Just before noon at the entrance of the Cook Hotel, where the LSU team stays the night before a game, Wes Neighbors is waiting for Connor alongside his wife, mother, daughter, sister and sister’s two boys. “I finally figured out why Connor used to go out duck hunting at 4 a.m.,” says Wes, now a stockbroker in his hometown of Huntsville, Ala. “He was part Cajun. Seriously, he’s worked for everything he’s gotten. I could not be prouder of him.”
After Connor comes out and hugs everyone, Miles appears, walks over to Wes and whispers, “He’s doin’ wonderful.”
Back on campus, along the Victory Hill parade route, the crowd and suspense are building. Girls with tiger tails and “Love Purple, Live Gold” T-shirts drag stuffed elephants on the ground. Two Teletubbies — one purple, one gold — compete for attention with a purple-and-gold Batman. Cowboy Mouth, the New Orleans band playing a concert in front of the Maravich Center, turns Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” into “Sweet Home Louisiana.” At 4 p.m., PA announcer Dan Borne arrives to prepare for the game. Fifteen minutes later, the student gates open. The first in line, Nichols, steps aside as the crowd rushes by. “I was just saving the spot for friends,” he says. “I already have my ticket.”
At 4:30, Madden walks up the hill from the stadium to the traffic circle where the Dixieland buses will drop off the coaches and players. He scans the crowd, looking for signs of trouble, spots an Alabama hat standing in the second row back and says, “He’s probably drunk, and you just know he’s going to say something stupid.”
As one side of the crowd yells “Geaux!” and the other yells “Tigers!,” the buses arrive at 5:03. Dressed to kill, or at least to win, in a dark suit, Miles de-boards and leads the players on the short walk down the hill, a smiling Madden at his side. As Miles walks out onto the field, he touches the WIN! crossbar — as does Madden. Once a player …
After the team comes Mike VI in his travel cage, then the human Tiger mascot, who’s dressed as Darth Vader, for some reason.
Then the Tiger Band, marching swiftly and sharply behind Barry, playing "Tiger Rag" for all it's worth. When they finish, that's the signal for the fans to find their places. Nobody wants to miss the warmups or the welcoming voice of Borne as he sets the stage for the evening, or the video version of his poem, "It's Saturday Night in Death Valley." But most of all, they don't want to miss the first four notes of the band's pregame. That's what all this fuss has been about, the catering and the costuming and the carousing. The fans no longer have to hold their breath. Those four notes come at precisely 6:58, a fanfare for the uncommon men and women who love purple and live gold. LSU fans don't come to watch the game; they come to play it. "I thought Alabama fans were crazy," Connor Neighbors says. "The passion at LSU runs deeper."
Borne announces the weather: “Game-time temperature: 75 degrees; chance of rain: never.” Chance of victory: Well, Alabama is a one-touchdown favorite.
After the Tide take a 14-3 lead at the end of the first half, that chance looks even slimmer. "Tough row to hoe," says Wes Neighbors as the Tiger Band performs Aretha Franklin's "Think" at halftime. "But don't underestimate Zach Mettenberger. He's a good quarterback." He's also Connor's roommate, so the Neighbors family has a rooting interest.
Sure enough, Mettenberger has a great second half. As the largest crowd in LSU history — 93,374 — waves the little towels the Girl Scouts left for them some 12 hours before, he leads the Tigers on drives of 58 and 90 yards to give them a 17-14 lead with 13 minutes to play. The stadium is shaking, the band is playing “Hey Baby,” and Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron engineers a 72-yard drive to give the Tide a 21-17 lead with not enough time for LSU to rally.
As the disappointed fans file out, Borne reminds them to please use the trash receptacles, drive home safely and come back next week for the game against Mississippi State. “It was a great game,” he says as he packs away his binoculars. “We have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Madden betrays no emotion but concern as he ushers Miles from the tiger eye at midfield through a mob of media and back to the sanctuary of the locker room on the other side of the WIN! crossbar. Connor, who saw action on only two plays, finds his brother across the field, and Wes Jr. tells him, “You guys almost had us. Keep your heads high.”
The band stays in formation and marches out behind a proud drumline. The Big Ragoo waits for the traffic to clear out before he does. “‘We should have gone for the jugular, but otherwise it was a great day, a great tailgate,” he says. And the Neighbors clan waits for Connor. Susan Neighbors, Billy’s widow, reports that her 7-year-old grandson, Billy, told her, “My heart is broken in a million pieces.” She says, “I think that’s so cute.” When Connor finally exits to their sympathetic arms, he tells his dad, “I still can’t believe we lost.” Mettenberger, meanwhile, cheers up Billy by carrying him around.
Then they all head off into a night lit by a waning moon you would swear looks like the hooded eye at midfield. “Hold That Tiger.”