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One fan’s pride is another fan’s $400

The Alabama hat gives me away. I’ve been wearing one so long, sometimes I forget it’s there.

It’s a little worn out. Darkened by sweat stains, the white threaded “A” not so white anymore. It sits crooked on my head, but I don’t notice unless I look in a mirror. It’s my good hat.

He saw it on my head and stopped me right there in the big store, somewhere by the kitchen aisle. An old black man with white whiskers, tall and lanky with his flannel shirt tucked in. He was pushing a buggy with hardly anything in it. Mine was empty, too. Without their wives, men don’t buy much in the big store.

“Alabama gone win Monday night?” he asked, pointing at my hat.

“Man, I don’t know. I’m afraid we might not,” I said.

“Aw, come on, man,” he argued with me. We talked for a couple of minutes, never really introducing ourselves, him running down a list of reasons why the Crimson Tide has the national championship against Georgia in the bag already, me pointing out the team’s weaknesses.

I don’t believe optimism has a place in college football. I didn’t high-five and holler “Roll Tide” amidst the $20 coffee machines, and he couldn’t understand why.

“Come on, man. I just put $400 on Alabama,” he said. “I ain’t told my wife.”

“I’m keeping my $400,” I said.

“Well, I’m gone have $400 more, see.”

“I hope you do, man.”

I thought about that old man late Monday night after Alabama won its 17th national championship. I wondered if his belief sustained him through that rough contest, or if he gave himself over to despair.

That’s what I do when I watch Alabama football.

I settled in for a breakfast supper and some cheap wine, trying to keep my stupid hope at arm’s length and steeling myself for an embarrassing loss at the apex of college sports. As I predicted, Alabama looked unequal to the task. Bad quarterback play and soft defense led to a scoreless first half and Georgia was in control.

I was right. It was all going wrong.

As an Alabama fan, this is where I thrive — on despair. I was enraged, inconsolable. I embraced the nightmare, hollering and griping, spit flying. In a red-faced fit, I explained to my wife why every play, every decision by Alabama, was wrong.

She left me to watch the second half from the bedroom. I don’t know why.

Then Nick Saban swapped quarterbacks and let freshman Tua Tagovailoa go on and win the game in overtime. It was after 11 at night and the kids were long in bed, but I was hollering the good way, pacing before the television and clapping my hands.

Ten years ago, the dog would bark when I made all that noise. She doesn’t anymore.

I’m wearing my nicest Alabama shirt today. I might just hose it down with cologne and wear it all week. After a season of prophesizing doom and gloom, expecting the worst in every football game and dealing with my friends’ nauseating hope and belief, Alabama’s national championship has made me free.

The freedom of being wrong.

I was wrong, and it’s fantastic. The old man and his $400 were right. I don’t know if he was really a Bama fan, or just a gambler. I don’t know how to pronounce Tagovailoa, either, but it doesn’t matter.

Today, I’m smiling. And somewhere in Brookhaven, that old man is smiling, too. His hand is outstretched, palm up, while some other dude frowns and slicks out a bunch of fifties and twenties and tens, counting up $400 and slapping it into his hand. His wife still doesn’t know, probably.

Roll Tide, brother. You were right.

Sports editor Adam Northam can be reached at adam.northam@dailyleader.com or 601-265-5305.