'An out-of-this-world experience': The mystique of night games at Tiger Stadium

It was the mid 1950s, and Danny Borné was eager to get his first look inside Tiger Stadium. Eight years old, he'd already fallen in love with the pageantry of LSU football from listening to John Ferguson call games on the radio from his home in Thibodaux, Louisiana. WWL, that old 50,000-watt AM station out of New Orleans, was crystal clear at night.

Now, his Aunt Doris was taking him to see it in person. The interstate system wasn't as developed then, so Borné, Doris and her two boys got on a ferry to carry them up the Mississippi River to Baton Rouge. Stepping on campus, walking amid the oaks and magnolias, and up to the massive stadium of concrete and steel before an 8 p.m. kickoff felt like a dream.

The opponent was incidental. The experience was visceral. Never mind that the lighting was terrible. Never mind that LSU wasn't very good. Sitting inside the bowl, hearing the piercing horns of The Golden Band from Tigerland and the low tones of Sid Crocker calling out plays over the loudspeaker, Borné was swept away. The smell, the atmosphere, the roar of the crowd -- everything connected.

Doris would lean over and tell Borné, "It never rains in Tiger Stadium." He didn't know what she meant, but it felt right.

Not long after kickoff, he watched as the fog began to drift over the river about a half mile off to the west, slowly encircling the stadium.

"It gave it an ethereal effect," Borné recalled. "It gave it an out-of-this-world experience that I grew up having become part of my body and my soul. It just always stayed with me over all those years."

He couldn't imagine then what his future would hold. He couldn't know that his voice and his connection to Tiger Stadium -- both deeper and more vivid than the other boys his age -- were a perfect match.

There was always something special about night games at LSU. Borné would manage to make them sound even more magical.

His voice will be among the first things Alabama players hear when they take the field to play rival LSU on Saturday night (7 p.m. ET, ESPN). Echoing throughout the 102,321 seat arena, Borné will be the unseen narrator of a game that will either make or break each team's season.

IN A NORMAL year, half of Alabama's roster or more would know what to expect ahead of Saturday night's trip to LSU. But the freshmen and sophomores have never been to Tiger Stadium, and the juniors and seniors only have the 2020 game under their belt when the stadium was mostly empty because of COVID restrictions. Sure, they might think they know what they're about to walk into. LSU has a singular reputation. Paul "Bear" Bryant only lost there once in 25 seasons as head coach at Alabama, and still he called it "the worst place in the world for a visiting team."

Former Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson remembers how close the bleachers are to the sideline and the feeling of so many raucous fans being right on top of you. "The electricity," he said, "is something you can't replicate." AJ McCarron, another former Alabama QB, remembers the ride up to the stadium and how it set the tone. "Pulling in, night game, everybody's flipping you off," he said. "They're rocking the bus, throwing eggs at the bus, beer bottles at the bus."

"They have a great tradition there," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "They have a great atmosphere."

Saban should know. He coached at LSU from 2000 to '04. On Monday, he said his team would have to keep its focus on the road -- something that hasn't come easily this season after a close call at Texas and a loss at Tennessee.

"We have to be able to have enough poise to execute in this kind of environment and not let it affect us," he said.

Quarterback Bryce Young, who was a freshman backup during the game in Baton Rouge two years ago, said, "We understand going in to play at a place like LSU, it's going to be extremely hostile."

But hostility is only part of the equation. Other stadiums have loud and surly fans. What sets Tiger Stadium apart is its mystique, especially at night. It has a living, breathing, haunting quality that few have been able to capture accurately.

Borné is one of those people. For the last 36 years in his perch high up in Tiger Stadium, he's been a narrator helping to build upon the legend of Death Valley -- a cathedral to college football where it's said that opponents' dreams go to die.

BORNÉ WILL TAKE an elevator upstairs to the public address booth inside Tiger Stadium on Saturday night ahead of the game against Alabama. But the truth is fate carried him there long ago.

It was listening to Ferguson on the radio. It was Aunt Doris and their trips to Baton Rouge. It was Sid Crocker and the idea that such a job existed. And it was a voice that Borné says is a "gift from God."

He's a deacon in the Catholic Church. So, yes, there is modesty in that statement.

Borné, as it turns out, was never afraid of public speaking. In high school, he emceed assemblies. After calling out the members of the honor society, a teacher approached him. "Danny," she said, "When you speak in a microphone, the speakers do something with your voice and I'm not really sure I understand what it is."

Neither did he. But it served him well when he did play-by-play for Nicholls State baseball, went to LSU for graduate school and got a job with the TV station WAFB covering sports and news.

One September day in 1968, he found his seat in the press box at Tiger Stadium when Crocker called him over.

"Come see where I work," Crocker told him.

Borné marveled at the room with a view.

"Look at it," Crocker said. "You might be doing this one day."

Borné laughed and didn't think about it again. But then, in 1985, Crocker announced he was going to retire. Borné, who had gotten out of the broadcast business, called Crocker and asked why he was quitting.

"He said he wanted to do in the stands things he couldn't do in the booth," Borné said of Crocker wanting to be a fan. "And I knew exactly what he was talking about."

Some things shouldn't be done or said in front of a microphone. It's college football, but it's still polite society.

Borné wrote to then-athletic director Robert Brodhead expressing interest in the job. And for eight long months, he didn't get an answer. But then, two weeks before the start of the season, Brodhead's assistant called him in for an interview.

Brodhead had come from Miami and was still getting a feel for Louisiana. His question to Borné was simple: "Can you pronounce these names?"

There was a list of Boudreauxes, Broussards and Heberts.

"Pronounce them?" Borné said. "I know their daddies."

He got the job on the spot. The little boy who arrived by ferry two decades earlier, who saw the mist coming off the river and felt the glory of LSU football, had become the voice of Tiger Stadium.

Ask any cook, he said, and what's almost as important as the ingredients is the pot you cook it in.

"That stadium is the pot where LSU football simmers and lives and scores and soars," he said. "And that's why it's so important -- the stadium itself. The stadium is steel and concrete, but it has a life, it has a history, it has a presence, and it has a future."

With a perspective and a vocabulary like that, of course Borné would do more than say who caught which pass and who scored which touchdown. He'd add a little spice of his own.

BORNÉ SAID HE takes advice from William Shakespeare. "The play," he said, "is the thing." Anything that detracts from that shouldn't be in a PA person's portfolio.

He used to do a straightforward version of the pregame weather forecast, giving the temperature, humidity, wind direction and strength. Lastly, he'd provide the chance of precipitation.

It wasn't in the plan, he swears, but one day in the 1990s he must have thought of his Aunt Doris because he blurted out at the end, "Chance of rain? Never."

He thought he might get an earful from fans for that. And he did. But it wasn't the negative reception he expected. They loved the callback to the saying among LSU fans that "It never rains in Tiger Stadium" -- origin story, unknown.

Speaking those words out loud, Borné brought the tradition further into the spotlight. He'll be walking the aisles of the grocery store, minding his own business, when a stranger will approach him, grinning. "Hey Dan," they'll say. "What's the chance of rain?"

"Who knows why these things catch on?" he said. "But now, I mean, you don't say it and they come looking for you.

"Now, everybody screams it back to me before I even get to say it."

But that's not the only moment where Borné has punched up the Tiger Stadium experience.

It was an afternoon game -- again in the 1990s when Borné was apparently on a roll -- when the third quarter ended and the band began to play its distinctive pregame song. The drum line got to work and then the horn section got busy.


Caught up in the moment, Borné noticed it was dusk and saw the grounds crew lowering the flag.

"And I just looked at that," he recalled, "and said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, the colors are being retired and the sun has found its home in the Western sky. It is now Saturday night in Death Valley.'"

Again, that was not the plan. But it resonated. John Parker Wilson, in the middle of a game, noticed the reaction of fans. "The people go nuts," he said.

More recently, Borné's impact has come into greater focus. Before Alabama and LSU take the field -- as has happened before every home game since 2010 -- Borné's words will narrate a pregame video on the scoreboard.

His final, ominous words -- "It's Saturday night in Death Valley" -- will send fans into a frenzy.

Borné called it a "mystical experience" once the sun sets on Tiger Stadium.

He knows people will read this and call him crazy.

But, he said, "The people have been in and felt it, they know what I'm talking about."

"Even to this day, it's bigger, it's brighter, it's louder," he said. "There's this undercurrent of Halloween that almost drifts over the stadium from the West -- almost like that fog when I was a kid."