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Magic City Classic is must-win football wrapped in party atmosphere

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Football and barbecue have equal priority at Magic City Classic (Photo: Ryan Cody/WHNT Sports)

Football and barbecue have equal priority at Magic City Classic (Photo: Ryan Cody/WHNT Sports)

It didn’t take James Spady long to start contributing to the Classic part of the Magic City Classic, or to know how vitally important the game was to his career and his constituents.

Day one on the job as Alabama A&M’s head football coach, he already knew the importance of the game.

“Since I first got off the plane in Huntsville, I have heard about the Classic,” Spady said.

He heard about it at the tent revival that was his press conference. He heard about it at the VIP reception at the downtown hotel two weeks later. He heard about it in the campus meeting room when fans gathered to hear reports from his first recruiting class.

James Spady

James Spady

Lord knows he’s heard about since the Bulldogs’ last game, a victory over Jackson State on Oct. 17.

What he heard was, you better win the Classic more often than you lose it.

Or else.

Because that plane you got off of flies both directions.

The annual rivalry resumes – wrong word; that suggests that the rivalry really ever subsides – this Saturday at Birmingham’s Legion Field, that rusty relic battleship of a stadium. Alabama A&M is 2-4 overall, 2-2 in the SWAC; ASU is 3-4, 3-3 in the league.

For whichever teams wins, it forgives a lot of shortcomings.

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say A&M could go 1-11 and things would be hunky-dory if that one win was in the Classic. If Alabama A&M goes 11-1 and that one loss is in the Classic, everybody walks around like their dog got run over.

Anyway, Spady’s first contribution to the Magic was a 37-36 victory last season. The Bulldogs were down two touchdowns and came storming back to win.

That’s really kinda ho-hum in Magic City Classic history. If you can imagine a screwy game-ending scenario in the kicking game, a creative penalty flag at the wrong moment (“Don’t know where that flag came from” is a quote often heard), a momentous rally or stunning collapse, a devastating turnover, an electrifying win-rescuing run, well, forget it. It’s already been imagined, written and performed in the seven decades of lore from this rivalry.

A former Alabama State coach had to miss a game because of heart problems. When he came back the next year, “I thought I was going to have to go back to the hospital,” he said.

It is not for the faint of heart or the bashful of stomach.

WHNT News 19's new sports commentary segment, Upon Further Review, features Mark McCarter's unique wit and humor.

WHNT News 19’s new sports commentary segment, Upon Further Review, features Mark McCarter’s unique wit and humor.

I’ve covered 12 Magic City Classics. My favorites were the years they were the same weekend as the Talladega race. I was usually the only person on the planet with press credentials to both. I was pretty much the only person at either event who was even aware of the other’s existence.

As Talladega proudly proclaims itself as more than a race, the Magic City Classic is so much more than a football game. It’s one enormous extravaganza. Walk four blocks through the parking lot, you gain 10 pounds just from the aroma of cooking.  There’s live music and free-flowing beverages. It’s a tailgate party on steroids.

And neither team wants to spoil the party for its fans.

As high-energy as it is outside the brick walls of Legion Field, it’s high pressure inside.

Anthony Jones, the former Alabama A&M coach, used to tell me, “You don’t understand the significance of this game until you lose one.”

Jones said, “When you lose, there’s a pit in your stomach that can never be filled. And you’re constantly reminded about it the rest of the year.”

James Spady got to enjoy the significance of winning one in his Magic City Classic debut.

That’s good will and good memories. Trouble is, it lasts only a year. And lose a couple, there is no shortage of fans willing to hand you a boarding pass.