Friday, October 21, 2011
Part Two - Ole Miss and All Things Southern!
So The Captain and his crew are barreling up I-59 and I am able to leisurely get up, have breakfast with the Gold Wing members and am so filled with anticipation that I can't wait to get on the road, 6 hours before game time. I head out on West Main St. towards Oxford and find myself in need of a car wash and I see a group of young people holding a sign advertising a fund-raising car wash for a boy scout troop (as a band director for 32 years I ALWAYS support young people raising money!). I pulled in and an adult leader guided me to the starting point and immediately noticed that I was from Georgia and asked what brought me to Tupelo. I explained my SEC Travel Blog trip and it was like a dam bursting with questions, where I was from, why Ole Miss? which team did I root for? I got several suggestions from other adults on where to park, how to get in and out of Oxford and, of course, how to get to the Grove! My most surprising moment of that interlude was when an 8th grader named Quan asked me had I really attended UGA (I answered yes, me, my wife, and youngest son) and he then told me they were his favorite team and Isaiah Crowell was his favorite player. Imagine my surprise being in the heart of the deep South in northern Miss. to find another GA. Bulldog fan! He said he wanted to go to UGA and play for the Dawgs; I hope he realizes his dream! On to Oxford.
I followed the crowd of vehicles (predominantly shiny SUV's) mostly sporting 'Roll Tide' car flags with some Ole Miss vehicles mixed in, and rolled into Oxford, going past the baseball stadium and down University Ave. to look for a parking place. I found Oxford University UMC offering game day parking and pulled in to start my adventure for the day. The 3 men at Oxford UMC parking cars for their youth program were tremendously helpful and friendly and aided me in directions and landmarks for downtown Oxford and the University. As I was parking another vehicle pulled in behind me, also with a GA. license plate with 3 guys getting out, and after talking for a few minutes, we established that only one in three was an Alabama fan (my crowd was one in four) and I was talking to David from Birmingham who grew up in Brunswick, GA as a UGA fan, and one of his travel companions was a doctor from Bridge Mill only 20 miles from my home town; it is a small world.
Since I had arrived so early I trekked up town to the square in Oxford (see pix) to experience it all; everywhere in Oxford were red and blue hats, caps, co-eds dressed to the nines, and fraternity guys in 'oxford' button downs, red ties and eventually navy blue blazers. Many groups contained 2 and 3 generations; children in Ole Miss cheerleader outfits, college age young adults and grand parents also dressed to socialize at The Grove.
I toured downtown Oxford and met several people who were very friendly and helpful in explaining the traditions on game day (the Downtown Grill, Oby's, Venice Pizza Co.) the courthouse in the center of the Square was flying the Mississippi state flag with the Stars and Bars (some things change SLOWLY). I was hungry and went in search of a meal before arriving at the stadium and walked around looking at large crowds for pizza and "other traditions" before settling on an intriguing place called "Frank and Marlee's, an Oxford original" Since no one was in the place and the bar tender met me at the door I asked was it open and were they serving food. Since the answer to both questions was "yes" I settled in and carrying on a conversation with Lance, the bar keep. He looked very tired (having closed the place at 4 am) but was cordial and helpful and set me up with a shrimp Po' Boy and Landshark Lager. Four people came in after me and one couple asked could their TV be placed on the Michigan/Michigan State game. After the requisite stares and other odd looks Lance complied and I saw the ugliest football uniform ever, Michigan (and that says something since there is Oregon out there!). The food was OK but I was surprised to find that my place was cleaned off during a trip to the restroom with the subtle message given that I was done; very uncool since I was only one of 5 people in the place but I hoofed it back down University Ave, towards Vaught-Hemingway and the Grove.
Since I was soaking in the atmosphere and in no particular hurry I slowly walked down University Ave. and it led me directly into the Grove and the throbbing heart of all things Old South; tradition, elegance, southern football, manners and family). I had needed no instructions since following the car flags into Oxford and with the continuous flow of excited humanity, both Crimson and White and Red and Blue, I entered into the sanctity known in college football legend as 'The Grove'. A vast sea of Red and Blue Ole Miss tents enveloped the entire 10 acres of 150 year-old oak trees providing respite from an unusually warm day for mid-Oct. and the perfect locale for the best tailgating in the country. Parents, grand parents, co-eds, fraternity brothers, and younger children all socialized, ate, drank, and played in what must be the southern version of James Hilton's Shangri-La; the perfect environment, holding the rest of the world at arm's length. As a longtime fan of UGA tailgating is also celebrated on the Athens campus but is spread out over a vast area and not concentrated like Ole Miss. I walked the Grove Loop and also traversed the paths through the Grove in search of legendary southern heroes like Archie Manning and Shepherd Smith but the crowds were so thick you could hardly squeeze between. I did not see those particular people and by that time I had been walking 3 hours and was giving in to the heat so I went in search of a place to sit, rest, drink some water (for re-hydration) and cool off.
The only place to sit in the shade was across the street from the Grove and it was inhabited mostly by fans from Alabama waiting for the stadium to open its gates. I met a wonderful couple from the "Free State of Winston Co." We discussed Double Springs, AL. and Winston Co. and the joys of being Crimson Tide fans. As we were talking there would come an occasional wave of cheers from The Grove and, while I was puzzled, my friend from Winston Co. knew immediately the cause of the commotion; Miss. State was losing to South Carolina, and although hard fought (the UGA fan in me could not help but cheer for State) the losing effort by MSU was vigorously cheered by Ole Miss fans! By this time the Captain and his crew has hit town and were making their way towards Vaught-Hemingway so I headed in that direction as well.
Our group of four united at Gate 12 and we entered into the stadium and headed to our seats. It is always entertaining to describe to people that 3 out our 4 were not true Bama fans but were there for the entire experience and we met a wonderful, open young man with his 11 year-old son who provided commentary on the long standing rivalry, history of the stadium (including a banner for winning the SEC West without playing in the championship game) and a statistical breakdown of all the starters for UA. Jason4Bama was the perfect host and guide and it was heart-warming to watch him interact with his son teaching him the finer points of Alabama football. One moment that was special to me was when I walked over to the Crimson Tide pep band (I was a HS band director) to visit with a former student, Lee H., playing with the drumline/marching band. The expression on his face was stark unbelief, and he said "you are the last person I would expect to see in Oxford today" but I always support our my former students and was glad to see Lee involved at the college level.
Of course in the end Alabama overcame a short-lived, 7 point deficit and scored 52 unanswered points. By the beginning of the 4th quarter almost all the Ole Miss fans had returned to the Grove and the stadium was left to approx. 20,000 Bama fans.
The atmosphere of the Ole Miss fans was one of almost manic exhilaration prior to the game; they were in their element and ecstatic to be involved with the #2 team in the country but, in the end, the loss was posted and they returned to their tents, white linen table cloths and chandeliers, BBQ and bourbon (in elegant, old south style!).
On to LSU and Baton Rouge in November!