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Going to Church on Saturday
Can’t you just smell it? The crisp air, the falling leaves, and the sweet smell of bourbon! It’s college football season down in the South. You see, Southerners have two religions: One we do on Sundays throughout the year, and the other, where we worship at “cathedrals” that on Saturdays become the third largest cities in our states. This weekend is our upcoming “Holy Week” whereby pilgrims filter in from their dorms, frat house, farms, towns, and neighborhoods in order to commune with their coreligionists (even the “Sabanic” Alabama fans). Ah, the first week of football season!
Now by football season, I’m of course speaking of the SEC or Southeastern Conference. I don’t know what you call what those other teams and conferences are doing, but it ain’t football. Well now friends, (and former friends who are mad I insulted their schools) you can’t hear my accent (or put-on accent) on the internet. There’s a difference between the word “foot, comma, ball” which is played up north, and “Foo-Boll” which is what we play down in the SEC. I’m going to be writing about the latter (surprise, surprise).
Like everything else, we do things a bit different down here. And like food, manners, leading battles, writing novels, and producing beautiful women, we do some things much better. Football is another of them. I didn’t grow up in SEC country, but when I attended Ole Miss in the fall of 1996 I became a convert to this new religion…and what is it that they say about the zeal of a convert? So here is my guide for anyone who wants to know what it’s like to attend a game in the SEC. Sure it will be a bit Ole Miss biased, so there won’t be a lot of talk about winning championships and such, but I think the fellow faithful of other schools will get what I’m talking about, and will have shared similar experiences.
When I first went to Ole Miss I got my student season tickets within the first two days of school (See The South Will Blog Again, Guide to the SEC, Back to School Edition). I stood in line and received my envelope of tickets, a total Noob to the football culture that awaited me. Sure, I knew there would be some good games ahead of me as I peaked inside and noticed the Auburn, LSU. And Mississippi State games, names of teams I had seen on TV, but really, I had no idea just what a big deal this would turn out to be.
At the time Ole Miss had a bit of a primer as to what to expect. On my initial campus visit (which had an evangelistic fervor to it) I was informed that Ole Miss students dressed up for football games, and told about some of the school traditions, fight songs, and cheers. I was also informed about the Grove. So for my first game I put on an Oxford shirt, khakis, a necktie, and my white (eventually to be sweat stained brown) Ole Miss “bar cap”. This was to later be my game day “uniform” and a part of my Saturday morning ritual. I then walked from my dorm with some friends and first entered the Grove.
Sunday Best and Student Sections
The Grove (always capitalized) is a wooded park-like area of campus, surrounded by some of Ole Miss’ oldest school buildings. It to me is what the South is supposed to look like but doesn’t always live up to. It was intoxicating. I saw the students dressed in their “Sunday best”, the gorgeous coeds wearing their sorority “hearts” the Rebels stickers, heard the band playing “Dixie”, a lot (not that I ever minded), the generations of alumni, the smell of fried chicken and whiskey, and the general aura of camaraderie, rivalry, and ease of manners that comes from shared ritual.
The Grove takes football tailgating and classes it up Kentucky Derby style. I couldn’t imagine wearing jeans and a t-shirt to the Grove or to a football game ever. I know that sounds strange to lots of people, and sounded really strange when I informed people at my graduate school, Virginia Tech, of my way of life. But once you’d been to the Grove you don’t tailgate on asphalt.
There was lots of tradition that both warms my heart and makes me sad today when I think back. Sad because several poltroons of the highest order have taken it upon themselves to ruin the school in the name of the almighty Nike. What I can tell you was that back in the day, I and many others would listen to the band play our fights songs, then we’d do the “Hotty Toddy” cheer, and after playing “From Dixie with Love” which combined Dixie and the Battle Hymn of the Republic would march out to the stadium, somewhat inebriated, full of hope (and a little piss and vinegar) ready for the Rebels to charge and take down those Yankees, even if those “Yankees” were hardly Yankees at all.
Oh, but then I got to the stadium and got my first taste of the militant law and order culture that pervades the leadership of my alma mater. I had student tickets. The good news was that it gave me 50 yard line seats for $5 a ticket. The bad news was having to enter through the student gates. There one had to run the gauntlet of a cadre of private security known as “Cobra Security”. They were kind of like the villains from G.I. Joe only with redneck rather than quasi-Eastern European accents. The more dressed up you were, the more you looked like a “typical Ole Miss student” the more you got manhandled and strip searched. The cause… looking for smuggled bourbon. If you gave those folks any “guff” you might get a thump on the head or some mace.
In any case, I got to hand it to the Ole Miss students. Some of the same guys who flunked science or who would fail engineering miserably were experts at concocting and designing elaborate systems to smuggle in their whiskey. This included soft plastic flasks, tube systems, items with false bottoms, and let’s just sat “strategic placement”. The easiest way to smuggle in bourbon was to bring a date. Ole Miss girls were “bourbon mules”. Now ladies…I don’t mean to say you looked like mules, far from it, but am explaining how women were able to smuggle whiskey “across the Cobra-can border”. The way they did it was to place a bottle underneath a row of “feminine items” which no good ol’ boy wanted to touch, and they were through. Sadly, I think they wised up and started hiring some rough looking gals to search the women.
Now about those Ole Miss girls….I love them and always will. Girls in the Deep South KNOW football. I always say the ideal Southern girl looks like Reese Witherspoon and throws like Peyton Manning. And these women understand the game! You won’t hear them ask “what does a two point conversion mean?” or “when is halftime?” or “what’s going on honey?” No, what you’ll hear is “You @#$%# suck (insert player name here)!” or “I can throw better than that!” or shut the @#%# up (insert team rival here)!”
The camaraderie was another thing. Even people who didn’t talk to each other or get along with each other in class, for no other reason that they were strangers or of a different major etc. became your “family” during the game, especially a rivalry game. I’ve seen our students get jumped and guys from rows back jump in for the rescue, or other pieces of etiquette like sharing your bourbon, or helping to shield other fans from the security when they were filling their cups of Pepsi with it. There was also a shared misery of losing, shared joy of winning (one of the few acceptable times down there to hug another guy) and the mutual cynicism of a school that is the Charlie Brown of the conference. So yeah, I saw as many losses and wins, and you know what? So what! We partied harder, and classier, and with more style than any other team in the country. Or at least we once did.
I Used to Hate Some of my Best Friends
This brings me to the other fans. Look, this piece is about you too. (I hate you all but I also respect you) See, you hate them, and I mean HATE them during game day, but after it’s all said and done they were just like us. It’s sort of like Catholics, and Presbyterians and Baptists are branches of the same faith. We have our differences but we aren’t “heathens” like the &@#$# Big Ten! So since my graduation I’ve become great friends with alums of other schools, even the most hated ones. They’re the only people who get what I’m talking about.
Now there are three types of rival fans. The first, silliest and easiest to make fun of are the “sidewalk alums”. The name comes from them coming no closer to campus than the sidewalk, i.e. never were students. These are the fans you stereotype in order to make fun of the students at the other school. Almost every SEC school is embarrassed by their “Sidewalk fans”. Of all of them, and I’ve seen them all, the Alabama ones are the craziest and scariest. Of course they are also the most numerous and winningest which brings out the crazy. But here’s the deal…many sidewalk alums donate a lot of time and money to the schools they love and root for. And that money gets back to cleaning up the campus and paying for the facilities the students use. And when push comes to shove, a “sidewalker” can be a great friend indeed in a fight.
The second type is the other school’s students. They are your peers and the most likely to fight you. The toughest in my experience were the LSU students. They didn’t back down at all. Hated ‘em, respected the @$%# out of ’em! In my day, the Ole Miss administration placed our student section, and the visiting student sections next to one another (they’ve since been moved to opposite endzones). This meant there was only a ten foot “no man’s land” between the two sections. This meant after every big play, or controversial call a hail of bottles, cups, or any throwable item would fly through the air. Back to LSU…they were better than us, and usually beat us…which made it that much sweeter when we pulled a victory out once in awhile. I remember after one such occasion when this one brave soul decked in the purple and gold version of the “Grove attire” I told you about, flanked by two friends propping his whiskey soaked body up, stood up in front of our entire section and flicked us all off. He had tears, tears of utter rage in his eyes. He was struck with dozens of projectiles from our people, but I had to admire such courage and “patriotism” in such a suicide mission.
Then there are the alums. Some alums are passionate, but most including our own (especially our own) can be a bit boring. Maybe that’s because they’ve partied so hard in their younger days it’s all out of their system. But in any case I always used to chuckle at a certain kind. We’d have these middle aged guys, with the official coaches caps, official coaches polo shirts, pulled up khaki shorts, high socks, gleaming white sneakers, and radio headsets doing a walk of shame after every Ole Miss defeat. We used to call them “hitched up” people. These guys would go through three stages of grief. As you first walked by them, they would be in shock about a defeat that they shouldn’t have been in shock by. Then after a few minutes they would go through a brief anger period whereby they would denounce the school and vow never to return. And yet, inevitably by the end of the walk back to the RV Park, these same fans would comfort themselves with the mistaken belief that Ole Miss would somehow still win a national championship.
Ah…fun times and funny times. I wouldn’t trade those football memories for the world. To this day any time I meet a fellow alumnus anywhere in the country I will say a “Hotty Toddy” cheer, and share our similar stories. And when the weather cools, and the leaves begin to fall, anywhere I am, I begin to smell the bourbon and the fried chicken, hear the cursing, cheering, and the band playing “Dixie”, remember the 4th quarter friendships and the game day enemies, and I return to the Grove, where I’m forever 19 and ready to lead the charge.
Thanks again for reading y’all. This week I went through an earthquake, hurricane, and power outage to bring you this post a bit tardy. Thanks to a friend with power and wi-fi I was able to get this up a day late. I will return to the SEC and lampoon all those other fans of the rival schools just so you don’t feel left out in GUIDE TO THE SEC…PLAYING WELL (AND NOT SO WELL) WITH OTHERS.
- Southern Blogger