- Cullman, Alabama

November 20, 2012

SOUTHERN STYLE: Southern Hospitality?

By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times

— He graduated from Samuel Clemens High School in 2009. He played soccer and lacrosse like most of the kids in his neighborhood. He chose to be a cadet after his senior year because he was bright enough and determined enough to earn a scholarship with the U.S. Air Force.

His family had served in the military, so he decided to follow in their footsteps, serving his country while furthering his education. Those footsteps belong to his mother, who is a doctor and a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, and his grandfather, who served in the Merchant Marines in World War II, and was a first generation Sicilian in the United States. His family was proud of the choice he made.

Although he wasn’t in uniform that day, the Cadet did have a regulation military haircut, and wore a cowboy hat that was a sure giveaway which team he was rooting for.

He enjoyed his time before the game, just hanging out and walking around, tailgating like everyone else. He and his buddies enjoyed the whole experience. It was game day in Tuscaloosa, one of the most famous cities in sports circles, a bastion of Southern traditions, especially when it comes to football.

 They all thought the historic tree-lined campus was very nice and the atmosphere was fun.

Unfortunately the game didn’t go as well.

It started off pretty good. But after the first touchdown for Texas A&M, things started to get ugly. When the four Cadets started cheering for their team, some people in the crowd threw bottles, lighters and cups at them. 

As the game progressed, the hecklers began to curse the soldiers. Several times during the game the young men stopped cheering out loud, not wanting to spoil the day for everyone with a fight.

At the very end when they were filing out, some of the students continued to be verbally abusive. One student said, “I hope you go to Afghanistan and die.”

The Cadets, per their training, never talked back, but instead just gave the students a sarcastic “thanks” and a gig ‘em sign with their hands, which is the state symbol of Texas.  

From somewhere in the crowd, an older Bama fan appeared. He threw the most abusive of the students to the ground and uttered a few choice words about how he’d noticed the student throwing things at the Cadets. 

The young men never did catch his name, but I’d bet the farm that he was a veteran.

Those young boys lost a lot of respect for Bama that day. The conduct of those students is reprehensible, to say the least. So much for Southern hospitality, huh?

I saw several posts on Facebook from cousins and friends about how much they enjoyed the Aggie band, but from where these Cadets were sitting, the atmosphere was anything but cordial during the halftime show. The students sitting around them continually made crude gestures toward them.

It wasn’t the whole crowd who engaged in this behavior. “There were a lot of fans who showed us respect, and we enjoyed talking to them,” said the Cadet. “Some of them congratulated us after the game.”

“Later many of them apologized for the unruly fans, but it still left a bad taste in my mouth about Bama,” he said quietly.

 Even after being treated so badly, the Cadet says that he enjoyed his time in Bama, and had a fun weekend.

“I never got to know the man’s name, but I’d like to,” he said thoughtfully. “One of my friends thanked him and shook his hand.”

I don’t know this man’s name either, but we sure need more like him. I like those John Wayne kinda guys, don’t you?

As for the students who disgraced us all that day, who took for granted that it was okay with other Bama fans to show such disrespect…well, if it were up to me, I guess I’d march him out about centerfield at the Iron Bowl and have him apologize…then I think a visit to the Army recruiter’s office might be in order.  

So two days later, it was Veterans Day. I wrote several articles about veterans who risked their lives in World War II and Vietnam. So this Veterans Day I thought a lot about that Cadet and his friends. About how young they are. About how in just a few months they will be sleeping in tents in a desert, if they are lucky enough to have a tent. About how they’ll have to leave their girlfriends, or wives, maybe, and their parents. About how they will stand sentry in the dark, with people out there who will wish them harm.

And about that student, who will be sitting in a comfortable classroom, eating three square meals a day, riding around campus in a nice car, I’ll bet, and going about his life as if nothing like this ever happened.

One young laying his life on the line for this country where football is king — the other enjoying the freedoms that the Cadet’s family has helped to ensure.

The real hero of this story, though, remains anonymous. But I’d like to thank him.

Whoever you are, you did what someone should have done when that first object was thrown early in the game. You did what other fans probably wanted to do, but didn’t have the courage. You upheld our honor that day, both as Southerners, Alabama fans, and decent human beings. Thank you.