I will be honest with you. I have always looked forward in my life. I never wanted to be a kid again. I never wished to relive my teenage years, my 20s, 30s and so on. I have felt that the best was yet to come and for most of my life, I believe that has been true.
We all have ups and downs in our lives. I always felt like the biggest accomplishment in my life was to pick myself up and move on with life when all seemed lost. It never happened but once, but the lessons of that time stuck with me forever.
Even now, as I move toward the end of the seventh decade of my life, I feel like I am living my “best life” as a friend recently suggested to me. Getting older is not that much fun, but learning to live life better, smarter, and maybe wiser makes it all worthwhile. Having a life partner along for the ride makes it even more special.
As I embrace retirement, I occasionally wonder would I want to be a student at Auburn again. I have always thought the answer was an emphatic “NO”. I have been there and done that. I do, however, draw energy from living in a college town and enjoy being able to absorb some of the vitality of just being around students finding their way, on the cusp of discovering their own adult life.
This past weekend I found myself looking with envy at the college students around me and thought just for a few minutes that I would love to exchange places with them. It began with my wife, Mary Lou, and I attending the Auburn Tip-Off Club luncheon.
It is easy to get fired up after hearing Bruce Pearl speak. When his Auburn team is 17-1 and about to play Kentucky, it is automatic. We exited the luncheon to find students beginning to pitch tents to be first in line for the “Jungle”, the Auburn student section that is becoming legendary in basketball circles.
We then attended the gymnastics meet that evening at Auburn Arena. This is not something new for us as we have had season tickets to gymnastics for several years. However, this night was special. Auburn Arena was packed with a sellout crowd, the largest crowd in Auburn gymnastic history. It was followed by a win with the second highest team score ever. The students went wild.
We left the Arena Friday night to find the tent city growing outside the entrance to the basketball facility. This was not camping out on the beach. The low temperature forecast for the night was 25 degrees. Pizza was flowing and an energy was everywhere. Kids were experiencing some of the greatest times of their lives. This was a night they will talk about forever.
The next morning, I walked from my house to the Auburn Arena to check it all out. I have camped and backpacked with people who are not prepared or experienced. It is not always a pretty sight. However, I was met with hundreds of students who were up, standing in line and alternating between singing songs and doing cheers. They were living on adrenaline and the game was still hours away.
The Jungle lived up to its hype. Auburn played its biggest game ever in the Auburn Arena. The team met the challenge, aided in a huge way by the Auburn students. Tired and dirty, they were hungry. Not for food, because the community had responded to those needs. They were hungry for an epic victory, a #1 ranking never achieved before, a validation that Auburn basketball, along with gymnastics and other sports, has arrived. Auburn is no longer just a football school.
When I was a Freshman at Auburn, I attended the 1972 Iron Bowl, more commonly known amongst the Auburn Family as the “Punt, Bama, Punt” game. The unexpected win, the trip back on the chartered fraternity bus, the sheer euphoria was beyond description. It was enough to put me in the hospital for a week following the game.
At the end of the Kentucky game, with my voice hoarse from yelling and my knees sore from being on my feet most of the game, I looked with wonder and awe at the college students still standing and screaming at the top of their voices from the Jungle. This was all about them.
In these days of the portal, transfers, relentless recruiting, one and done, and powerful alumni boosters, it is easy to lose sight that it is about the kids. The students, the athletes, band, cheerleaders, and every other nameless, faceless person that makes it all work.
I can rejoice in the win against Kentucky. I can revel in the first #1 ranking for Auburn Basketball in the school’s history. I can read social media and listen to sports talk radio for hours on end, spinning Auburn’s current season in a hundred different ways.
But, alas, I can not be a student. I watched these young men and women all weekend and realized that no matter how much joy I took from the events, I could not duplicate the sheer unbridled delight, happiness, ecstasy, and pleasure of these students. They had earned the victory as much as the athletes had.
And for one of the few times in my life, I thought, oh, to be young again.
Dan Ponder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org