Window into the World of a College Football Writer

September 5, 2018 By Skye Underwood

Sitting atop my perch in the human aquarium “when all the little ants are marching…red and black antennas waving…they all do it the same…they all do it the same way…”

ATLANTA – While staring through the big window located on the east side of Mercedes-Benz Stadium that featured Atlanta’s magnificent skyline behind it, I sat at my perch inside the media press box, awaiting the start of the 2018 Chik-fil-A Kickoff Game, pitting No. 6 Washington versus No. 9 Auburn, I couldn’t help but pinch myself and ask…

“Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?”

No, the words of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t replay in my head, but that would’ve been cool so let’s pretend it did.

Still, the question had to be asked — was my childhood dream of becoming a college football aficionado happening right before my eyes?

‘Tap the brakes,’ I tell myself, ‘you’re just a small fish in a big pond.’

Hey, but at least I’m swimmin’.

While the fine folks hosting the CFA Kickoff were as hospitable and kind as you’ll find anywhere, I couldn’t help but acknowledge, while sitting in front of my MacBook and to its right, a half-eaten Chik-fil-A sandwich on top of its wrapper, partnered with an iced down Arnold Palmer in a clear solo cup, I felt like I was in a human fish aquarium sequestered from the things that make the game of college football so splendid, a game that I hold dear to my heart.

A game that I fell in love with as a little kid growing up just a twenty-minute drive from “The Old Gray Lady” that proudly wore “Football Capital of the South” painted in white lettering on its entrance to Birmingham’s Legion Field.

For much of the 20th century, both Alabama and Auburn used to play some of its most important games at Legion Field because of Birmingham’s proximity and the stadium’s size (83,091)

I was nineteen years old back in 1996 when my dad took me to Auburn’s last “home” Iron Bowl played at Legion Field. At least 65% of the stadium was filled with Alabama fans if not more.

Before we got to the stadium, we were in downtown Birmingham outside of the old Redmont Hotel when a “homeless woman” wearing the latest pair of Jordan’s convinced my dad to give her money. Of course dad didn’t notice the shoes, but I was sure to point them out after it was already too late.

Shortly thereafter, a newer model sedan pulls up in front of the hotel before the “homeless woman” opens up the passenger side door and as she’s getting into the vehicle, you can hear the voice of the man driving ask, “how much did you get?”

My dad still tells the story about the time a woman wearing new Jordan’s suckered him outta twenty-bucks before the ‘96 Iron Bowl.

Auburn was on top of the Tide 23-17 with 26 seconds left in the game when Alabama quarterback Freddie Kitchens hit runningback Dennis Riddle across the middle for a 6-yard touchdown pass and subsequent all-important extra-point that was booted through the uprights gave Alabama a spectacular 24-23 victory and Auburn a gut-wrenching defeat.

Get ripped off for a twenty spot by a “homeless woman” wearing new Jordan’s and then get your heart ripped out a few hours later.

Alabama head coach Gene Stallings announced his retirement after the game. I met him once. It was outside Bryant-Denny Stadium during his tenure as head coach for the Tide. I can remember him shaking my hand, looking me in the eyes and saying, “nice to meet you, Skye Underwood.”

It gives me chills even telling the story.

The fact that a successful college football coach would take the time to stop what he’s doing, shake my hand and actually listen to my name as I introduced myself, and then repeat it as if he’d known me for ten years said a lot about Gene Stallings’ character. Most coaches would’ve likely shewed me away, or ignored me altogether, but not Stallings. Nor Pat Dye for that matter as he was gracious, too, when I first met the former Auburn head coach.

I’ve got so many of these old college football stories that I could go on and on, but let’s get back to the CFA Kickoff and ‘Window into the World of a College Football Writer.’

My eyes squinched as I tried to identify the players on the field. Envy suddenly grew when I noticed the row in front of me designated mostly for NFL scouts, featured a pair of binoculars and a miniature personal flat screen tv with the game’s broadcast. ‘Lucky bastards,’ I said under my breath.

Quite honestly, the players looked like ants. Maybe not as small as piss ants, who have been the culprit of many a cuss word from this mouth (sorry, mom). But maybe the size of a carpenter ant, but an ant nonetheless.

Not to mention, it was as quiet as a library.

“Yeah, these guys show no emotion,” said the pretty lady that was now sitting to my left.

Right before kickoff, I got up from my seat in the press box, made a lefthand turn around the corner before taking an immediate right to start my 15-yard walk down the hallway to the dining area.

Before I began my stroll, I noticed that while to my right were all the media hacks and pro scouts in the homosapian fish bowl, over my left shoulder I felt like I had a thousand set of eyeballs staring at me – a wall littered with Atlanta Falcon team photos from years past. I immediately tried to spot a few from the late 80’s to see which “Dirty Bird” sported the most gnarly mullet.

I continued my walk to the free food and drink before passing a lush seating area of sectional sofas facing a wall painted with flat-screen televisions, all broadcasting the best games of the day.

‘Wow, Maryland is going to upset a double-digit favorite Texas team in back-to-back seasons,’ I thought. ‘Poor Tom Herman.’ The latter sentiment as make-believe as the Bohemian Rhapsody playing in my head.

I needed a jolt of caffeine, so I turned my back to the tv’s and made my way over to the Coca-Cola fountain machine before seeing a big board full of names.

The big white board listed every media member in attendance and their designated seating in the press box for the only Top 10, non-conference matchup of the entire college football season.

‘Wow, all the big hitters are here,’ I thought.

The board read a who’s who of the best college football writers in the industry.

Names like “Mr. College Football” himself, Tony Barnhart, and the man everyone loves to hate, USA Today’s Dan Wolken.

There were a few of my personal favorites in Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples, Barrett Sallee from CBS Sports and SB Nation’s Richard Johnson.

And then I read, “Skye Underwood – Power of Dixieland.”

My name right next to some of my heroes in the business.

Twenty-five years ago when Paul Finebaum invited me into his radio studio to watch how his show worked, I was just a fifteen-year-old sportswriter for The Leeds News with big aspirations of becoming the next Finebaum, or at the very least, the next Kevin Scarbinsky, or Clyde Bolton for that matter. After all, the trio’s clipped out newspaper columns from The Birmingham Post-Herald and The Birmingham News littered my room as a kid. Actually, to this day they’re still kept safe in an old suitcase tucked in a corner of the garage.

However, my initial career path was not only completely different than the one I aspired to achieve, it was hampered by adversity, largely due to the bad decisions that I made, including the ones that led to a battle with drug addiction.

I had always been blessed with fantastic jobs from vice-president of a small real-estate investing firm to Red Bull district manager for a big distributor in Birmingham, where I was responsible for leading and managing eight sales reps, who sold and stocked the popular energy drink in gas stations, Wal-Marts, bars and restaurants, really everywhere that it’s sold.

Those are some of the things I’m proud of and I’m grateful for the people in those industries who took me under their wing and showed me the ropes to be the absolute best I can be at those crafts.

But I still wasn’t doing what I love.

After my time at Red Bull, I became an entrepreneur, creating a roofing and home remodeling company from scratch, which later evolved into a garage door company – AffordableGarageDoors.com.

I most definitely count myself as blessed, but largely because I have a mama with leather knees, whose prayers kept me alive during my most darkest moments.

Those were the times that I’m both ashamed and embarrassed to admit. And quite frankly, I don’t know why I’m revealing my filthy rags to the world right now, but only for the glory of God.

That’s right, I said it – GOD. My life changed when I met God halfway. I learned He’ll not do it for you, but He’ll certainly help you if you do your part and take a step of faith.

That includes those of you who may be reading this who have battled or are battling drug addiction. I realize that you may think it’s too late, but it’s never too late to call out the name of Jesus.

”For every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”

Thirteen years ago, I was as bad as one can be on drugs. I was the scum of the earth. At least that’s how I saw myself, but fortunately God saw me as His son. And that’s the same way He sees you, no matter what dark place you’ve traveled down, know that Jesus is right there beside you, but you have to call out His name and ask for His help.

For He is The Beloved Son of God, The Lion of the Tribe of Judah, The Prince of Peace, The Alpha and the Omega, The Deliver, The Light of the World, The One Who Sets Us Free, Our Hope, Our Redeemer, The Sacrifice for Our Sins, The Savior of the World — JESUS!

Somebody better recognize before I get the Holy Ghost up in here. Yes, Jesus set me free — “for who The Son sets free, is free indeed.”

But, make no mistake, I had to do my part. I had to take the step of faith and meet God halfway. I sought out a Christ-centered treatment program and I began studying and meditating on the Word of God each day.

I came to understand that the first thing I had to do is get rid of my stinkin’ thinkin’. In other words, my thoughts about me needed to line up with God’s thoughts about me. I didn’t need to see myself as a loser, but as an overcomer who endured child abuse, which likely led to drug addiction but overcame by the words of my testimony and The Blood of the Lamb.

Jesus isn’t some make believe fairy who whispers in your ear, no, He (God/Jesus) is a spirit and His spirit must be invited into your being as you confess with your lips that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and invite His Holy Spirit to live inside of you. From that day forward, you’ll never be the same.

Will you be perfect? Hardly. But you don’t have to be perfect to have a relationship with God; you have a relationship with God because you’re not perfect.

Lord knows I’ve got a long way to go to become the man God intended for me to be, but thank God I’m far removed from the man I used to be.

And I’m far from a holy-roller, but one thing I know to be a fact is Jesus is real and He saves!

Before the opening kick, I refilled my cup with ice and Coke, fascinated by how refreshing it tasted like they had the good ish. I returned to my seat in the media press box located in the upper west end zone of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and suddenly there were three attractive ladies now sitting to the left of me who were very kind, cordial, and professional.

They were all there from a television station by way of the Yellowhammer State. By the mid 1st quarter, the lady sitting directly to my left, who was the sports reporter for the tv station, commented a few times how she felt that it appeared that Auburn had a big talent gap over Washington, “five-star here, four-star there, another five-star, this guy was a five-star on rivals…Washington isn’t used to seeing an NFL defensive line.”

She wasn’t wrong.

But the Huskies entered the 2018 season as the No. 6 team in the land according to both the AP and coaches poll. They have one of the best head coaches in the nation in Chris Petersen and feature the country’s best backfield combination of four-year starters — seniors, quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin.

Not to mention, many consider the Huskies to have the best secondary in college football as Washington returns all four starters and a preseason All-American safety in Tyler Rapp.

On this day, however, the Huskies had every opportunity to claim victory, but couldn’t advance the ball into the end zone when they were inside the red zone. Actually, Washington was inside the Tigers 10-yard line three separate occasions in the 3rd quarter only to walk away with one measly field goal against Auburn’s Scrooge-like defense led by literal monsters along its front.

Beasts like No. 91 Nick Coe, who lines up at the BUCK position for defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s stout Auburn defense. The BUCK is a hybrid defensive end-outside linebacker usually designated for Auburn’s most disruptive player and pass rusher.

Coe, a three-time wrestling national champion in high school, more than proved to fit the billing after the 6-foot-5, 282-pound sophomore’s 1st career start saw him collect 2 tackles for loss, 1 sack, and arguably the play of the game late in the 3rd quarter when it appeared Washington was about to take the lead.

The Huskies were on Auburn’s three-yard line when Browning inexplicably tried a speed-option only to get crushed by Coe back at the 7-yard line, dislodging the ball that Auburn senior SAM linebacker Darrel Williams pounced on.

Auburn Tigers defensive lineman Nick Coe (91) hits the ball as Washington Huskies quarterback Jake Browning (3)pitches the ball during the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Saturday, September 1, 2018, in Atlanta. (Paul Abell via Abell Images for Chick-fil-A Kickoff)

”We tried to get too cute in that situation,” new Husky offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan admitted after the game.

I’d be willing to go out on a not so distant limb and say that Browning won’t be running anymore speed-option plays deep inside the opponent’s goal line for the rest of his UW career.

It was arguably the play that crippled the Husky’s confidence.

But that ridiculous Auburn defense made even more big plays to close out the game, especially two young backups who are 1st team members of The All-Name Team, sophomore BUCK Big Kat Bryant and true-freshman safety Smoke Monday, both stepped up to make big-time plays, each collecting a sack of Browning on 3rd and 4th down in the last offensive possession for the Huskies.

Not to be outdone concerning top-flight names in college football, before the Tiger sack party of Browning, Auburn trailed Washington, 16-15 with a little more than 6:00 minutes left on the clock in the fourth quarter when Auburn freshman running back Boobee Whitlow took the zone-read handoff from Stidham before plowing up the middle for ten yards with the only defender standing in his way from crossing the goal line was No. 14 for the purple & gold, fifth-year senior safety JoJo McIntosh.

McIntosh lowered his helmet and nailed Whitlow right in the sternum, which hardly fazed the freshman, whose momentum carried him into the end zone for what would be the game winning touchdown for the Tigers.

But make no mistake, it was the Auburn “NFL defensive line” that decided the Top 10 matchup.

If we’re being honest, most every Auburn defensive player was worthy of recognition from probable Top 10 pick in the next draft, 6-foot-5, 325-pound junior defensive tackle Derrick Brown, who was disruptive throughout the contest even though the stats paint a different picture after he collected 3 solo tackles.

While Brown was tying up Husky offensive linemen, other Tiger defenders were teeing off on Browning and the entire Husky backfield, which were tackled behind the line of scrimmage for a jaw-dropping 9 tackles for loss on top of the 5 sacks that Auburn registered.

Monday’s sack of Browning went for a ten-yard loss on 4th & 16 late in the 4th quarter when Steele called arguably the most ballsy call of his career in going for an all-out blitz. It obviously worked as Smoke smoked the Husky offensive line on his way to wrapping up a soon to be dejected Browning.

Along with sealing Washington’s fate.

Auburn 21 Washington 16

Auburn has played football for 126 years, but the 2018 Chik-fil-A Kickoff Game was only the third time the Tigers opened the season in an AP Top 10, non-conference matchup.

The Tigers lost the previous two, most recently in 2003 to USC and also back when parachute pants were cool (they still are) in 1984 when No. 1 Auburn lost, 20-18 to No. 10 Miami in the Kickoff Classic held in East Rutherford, N.J. at Giants Stadium.

2003 saw head coach Pete Carroll and the men of Troy travel down to The Loveliest Village on The Plains before laying the smack down to Tommy Tuberville’s Tigers, 23-0.

No. 9 Auburn’s 21-16 win over No. 6 Washington is the first time in program history that the Tigers opened the season with an AP Top 10 matchup and came out victorious as indicated by the old leather helmet trophy that replaced Gus Malzahn’s visor after the game.

Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn wears the old leather helmet as he celebrates following the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game between the Auburn Tigers and the Washington Huskies at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Saturday, September 1, 2018, in Atlanta. Auburn won 21-16. (Paul Abell via Abell Images for Chick-fil-A Kickoff)

The Washington beat writer for The Seattle Times, Adam Jude summed up the significance of the SEC versus PAC-12 affair, “in a game billed as the most important opener in (Washington) program history.”

The same could be said from Auburn’s perspective considering it’s history in opening Top 10 matchups.

Petersen and his Huskies were forced to carry the weight of representing the entire PAC-12 conference before boarding a plane in Seattle to carry them some 2,600 miles into the heart of SEC country to play a Top 10 Auburn team in a “neutral-site” game in Atlanta, just an hour and a half drive from Auburn’s campus.

There were roughly 70,000 fans in Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the SEC-PAC-12 battle, but 7,500-9,500 were wearing purple while the other sixty-thousand folks were mostly dressed in orange clad.

Most of Auburn’s talent seemed to be on another level, though Washington still proved to be one of the country’s best teams and experts conclude that they’re still the PAC-12 favorite after going down to a legitimate College Football Playoff contender in Auburn.

“We could play them again,” Malzahn told his team in the locker room after the big win, acknowledging just how talented of a ball club his Tigers had tamed.

The Tigers 21-16 victory over No. 6 Washington turned into mostly a defensive battle plagued by a B1G-10 officiating crew, who seemed to be more worried about getting their faces on national television than allowing two juggernauts to battle it out in a Top 10 fist fight.

In total, the zebras threw 22 yellow hankies, the equivalent of dirty diapers littering the playing field and stinking up the joint. Imagine watching a game where so many flags are thrown that the penalty yards equate to the length of over two football fields. It was maddening to say the least.

And “ISSA JOKE” concerning the refs, but there were many questionable calls and disconcerting no calls for that matter. Washington’s offensive line could have arguably been called for holding every play. Then I remember what the nice lady sitting next to me said, “Washington isn’t used to seeing an NFL defensive line.”

Ultimately it was Auburn’s monsterous front that won the game for the Tigers. And really guys all over the Tiger defense stepped up when it counted most.

Auburn’s defensive backs were continually called a weak link in the preaseason while everyone agreed that Washington had the best secondary in the country.

The Tigers had to replace 3 of 4 starters from its 2017 secondary. New starting strong safety Daniel Thomas was one of those dudes Steele was going to have to depend on to step up in place of the departures.

Thomas looked like he was shot out of a cannon attacking the football against Washington after leading the team with 7 solo stops and tying for the team lead with 8 total tackles along with SAM linebacker Darrel Williams — the senior from Hoover finished with 8 tackles, 1 tackle for loss and 1 fumble recovery.

The lone returning starter in the secondary, junior Jeremiah Dinson, one of the toughest football players in the country, was all over the field finishing with 7 tackles, 1 sack, 1.5 tackles for loss, and broke up 1 pass.

Perhaps the surprise of the 2018 Auburn Tigers is a guy who played wide receiver last season, but is now the starting corner for the Tigers after making the transition as recent as spring practice in track star Noah Igbinoghene. The sophomore from Trussville, AL, finished with 5 tackles and led the Tigers with 2 pass breakups.

Browning still passed for 296 yards, but the most accurate returning quarterback in the country accounted for just one touchdown and coughed up two critical turnovers — the fumble forced by Coe and an interception that fell into the bread basket of Auburn junior cornerback Jamel Dean on just the Huskies 2nd possession of the game. Browning was being harassed by Auburn’s defensive line when he threw the ball up for easy-pickings.

And while we’re on the subject of interceptions and Auburn’s secondary, I have a family member who seems hell bent on finding out why Auburn’s defensive backs don’t turn their head and look for the ball in the air. I don’t know if it was him or the Bud-Lights doing the talking, but he seemed sure that the Tigers could have had even more interceptions by playing the ball rather than the eyes and reactions of the receiver. So if there’s anyone that can answer that for me, I’ll pass it along.

Again, it was a sloppy contest that featured continuous pauses due to all the yellow flags, but it was apparent that Auburn’s defensive line overmatched the PAC-12’s best team.

Auburn offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, along with most oc’s around the country, script the first 20 or so offensive plays for the beginning of the game and that’s when Tiger quarterback Jarrett Stidham looked especially sharp. The talented redshirt junior was 10 of 12 passing for 135 yards and 1 touchdown at the end of the 1st quarter.

The touchdown pass came on Auburn’s 1st offensive possession and was the first career touchdown reception for 6-foot-5, 232-pound junior tight end Sal Cannella, who made a spectacular leaping catch that turned into a back somersault.

Not to be outdone, Browning threw a beautiful over the shoulder ball to Husky receiver Quinten Pounds for a 13-yard touchdown at the end of the first half to close the Auburn lead to 15-13 at halftime. Pounds arguably made the most beautiful play of the day as Browning’s pass floated over his shoulder into the single outstretched arm of Pounds, reminiscent of Fairfield, AL native and baseball Hall of Famer, “The Say Hey Kid.”

At the half, I found my way back to the makeshift cafeteria that now had oversized chocolate chunk cookies on display, but out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a man standing in front of the Coca-Cola fountain. ‘Hey, it’s Barrett Sallee,’ I thought to myself. I of course walked over, reached out my hand and introduced myself. He gave me a firm handshake, looked me in the eye and said, “Skye Underwood, nice to meet you.” Coincidentally, I remembered the day I met Gene Stallings and how much I appreciated him acknowledging me. It might sound silly to you, but I felt the same way when Barrett’s reaction mirrored Stallings.

We don’t connect with each other enough as humans. Most of us are trapped in a world where our eyes are steadily locked onto whatever’s being portrayed on our iPhone screen. We’re too busy, we think, to recognize and communicate with one another. Most of us have stories that would inspire and encourage the next person, but we allow fear to control our lives, afraid of making ourselves vulnerable and exposing our filthy rags for the world to see.

But God, there’s that name again, created each of us to be members of one body, so how is the hand to work without the arm? We need each other. We were created for community.

And finally I was among the community that I had always aspired to be apart of – college football writers. I must admit, from the national writers to the local guys on the beat, everyone treated this piss ant with the utmost kindness and respect.

And I can finally say that I’m doing what I love.

 

The 2018 Auburn Tigers meet at midfield to pray after its 21-16 win over No. 6 Washington/Skye Underwood