Monday, October 6, 2014

Happy as a Dead Pig in the Sunshine

Darn tootin’! How can I not be? Happy. Ecstatic. Walking on air. Fist pumping.
You need some background to understand.
I got my college degree from Delta State in Cleveland, Mississippi, but from the time of my youth I was raised to pull for Mississippi State. My dad graduated there in 1950 and as recently as last September—he passed in November—we watched a State game together, and he pitched fits of unbelievable violence and ferocity as State went down to LSU. Again. I have video evidence of this. He never got used to it. He never quite believing. He never stopped watching. His passion for his school never dimmed in the least, age and time, and losing seasons could not rust it out. My mother never got used to it either. She would lock herself in her bedroom when a State game was on TV to get away from Dad’s outbursts.
In Mississippi, we are taught from our youths about the age of accountability, that age, around twelve, when allegedly you become mature enough to answer to God. We also have the age of decision. If you are from out of state, or if your parents didn’t go to college, you have to make a decision to pull Mississippi State (State) or the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss, aka “the school up North”). That’s just the way things are around here. In Mississippi a mixed marriage is when a State and Ole Miss fan marry. It is very rare, extremely shocking, and it almost never works.
I can remember as a boy when my dad and I would squirrel hunt in Carroll County and then cut wood afterwards. The pickup truck would be parked on a ridge and a radio was always on a stump tuned in to Mississippi State playing whomever. While Dad cut I loaded. Dad would fit and cuss and throw things, and when I wasn’t terrified, I tried hard not to laugh. We, State, almost always lost. It was tough but somehow he engrained it into me that my lot in life was to suffer vicariously for Mississippi State, to be faithful, to hope against hope that we could win a game.
As a program in a big time conference, we have had little success. As a young boy, I didn’t know anyone at school who was a State fan. The biggest game of the year, the Egg Bowl, was between Mississippi’s two SEC schools, and Ole Miss always won. Their fans learned early how to be obnoxious. I always said, “Wait till next year.” Next year only started coming with the arrival of Dan Mullin as our football coach. Since Mullin’s arrival, we have won four of the last five Egg Bowls.
Not only has everyone we ever played beaten us like a drum, but even when we had a little talent, we refused to win football games. We beat ourselves and that is the part that was the toughest to take as a fan. Once, on national TV, we marched to ball backwards the length of the field. I exaggerate not. We went from first and goal to punting out of our own endzone in one wrong-way drive. That was typical. We did stuff like that with personal fouls and fumbles and negative plays. For half a decade, we were the most penalized team in the nation and our coach, Jackie Sherrill, said, “It’s not a problem.” It was sickening and the after effects linger years later. Whenever we get a lead I think, where are the personal fouls? Why don’t we throw the ball to the defense and then not tackle him so he can run it back for a touchdown? Like Pavlov’s dog, we have been conditioned for defeat.
I became so disgusted so many times that I vowed to divorce myself from them, to pull for anyone but them. But it was just too deeply seeped inside me from a lifetime of rooting for a loser, of being in a State family.
That is one reason why, when someone on Facebook recently called State supporters “fair weather fans,” I was literally mad enough to fight. I would have struck and punched and kicked if the opportunity had arisen. No one my age who is a State fan can possibly be a fair weather fan. That is an utter impossibility. We who pull for State are loyal. We have suffered. We have endured.
Saturday, October 4, 2014, was the biggest football day in our State’s illustrious history. That was not my assessment but the judgment of countless people whose job it is to cover college football. Undefeated and nationally ranked Alabama, (number three) was coming to Oxford (the school up North) to face undefeated and 11th ranked Ole Miss. College Game Day was in Oxford for its first trip ever to the Magnolia State. Also SEC Nation was in Starkville, the home of the Dogs, to cover undefeated Texas A & M’s (ranked 6th) showdown with undefeated and 12th ranked Mississippi State.
The whole week not only SEC fans and commentators but the national sports media was calling it the biggest football weekend in the state’s history. These four teams, all nationally ranked, all compete in what undoubtably is the nation’s toughest division of its toughest conference, the SEC West. This was the weekend that would tell if Ole Miss (who has had some success in the past) and State (who has had very limited football success) were for real or just hype.
Also, you need to keep in mind that State and Ole Miss are in a state that has a total population of only two and a half million people. We compete against Alabama who has a much larger population and has won numerous national championships, and LSU who has won a few titles themselves. These high profile programs recruit in our state for a limited talent pool and can get virtually whomever they want from their own states. Alabama’s football budget is larger than State’s and Ole Miss’ combined. Their facilities are better, their reputations are better, their appeal to young players is better. Although Mississippi’s SEC schools have been trending upward, to break through and become real contenders in the SEC, we have to beat people like Alabama, LSU, A & M, Auburn, and Georgia, all historically football powerhouses.
We did it.
First, State put a beatdown on A & M just one week after going to Shreveport and whuppin LSU. They call LSU’s stadium “Death Valley” because, as they say, “It is the place where dreams come to die.” Usually dreams do die there. Very, very few teams go in there and win. State did it, and we did it big time. Then we whupped them Aggies like they stole our bulldog or something. It was an impressive victory, a dominant one.
After State did its thing, Ole Miss hosted Alabama and whipped them. The game was close and came down to the wire, but they won. Wow. It has never been like this before. Now Ole Miss and Mississippi State are tied for the number three ranking in the AP Poll. Awesome.
Last week, College Game Day made its first ever trip to Mississippi by going to Oxford to cover the Alabama game. Next week they make their second trip to Mississippi. Guess where? You got it. They are going to Starkville the home of the Mississippi State Bulldogs. The Auburn Tigers, rated number two in the AP, are coming to town. I am nervous; Auburn is good; but we are good enough to win.
It is a good time for Mississippi football, and it’s finally fun to be a Bulldog fan. I wish Dad was here to see this. He would be so happy. He would have pitched some fits but not out of anger and frustration but out of joy and elation.