Thursday, November 20, 2003 Updated: November 21, 1:00 PM ET
The best Walk in America
By Ivan Maisel ESPN.com
I have never covered a riot. I have never covered the police beat. The mayhem I witness is contained between the white lines.
I have covered the Super Bowl, the World Series, the NBA Finals and the Final Four. I have covered the Olympics, Summer and Winter; the Opens, U.S. and British; the Bowls, Rose, Sugar, Fiesta, Orange, Gator, and GMAC.
I have covered nearly every major college football rivalry. And on nearly 90 campuses, from Hawaii to Boston College, Washington to Miami; in six different countries, from Russia to Texas (It's Like a Whole Other Country), only once have I genuinely feared for my safety.
People pack the streets at Auburn for the Tiger Walk on game day, especially for Alabama.
That was at Tiger Walk in 1989.
In the beginning, in the 1960s -- before Tiger Walk became "the most copied tradition in all of college football," Auburn athletic director David Housel said with pride, not pique -- it was just a bunch of kids running up to Donahue Drive to see the Auburn Tigers walk from their dorm to the game.
There are older pre-game walks at Stanford and at Williams College. But they don't generate the passion that builds as the Auburn team makes the turn from Donahue onto Roosevelt at the south end of Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Tiger Walk has become the signature event of Auburn's pre-game ritual. It will be the highlight again on Saturday, when Alabama comes back to town. Those kids who lined Donahue Drive 40 years ago will be there again, and now they'll have their children and grandchildren in tow.
Tiger Walk goes on the road. Tiger Walk is listed on the players' weekend itinerary. Tiger Walk has spawned copycat walks at Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia Tech, and several other schools. Tiger Walk has spawned Tiger Walk Plaza, an enclosed courtyard paved with 6,000 bricks purchased by and inscribed for Auburn fans that serves as the entrance to the Tiger locker room.
Tiger Walk is also misnamed. It is no more a walk than a morning jog is the New York Marathon. A "walk" connotes peace, a stroll. But here, fans roll into Auburn on Friday night to park their cars on Donahue Drive for a prime viewing spot. They line up so deep that the street narrows to the width of a Venetian sidewalk. The Auburn faithful jam together so tightly that the university is concerned for public safety. They scream, they sing, they cheer, they fire up the Tigers and get fired up themselves.
Tiger Walk began to get legs a quarter-century ago, when coach Doug Barfield urged the fans to line the streets. Barfield, who now works at the Alabama High School Athletic Association, dismisses the notion that he has any ownership. But Tiger Walk didn't become Tiger Walk until 1989, when Alabama came to Auburn for the first time in the history of the sport's most fevered intrastate rivalry.
The rivalry between Auburn and Alabama is so passionate that the teams refused to play from 1907 until 1948. That year, the schools agreed to play every season ... but only at Legion Field in Birmingham, a neutral site. At the time, Auburn was so remote and inaccessible, and its stadium so small, that the Tigers played only one game a season there. But as Auburn football grew stronger and the stadium got bigger, and as the university's engineering graduates overtook the state highway department and built four-lane highways into the town, Auburn became a major university.
It was a major university, that is, everywhere but in Tuscaloosa. Coach Paul Bryant wouldn't deign to bring his Crimson Tide to "that little cow college across the state," as the Bear called it. After Bryant's death in 1983, one of his protégés, Pat Dye, built Auburn into a national power. Dye, wanting the symbolism of equal footing with Alabama, promised an ugly judicial or legislative battle if Alabama didn't agree to play home-and-home. The Alabama athletic director who agreed, former Tide All-American quarterback Steve Sloan, lost his job.
Jordan-Hare Stadium will be filled to the brim for the Alabama game this Saturday.
So on Dec. 2, 1989, No. 2 Alabama came to Auburn with a 10-0 record. The No. 11 Tigers were 8-2. Two hours before the game, an estimated 20,000 fans, nearly one-quarter of the 85,319 (a record that stood for 12 years), gathered on the east and west sides of Donahue Drive. A writer from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and I stood on the west side, about two-thirds of the way down the hill.
The Auburn fans roared, their eyes glazed with a mixture of fervor, pride, passion, and perhaps a touch of the Jack Daniels. We were five or six deep and couldn't get any closer to the street. We were also hemmed in, and didn't have the zeal-fueled adrenaline to ward off the elbows and other parts of the bouncing, heaving, deafening masses. I no longer had any interest in taking notes, which was just as well, because the noise and the lack of space made it impossible. My own adrenaline kicked in, and I worked my way into open space.
Tiger Walk is no longer spontaneous. It is now almost a production. But the height of emotion it reached in 1989 will be a watermark for years to come.
"You never will see that commotion again," Housel says. "The Children of Israel entered the Promised Land for the first time only once."
Auburn took the lead in the opening minutes of that 1989 game and pulled away in the second half for a 30-20 victory. But the victory on the field, while important, paled beside the victory off the field.
Because when Alabama arrived on campus, Auburn had arrived, too.
On Saturday, they'll walk the Tiger Walk again, to prove it.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com