Extreme hopes are born from extreme misery.
— Bertrand Russell
During my sophomore year at Russellville High School, our Golden Tigers football team traveled to play a late-season game against the Athens Golden Eagles. This was a daunting task, as Athens was the two-time defending state champion and undefeated as they made ready for our invasion of their home turf. We, on the other hand, entered the game with a record of four wins and four losses. Not a terrible showing to that point, certainly, but rather an apt expression of our perfect mediocrity.
Athens had two players — running back Adolph Cosby and receiver Steve Parker — who at season’s end would be named not only to the first-team All-State squad selected annually by The Birmingham News, but also to The Orlando Sentinel’s All-Southern team. I still remember their names because we heard them from our coaches ad nauseam during practice all that week, to the point that by Friday, we were convinced that they were two of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Even so, as our chartered bus pulled out of Russellville that evening, I think it’s safe to say that most of us had been imbued with the notion that this was a game we just might win.
It was perhaps with this in mind that our head coach conceived one last motivational ploy. Near the end of the 60-mile drive to Athens, one of the assistant coaches made his way down the aisle of the bus, handing each player a single piece of copy paper. On the paper, under the caption The Last Act of Defiance, was a cartoon drawing of an eagle swooping down, open talons extended, on a mouse. The mouse looked up at the eagle, its tiny paw raised with the middle finger extended in the universal sign of contempt. The mouse was flipping the eagle the bird.
I wish I could report that the ploy worked. To be sure, the cartoon both loosened and fired us up. At the end of his pregame speech in the locker room, Coach held up the cartoon.
“This is what I think of Athens,” he yelled. “How about y’all?” We nearly tore the door off its hinges getting out of there. We were ready.
Or so we thought. We played hard and kept it close through the first half, but in the second the Golden Eagles exposed our every flaw and pulled away to beat us 26-0.
I’ve been remembering that long-ago episode in the wake of Monday night’s “pitch party” staged for the benefit of a delegation from the Democratic National Committee. The group was in Birmingham for a daylong tour, in connection with our humble city’s emergence as one of five finalists — along with New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Columbus, Ohio — to host the Democrats’ national convention in 2016.
The visit culminated in the Monday night shindig at the Iron City music/event venue on the Southside. The place was packed, in what I can only describe as an impressive show of enthusiasm at the prospect of Birmingham being thrust to unprecedented heights on the national stage.
Up to now, I haven’t said much, publicly or privately, about my feelings toward this particular prospect. That’s partly because my feelings about it are extremely mixed. On the minus side of the ledger, my concern is that Birmingham lacks the infrastructure to do even an adequate job of housing thousands of delegates, media, spectators and party officials, not to mention moving them efficiently around town.
Beyond that — and notwithstanding the presumptive economic benefits the convention would bring — I question the allocation of precious resources over the two years of preparation. Birmingham has needs that the Democratic National Convention, no matter how successful, will do nothing to help address. There’s something to be said for getting our house in order before we start inviting people in. In short, we may want to flip the naysayers the proverbial bird — but I just don’t think we’re ready.
On the other hand, I do believe there’s an argument to be made that landing the DNC would put Birmingham in a different category vis à vis other cities, and almost certainly lead to other such opportunities. In an undeniably real sense, it would be another chapter in the compelling — if less than complete, perhaps misguided and far from all-inclusive — narrative of Birmingham’s long-awaited emergence as a great city in its own right.
And that’s why all those people came out on Monday night. All caveats and qualifiers aside, there is in this beleaguered community a palpable desire for greatness, such as I have not seen in my three-plus decades of living here. That desire is not just to see Birmingham be the best it can be, but to be a part of it, to participate in the claiming of its birthright and to partake of the fruits of our collective civic labor.
That’s a beautiful thing no matter how you slice it — and no matter which city the DNC ultimately chooses. Indeed, I’m not sure whether the best thing for us might not be to lose out this time, partly because I’m convinced that actually having to host the convention would expose our every flaw, just as sure as the Athens Golden Eagles exposed those of the Russellville Golden Tigers.
In the meantime, Birmingham is competing — defiantly, in a way that we would only have dreamed of not so very long ago. And there is value in that. I’m well aware that I am not one of Mayor Bell’s favorite people, but I took a moment Monday night to shake his hand and congratulate him on getting our city to this point in this particular competition.
“We’re going to take it all the way,” he replied. And while I’m not at all sure that would be the best thing for Birmingham at this stage in our ascendance, I have to be perfectly honest and say, as a citizen, that it felt good to hear our mayor talking that way.
I close this week with the news that Weld’s community editor, Katherine Webb, is leaving us for a personal opportunity that she could not refuse. For nearly two years, Katherine has been a cool and steady presence in our midst. She is a gifted writer, a talented editor and a fine human being who has graced our pages with work — most notably, her incredible series of articles that has not only charted but also influenced the continuing evolution of the Girl Scout Council of North Central Alabama — that does us, and Birmingham, proud. We will miss her.