By Harrison Tarr
For the Observer
It is no secret that die-hard fans of the Auburn basketball program are deeply committed to supporting their team. This is the group that prides itself on being the loudest roar in the SEC when it comes gametime, the same people who post thousands of “deep-fried” memes on other team’s final score Tweets when Bruce Pearl’s squad claims another victim and a self-proclaimed “mafia” which will do anything it takes to show love for the Tigers.
On Friday, Jan. 21, the individuals who make up “The Jungle” showed their support in historic fashion; at 6:30 a.m. — over 29 hours before tipoff between Auburn and Kentucky — students began pitching tents to hold their place in line and “Pearlville” was born.
Between weather forecasts calling for sub-freezing temperatures, the uncertainty of an individual’s ability to actually get in the arena — given the crowd size — and the sheer amount of determination it was going to require to endure the night in Pearlville, only a mad man was going to go through with it.
I suppose that makes me insane.
At 1:30 p.m. on Friday, I left the production studio following my weekly talk show on WEGL 91.1 FM and took a stroll to Auburn Arena both to scope out my group’s chances of getting in line and out of pure curiosity. My recon mission quickly transformed into what felt like intense combat as tent spots had already become scarce.
It was at this point where the founding residents of Pearlville knew we were in for a long adventure.
By 5 p.m. the idea of an available tent site was simply laughable. The pre-line to get into the gated corral had begun to pose a serious threat to anyone who hoped to witness the biggest game in Auburn basketball history, and individuals who planned on going to support the gymnastics team had — in large — abandoned their itinerary.
From that point forward, organization and common sense went directly out the window.
At 9:30 p.m. anxious fans at the front of the pre-line lost their patience, tearing down the barricades — which were previously serving as a medium to keep students out of the gated corral — and sent the rest of the mob into a frenzy.
Our group of six locked arms, grabbed as many of our belongings as we could and simply held on for dear life. We, along with 3,000 of our closest friends, were at the mercy of the mob for the remainder of the night.
When the mass reached the student-entry doors at the front of the line, the realization began to sink in that we were going to be stuck where we stood for at least another 12 hours. People began to take half-steps backwards in hopes of finding small openings in the crowd to unfold lawn chairs, lay down blankets or simply get off their feet.
It was at this point that the residents of Pearlville began to get to know their “neighbors” and where the group of fans transformed from a mob to something that almost resembled a community.
People bonded over songs played on portable speakers, games of cards which took place mostly on the laps of those participating, conversations with new friends and a shared misery regarding a decision that we all decided to make.
Between the hours of 11 p.m. on Friday and 2:30 a.m. on Saturday, Pearlville was in its prime. A handful of students who determined the wait was not worth the reward returned home, the remaining mass was able to spread out and spirits were high.
I can recall a conversation between my group of buddies and the group next to us about how — one day — we will all tell our kids how crazy their parents were for camping out for a singular basketball game.
In its “prime,” Pearlville was full of laughter, singing, dancing and certainly a good amount of shenanigans. There was even an individual who was committed to starting the “Bodda Getta” chant every 15 minutes, punctually.
As a resident of the community, we got to know the people around us in a fashion in which you probably never converse with complete strangers.
In a way, we weren’t strangers.
Sure, I had never met the majority of the people who shared their blankets and snacks with us; but we shared a common bond. None of us could manufacture a good answer as to how or why this insanity was worth it. We just mutually agreed that it was.
That’s what Pearlville was though; a group of genuinely crazy students who love their school and its basketball program.
Around 3 a.m., the newness and excitement had effectively worn off. Citizens of our newly created town had grown cranky and the temperatures had dropped into the high 20s.
Exhaustion plagued our village and goodness was it cold. By this point, half of our group had split off with the intent of sleeping in our tent for an hour then coming back to give the remaining three the same luxury. That rotation never happened.
I will never forget sitting in a Walmart lawn chair — which only had three functioning legs — and sharing no fewer than 10 blankets with the other two guys in our group. We were layered up from head to toe, hand warmers in our pockets and toe warmers in our shoes. It was still bitterly cold.
I can’t be certain that the frigid temperatures were the sole reason the crowd grew quiet but it definitely played a large part in dampening the mood. People were exhausted.
By 3:45 a.m. the only burrow of Pearlville with any resemblance of life was roughly 50 feet from where my group had hunkered down. Those guys were not going to let the party stop. Their speaker played Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” on loop for a good hour and a half, they befriended the on-duty police and the now-named “Bodda Getta Guy” had evolved into starting random chants.
When I say random, this guy literally yelled “alright Tiger fans, get your hands up for the Gettysburg Address” and proceeded to read the whole thing to anyone who was willing to listen.
At that point, the group I was surrounded by began making efforts to block out the noise of the rowdy burrow and try to get some shut eye. I think I got a net total of 45 minutes of something that might have remotely resembled sleep.
My broken lawn-chair slumber was disturbed at precisely 6:14 a.m. when I — like so many around me — was awoken in the midst of what can only be described as a stampede. To this day I still could not tell you why the mob decided it needed to rush the doors at that exact moment; I can tell you that this was one of the most terrifying moments of my life.
People were stepping over and on top of one another. Shoving matches ensued. It’s a miracle nobody was hurt.
The final three-plus hours before doors opened were hell. Everyone was separated from their friends, Pearlville transformed into something of a can of sardines and all anyone could do was stand still and wait.
Then there was the smell. The godawful gut-wrenching aroma from garbage and body odor was horrific. There were nowhere near enough trash cans for the sheer volume of debris.
We found ways to pass the time. “Let us in” chants were a hit, singing “The Star Spangled Banner” was an act of delirium and sleep-deprived students took turns trying to climb a nearby light pole.
One student took off his shoes and gloves and finally made it to the top.
When 10 a.m. finally rolled around, the doors opened and the citizens of Pearlville fought their way into Auburn Arena at long last. Most of us made it to the floor, unluckier individuals — such as myself — were sent to the standing room.
It didn’t matter. We had followed through on an idea which can only be described as madness. Most of us will likely never see or speak to one another again; we’ll always have the memories from the night that felt like forever.
One night in Pearlville turned a group of insane basketball fans into a family.