There's no shortage of "stunt" sports memoirs, in which a writer spends a season following a team or a dream. The late George Plimpton pioneered the genre with Paper Lion, his account of life in the Detroit Lions' training camp. Following in Plimpton's footsteps, scores of journalists-cum-athletes and fans of all stripes have mused in print about what indulging sports passions says about the nature of said passions. But Warren St. John's Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer deserves better than to get lost on a bookstore shelf full of gimmicky "a year in the life of" efforts. St. John's account of a season traveling with the hardcore RV crowd to Alabama football games is a great sports book, thanks to his feel for the Deep South milieu and his superb way with words.
St. John, a New York resident, grew up with Crimson Tide football; his meeting with Bear Bryant marked a defining moment of his youth. Years of cheering alone in front of a TV gave him both a perspective on fandom and the desire to experience total immersion. After hearing about a couple who missed their daughter's wedding because she'd scheduled it opposite the Alabama-Tennessee game, St. John decided to investigate how college football can become all-consuming. He hitches rides on the Winnebagos and Airstreams of fans who travel from game day to game day, setting up outdoor living rooms and turning tailgate parties into three- or four-day Tide binges. Before long, St. John starts pricing RVs himself, ranging from four figures for ancient converted school buses to seven for top-of-the-line mansions on wheels. Along the way, he gets to know Paul Finebaum, the radio announcer Alabama fans love to hate; John Ed, a ticket scalper ("broker," he insists) whose business is a gamble on fan desire; and dozens of rabid fans like the Heart Guy, who risks his place on the transplant waiting list every time he goes to a game.
The title Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer comes from a cheer that goes up after every Bama victory, featuring nonsense words that refer to a defunct campus publication and the Alabama state bird. The functional part of the cheer runs: "We just beat the hell outta you!" St. John frames the fandom of the Bama loyalists in this spirit of unmitigated desire for conquest and domination, as well as its counterparts: unbridled depression after a loss, and the compulsion to examine every attitude and action in search of meaning. How can a game played by strangers to whom fans have only the tenuous connection of shared collegiate enrollment (and often not even that) have the power to alter moods so profoundly, to define friend and foe, and to validate or destroy carefully constructed identities? Like a Southern version of Nick Hornby's soccer memoir Fever Pitch, Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer confronts the toughest questions raised by its cast of colorful characters, and shows that any fan is just an RV loan away from becoming one of them.