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Touchdowns, top hats and tailgates: Inside an appropriately strange start to CFB season

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. — College football in America returned at 8:07 p.m. local time on Saturday in Alabama and immediately went off the rails.

After a nothing-to-see-here touchback to start the game, Austin Peay running back CJ Evans Jr. cradled an option pitch near the 20-yard line, split two would-be tacklers, raced down the sideline, reversed field and, clearly running on fumes, cut back to avoid one last defender and reach the end zone.

Seconds later, a voice broke through the meager celebration happening inside the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery.

“God damn mask!” a referee shouted, unaware his microphone was on.

Welcome to the 2020 season, where anything that can happen probably will. The Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff was an often hopeless and occasionally compelling mess. It featured a bizarre turnover top hat and a punt that somehow went for negative yards, and that was only some of the weird stuff that happened in the first half.

The fact that Austin Peay and Central Arkansas took the field at all felt like a minor miracle, though. Both teams’ conferences postponed competition until the spring, leaving only the possibility of nonconference games like these.

The only thing that felt normal was the heat and humidity, but that didn’t seem to bother Matthew Butler, and he had it worse than just about anyone. He stood beside two RVs parked nose to tail, wiping away rivers of sweat on his forehead with one hand while stirring a vat of shrimp, sausage, potatoes and corn with the other. An array of reddish spices bubbled to the surface of the simmering low country boil, the savory smells wafting through the air.

Butler grinned and offered up a plate.

“I can’t tell you what the seasoning is,” he said playfully. “That’s a SWAC secret!”

Never mind that neither Austin Peay nor Central Arkansas plays in the SWAC — or that the SWAC, including Butler’s alma mater, Alabama A&M, isn’t even playing football this fall. Butler couldn’t have cared less about who won the FCS Kickoff. He arrived to start setting up the tailgate at 11 a.m. on Friday and hosted a dozen or so friends.

Frankie Beverly and the Isley Brothers crooned over the RV’s speakers. Jameson and a half-empty can of Coke sat on a foldout table for anyone to enjoy. And everyone, it seemed, was enjoying themselves.

Butler wasn’t sure they’d be able to get together. He has lost friends to COVID-19 and he’s careful to keep his gatherings small and contained. But when the opportunity presented itself to tailgate for an actual football game, he said he couldn’t pass it up.

“In the South, it’s a part of life,” he explained. “Football is not an option, it’s a lifestyle.”

But in truth, tailgates like Butler’s were few and far between. Tailgates weren’t allowed on city property, if we want to get technical about it.

The smell of booze and barbecue — the real scents of football Saturdays — was noticeably absent. It was like walking into your neighborhood bar in the cold light of day; you understand where you are, but it’s somehow unfamiliar.

Tony Lester, whose son Tony Davis coaches the defensive line for Central Arkansas, couldn’t shake a sense of frustration. He can’t understand why conferences like the Big Ten and Pac-12 decided to postpone their seasons.

“I mean, life is taking a chance,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to get sick, but I’m ready for football. We fear [COVID-19] but we aren’t going to let it control all of our lives.”

Walking into the Cramton Bowl, he said, didn’t feel right.

“No, no, no,” he said. “It should be almost packed.”

It didn’t even come close. There wasn’t a hint of traffic getting to the stadium, which on a normal college football weekend is unthinkable. Only 2,000 spectators were allowed inside the stadium, and judging by the wide-open bleachers on both sides of the field, it’s hard to imagine half that number actually passed through the gates.

Walking the barren concourses long enough, it was clear this game wasn’t for the fans. It was for the players and coaches, and the families and friends who support them.

Jaqueline Wilson and Crystal Oden put on their No. 28 jerseys, loaded into a black SUV and left Franklin, Tennessee, that morning to compete the four-hour drive to Montgomery. Jaqueline, grandmother of Austin Peay running back Jariel Wilson, said she spent the past five months hoping this day would finally come.

Safety was their primary concern, of course, but it went deeper than that. Crystal, a family friend, reached into her pocket and pulled up a photo on her cellphone to explain. It showed a baby-faced Jariel in his Pop Warner Cowboys uniform, beaming with pride in his oversized pads with giant stars on each of his shoulders.

Last season was hard on Jariel, she said. He had been a standout at Centennial High School in Franklin and for the first time in his life he really struggled, having to sit out and take a redshirt. All offseason, Crystal said, “He was putting in the work.”

The chance to get to see all of Jariel’s hard work pay off, to see him play his first college game, meant there was “never a doubt” that they’d be there to cheer him on.

“It’s something a lot of African-American young men devote a lot of time to,” Crystal said of the game of football. “Jariel’s been playing since he was 5. To be able to see this come to fruition for him was a big deal.”

Jaqueline chimed in, holding back her emotions.

“That’s his dream, football,” she said. “He loves the sport and has been looking forward to this. He lives football, he thinks football, he sleeps and eats football.”

To have it back — win or lose, packed stands or empty — is what was most important.

Austin Peay currently has only two other games remaining on its schedule: a Sept. 12 trip to Pittsburgh and a Sept. 19 game at Cincinnati.

“Whether it’s by airplane or car,” Jaqueline said, “we’ll be there.”

The hope is that what happened on Saturday night, with Austin Peay mounting a late comeback only to lose 24-17 thanks to a late Central Arkansas touchdown, doesn’t repeat itself. But any football is good football, when for so much of the last few months, you wondered whether it was even possible.

It was hot and sweaty and weird, but the 2020 season is finally off the ground. Where it goes from here, no one knows.

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