Tuesday, December 24, 2013
Flip Week: Auburn
By Adam Rittenberg
Editor's note: During Week 12, 10 ESPN.com reporters changed conferences to experience college football in unfamiliar territory. Here is what they learned from the experience.
The damn eagle nearly went to war on my face.
We stood near midfield at an empty Jordan-Hare Stadium (for Big Ten folks, it's pronounced Jerdan-Hare) on a beautiful Friday afternoon, as Nova, better known as War Eagle VII, went through his daily practice in preparation for Saturday's flight before the Georgia game. Nova's handlers from the Southeastern Raptor Center had just finished explaining how the 13-year-old golden eagle with a six-foot wingspan is a natural predator who targets a leather pouch called a lure on his flight from the upper reaches of the stadium. Solely interested in food rewards, Nova knows that when he lands on the lure, lunch is coming.
"We have to make sure other live mascots are off the field, because they will attack," Marianne Hudson, assistant director of raptor training and education, told me before Nova's first flight. "That includes Uga."
Auburn fans wait to welcome the Tigers to Jordan-Hare Stadium during their famed Tiger Walk.
OK, so Georgia's bulldog can't be on the field. But portly sports writers are safe, right? Not when they stand right behind the landing zone.
After watching Nova's first flight from a distance, I tried to get a better video of the second attempt and positioned myself behind handler Andrew Hopkins, who held the lure. But Nova doesn't land softly. It's more "splash and dash," as Hudson said, and as Nova approached, I quickly realized I was in trouble and went into a pathetic backpedal (Darrelle Revis, your job is safe). I'll never live down the video.
Flipping out during eagle practice was merely part of an unforgettable Flip Week experience at Auburn. My fellow ESPN.com colleagues and I traveled to a vastly different part of the country for a football weekend to see how others appreciate the game. I cover the Big Ten on a regular basis and have spent most of my life in the north and west. I was definitely a foreigner in SEC territory.
I got the best draw of the bunch, heading to Auburn for the Georgia game, the start of Auburn's incredible run to the VIZIO BCS National Championship. But the Prayer at Jordan-Hare was only part of an amazing weekend on The Plains.
Best meal: Blackened catfish with slaw, hushpuppies and sweet tea at Good Ol' Boys in Auburn. I wish I had stuck around long enough to eat some of the brisket or ribs Ryan Molt was cooking in a massive propane grill at the Stoll Family Tailgate in the northwest corner of the hayfields. Best drink definitely is a large lemonade from Toomer's Drugs.
Auburn fans take their tailgating seriously.
Must-see sight in Auburn: The Tiger Walk. The rolling of Toomer's Corner is more famous and pretty special, too, but the Tiger Walk is more visually impressive, as thousands upon thousands line Donahue Drive to welcome the team into the stadium. A true spectacle.
Biggest surprise: How civil the rolling of Toomer's Corner turned out to be. I had seen video of previous rolls and it looked pretty wild. After an incredible win and a long day of libations, I figured things would be pretty rowdy at the corner of College Street and Magnolia Avenue. But the gathering never got out of hand, as the crowd parted for a passing ambulance and allowed children and their families to be part of the celebration.
Biggest difference from the Big Ten: Aside from the comfortable temperatures in mid-November, Auburn had a bigger and more organized tailgating scene than any I've seen in the Big Ten (Penn State comes the closest). From the hoity-toity corporate crowd near the stadium to the regular folks on the perimeter to the hayfields, where tailgates look more like villages, Auburn fans truly go all out. And the football weekends there really start on Thursday, not just Saturday. But my biggest suggestion for the Big Ten is more live animal mascots.
They said it: "We've got football problems." -- Will Traylor, Auburn fan and alum, and co-owner of the Tiger Prowler, a 1988 school bus painted orange and blue and parked in the hayfields for each AU game.
If I could go back: I'd sample some more cuisine around Auburn (Amsterdam Cafe, Hamilton's on Magnolia, Momma Goldberg's, Niffer's Place, Cheeburger Cheeburger) and spend more time in the hay fields with the RV crowd. Maybe I'll go for Thanksgiving dinner in 2015 before the next Iron Bowl at Jordan-Hare. I know they'll be there.