ATLANTA – The exact point where football and fantasy cross over is a Waffle House. Of course it is.
At this very moment, downtown Atlanta is playing host to two of the country’s most passionate fanbases—football fans in town for Bama-FSU, and fantasy/sci-fi fans in town for Dragon*Con. Come Saturday night, more than 70,000 fans will stream into the new Mercedez-Benz Stadium, most sporting Bama crimson or Florida State garnet. And an estimated 80,000 superheroes, faeries, hobbits, ninjas, and mercenaries will patrol the streets of Atlanta. That’s an awful lot of role-playing and hero worship.
You walk from Mercedes-Benz Stadium—today and for the foreseeable future the white-hot center of college football culture—toward the five (!) hotels hosting DragonCon, and it’s like cruising from a freshwater river toward the salt-water ocean. The ROLL TIDEs and tomahawk chops go from constant to infrequent to occasional. And then, at almost the exact halfway point between the two epicenters—the Waffle House at the corner of Centennial Park Boulevard and Andrew Young International Drive—you see it: the first costumed conventioneer, sporting a kelly-green Link tunic amid the crimson.
Hike a couple more blocks up, and then they’re everywhere: Deadpools, dead-eyed Victorian zombies, Terminators, stormtroopers, Harley Quinns. Once you reach Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta, Alabama fans find themselves in an unfamiliar position: outnumbered and unrecognized.
“Someone asked us if we were cosplaying as our favorite athletes,” says Ally-Claire Thigpen, an Alabama student from Jackson, Miss. who, like her friends, sported a range of Bama gear. “I mean…I guess?”
“Alabama fans are generally a very conservative culture. We prefer golf shirts and Bama gear,” says Tim York, who is in fact wearing a golf shirt as his son Judson sports Bama gear. “This is a little bit out there, but it’s a lot of fun. We like seeing it.” York, a Charlotte resident who comes from a long family of Bama fans, discusses the culture of the Tide at a hotel bar on Peachtree as a blue-skinned Yondu and a zombie Charlie Chaplin wander by—you know, routine stuff.
Of course, not everyone sees things so amicably, particularly if they’re not wandering the streets of Atlanta this weekend. One cheerful Alabama fan—he describes himself as “tall and handsome”—refuses to allow a photo of himself with video game characters Sonic and Knuckles appear on Yahoo Sports, perhaps out of concern about how that might look to the folks (and boss) back home.
Still, he loves the DragonCon throngs, and allows that “they’ve never been anything but cool to us, and we’ve never been anything but cool to them. It’s all a good time.”
Perhaps the best part of the culture clash is that it allows both sides—which have viewed each other with skepticism bordering on hostility since ninth-grade history class—to recognize just how much they have in common. To the rest of the world, there’s not a whole lot of difference between “Roll Tide” and “May The Force Be With You,” between Bama bangs and Wolverine’s spiked hair, between houndstooth and chain mail. Jalen Hurts, Jar Jar Binks—fandom is fandom, man, and joining in with other true believers is what it’s all about.
Plus, both fanbases enjoy a bit of creative speculation, like whether Batman could beat up the Night King, or just how many national titles Alabama really has. When asked to do a bit of cross-genre conjecture, Bama fans unsurprisingly think that Nick Saban is a more creative evil genius than Darth Vader (“Well, maybe not evil, but definitely a genius,” student Houston Heard says) and that Bo Scarbrough could take down Thor one-on-one. The question of whether Alabama could defeat the Avengers leads to a series of predictable responses (“Pffft. Alabama,” says expatriate Bama fan Rebecca Walden of Pittsburgh, in mock-disgust at the very thought).
“To me, it would come down to the trenches,” Heard says, getting into the spirit of the thing. “What’s their D-line like? We’d also have to think about quarterback. Who would they have at QB? Iron Man can fly, but so can Jalen Hurts.” The goblins and wizards walking past might disagree with the prediction, but they’d surely be on board with the breakdown.
In the throng outside the Westin Peachtree Plaza, a Bama fan wearing a crimson t-shirt and a half-collapsed elephant head as a hat is looking around like a kid separated from his mom in a mall. A DragonCon-goer, sporting the classic comic-book mercenary look—spiked hair and long black leather trenchcoat—walks past him and says, “Roll Tide.”
“Roll Tide!” the Bama fan replies, grinning at the kindred spirit.
The mercenary takes a drag on his cobalt-blue vape pen, smiles at his companion, a pointed-eared faerie, and nods at the Bama fan. “He fits right in here.”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.