Last Sunday, in the minutes before church started, I listened for football talk.
"Did you hear about the Mocs?" whispered someone two rows back.
"Did Auburn win last night?" asked a man sitting in front of me.
"I'm just ready for the season to be over," said a Vols fan across the aisle.
This is how Southern men relax before they are compelled to be quiet for an hour.
It's a cliché that college football in the American South is a religion.
But what if that statement were more than a mere metaphor? Could it be that Southern football is so all-consuming that for some fans it becomes a hindrance to their faith? For my part, I've attended hundreds of church services emotionally hung over from football.
That's the premise of a new book, "God & Football: Faith and Fanaticism in the SEC" ($13, Zondervan), by Alabama-based writer Chad Gibbs.
Last week, I spoke with Gibbs, who treats the serious subject with the light touch of a humor writer. Of the infamous Volunteer Navy on the Tennessee River near Neyland Stadium he observes, "You're likely to see a million-dollar yacht next to some guys who floated in on logs."
Gibbs, you should know, is a big University of Auburn football fan. Not only that, but he is the unlikeliest kind of Auburn fan, one who spent most of the first two decades of his life worshiping the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Imagine a Southern Baptist preacher waking up one morning and deciding over waffles to become a Wiccan. For his part, Gibbs uses the analogy of Paul's conversion to Christianity on the road to Damascus to explain his abrupt change of allegiance.
The point is that Gibbs, who was in elementary school in the 1980s when Bo Jackson played football at Auburn, has spent much of his life in self-reflection about the college game. He has observed how it takes over his emotions and sometimes short-circuits his better intentions.
"After an (Auburn) loss," he writes, "the morning's worship is covered in a veil of gloom. So maybe the question is, why does the result of a football game have any bearing on how I worship the God of the universe?"
To explore this question of faith and football (and also obviously to sell books), Gibbs arranged to attend an SEC football game at each of the 12 member schools last fall.
He drove his 1999 Honda Accord to a different SEC city each week to attend a game on Saturday and church services on Sunday. He sought out Christians who have learned to balance their faith with their college football fanaticism.
"What I want is to be the kind of person who can enjoy college football without worshiping it, even though I'm not really sure what that means," he said.
I won't spoil the plot, but here are a couple of examples of his insights:
* On Vanderbilt: "Losing makes me introspective, which means Vanderbilt fans must be the most self-aware people on Earth."
* On the fan malaise he felt in Neyland Stadium in Knoxville: "This isn't Pentecost. A hundred-thousand people don't just change all at once. They're just depressed because they're losing. .... They'll be back."
Gibbs writes that his SEC journey can be summed up in five words: Football is a horrible god.
If you've ever been to church with a football headache, can I get an "amen"?
Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...