28 October 2014

Experiencing an SEC football game on the plains of Auburn

I was in Auburn, Alabama last weekend to call the Iron Bowl of Soccer - Auburn vs. Alabama - and got a dramatic finish in a 1-0 Tiger victory in overtime.

The night before, I had the chance to take in my first conference football game in the SEC - Auburn vs. South Carolina - and go behind the scenes with the SEC Network broadcast of the game. It was a really fun experience, and I thought I'd share some of my pictures and my impressions:

Driving in more than two hours before kickoff, we saw a little bit of tailgating on our way to the parking lot, and there was a ton of blue and orange and a lot of people dressed up for the game, but the enormity of it hit me when we got to a corner right by stadium gates. It was just shoulder-to-shoulder people up and down three of the four streets that were intersecting, all waiting to get in. Auburn opens the student sections two hours before kickoff, and about 15,000 students rush to get in, so one corner of the stadium is mostly full for 5-6 hours until the game ends.

We walked around a bit, saw the control room for the scoreboard and then walked to the TV trucks. The main SEC Network football broadcasts travels with the same three dedicated trucks to each game, and it was great to see the setup and meet a few of the people who make the show happen. We also went up to the press box, which includes an enormous section for the written press (and scouts). That part of the press box has enormous windows that swing up from the level of the front row and have to be secured to the ceiling. The broadcast booths are set forward with the front row on either side, and you have to go around to these little stairwells to get to them.

By the time we got back inside the stadium and down to the field, it was about 45 minutes before kickoff, and it wasn't long before the atmosphere started to be really exhilarating. By about 30 minutes before kickoff, the whole stadium was full, seemingly without empty seats. Any sight of Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall on the video board sent the whole place nuts, and there were several different hype videos that were great to watch and got the whole place pumped up. Of course, any time they made any reference to the 109-yard field-goal return that beat Alabama last year, the stadium would just erupt in noise. I’m talking shrieking hysteria. But you only saw that play in little bits and pieces.

At some point the eagle did its thing. Nova VII is the current bird, I believe. They showed him at one of the four huge stairwells in each corner (which stairwell is determined by the wind conditions 30 minutes before kickoff, so it varies from game to game). The fans the kind of drumming, “ohhh” chant you would do on a kickoff. Then the bird took off and soared over one grandstand, and the “ohhh” just continued to crescendo. The eagle made a couple of swoops, pretty low, and alighted at midfield as the place burst into cheers. Of course, the eagle lands at midfield in part because his handlers have dead mice with them, and the eagle immediately puts his talons on the mice, like, “Don’t you even think about taking these suckers away from me.” So the handlers kind of shield him from most cameras while he inhales the mice. Only then do they put him on the leather glove and start walking off.

Fans also went crazy when the band was introduced! The band had its own intro video, and its own rituals that the entire crowd (it seemed like, at least) was just as into as they are football. After the band's introduction and a few more videos, the big screen just showed a countdown from 0:10 to 0:01. Fans were counting down with it. Then it flashed to black, and then we saw the whole footage from the missed field goal return against Alabama with the radio call, and the whole place exploded. It was crazy loud the entire time. Really a moment that gave me chills.

Shortly before kickoff, we saw a few state flags paraded in front of us (in one corner). We were like “Montana, North Dakota … how did they pick these flags?” But what you eventually discover is that all 50 state flags are displayed, spread out among the four corners. So they had those out while the whole stadium sang God Bless America and the national anthem. A cool touch, I thought."

From there, it was football … and a great game! South Carolina really kept Auburn’s defense off balance and converted on fourth down FIVE times, and each seemed to be fourth-and-multiple, not just dive plays. The crowd was excellent – loud at the right times and everything. I think my favorite crowd story, though, came whenever South Carolina kicked an extra point into the Auburn student section. The fans would take the ball and throw it a few yards farther up in the stands. Then it continued on up, like it was a beach ball at the College World Series, all the way to the top of the section. The fans at the top threw it over the back of the grandstand. You see, on kicking plays, the teams provide the balls, so the Auburn fans were making it harder for South Carolina to retrieve its football. A ritual I had never seen before!

At halftime, after being engulfed by the Auburn band as they prepared to take the field, we went back to the TV trucks. I wanted to sit in the truck for part of the third quarter. The whole thing was very interesting, and I tried to focus on one group of people at a time (director/AD, producer, the tape room, audio, etc.) and follow their role in the show. It really takes hard work from a lot of people to produce the polished product of a top-level college football broadcast, way more people than you ever hear about, and they all have to be among the best at what they do. It was fascinating for me, and I think a lot of fans would get a kick out of seeing that perspective.

We went back inside the stadium for the fourth quarter, and Auburn ended up winning, 42-35. South Carolina was finally stopped on a fourth-down situation and then didn’t get the ball back until they were at their own 15 with about one minute left. South Carolina did get in range for a Hail Mary, but Auburn intercepted it to hang on.

Overall, I had a blast at my first conference game in the SEC, and Auburn's atmosphere was something special to behold. I feel really fortunate to have gotten the chance to see it, and I look forward to more unique atmospheres still to come!

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