Schadenfreude and SEC Football Part III

Mississippi State vs. Ole Miss: The Egg Bowl, Part I

I wasn’t very interested in football as a child. My father didn’t pay much attention to sports, other than an occasional St. Louis Cardinals game on the radio while riding home from church on Wednesday nights. My father would throw me balls for batting practice, and I played in plenty of empty lot and backyard baseball and football games. My family lived pretty much equidistant between Oxford and Starkville, but we sometimes got tickets to the Ole Miss-UT Chattanooga game, always a blow out. I didn’t know much about the Ole Miss/Mississippi State rivalry until eighth grade, when I began playing football in junior high. Until that time, all I really heard about was Ole Miss. That was back when Archie Manning played for the Rebels and they played some high profile games, even with Archie’s broken wrist. One of the strongest memories of fourth grade, for some reason, is the show and tell where a girl brought in a newspaper clipping talking about how they were giving Archie a special cast so he could play football. My brother cared more about Ole Miss than I did. He bought a 45 rpm record titled “Archie Sir.” The flip side was “That Red-Headed Kid from Rebel Town.” One of my brother’s friends could draw “Colonel Rebel,” the Ole Miss mascot caricature of an old southern gentleman, a retired Confederate colonel. These caricatures routinely featured Colonel Rebel kicking the Mississippi State Bulldog mascot in the rear. And what 1960-born Mississippi boy’s heart didn’t swell to the sight of the Ole Miss cheerleaders sprinting across the field carrying a larger than life stars and bars confederate battle flag flowing in the wind with the Ole Miss band playing “Dixie” for all they were worth?

But for all that, I didn’t really pay much attention to football. For most of my pre-college years, I might have a vague sense of who was playing in the Super Bowl, or who some of the big name stars were. It made me proud that some of the better quarterbacks in the NFL, like Archie Manning of Ole Miss and Bart Starr, Joe Namath, and Kenny Stabler, all from Alabama) were from SEC schools. But I never paid much attention to Mississippi State and Ole Miss. That is, until I transferred to Mississippi State to study Forest Resources in my junior year of college.

Even in Starkville, I was more or less oblivious to football. That first semester, I hadn’t been at school long enough to make many friends, and so I hadn’t attended a game yet. One day, riding home from classes on my ten speed bicycle, I stopped to watch a scrimmage, only to be run off by as couple of red-shirt goons who yelled at me that it was a “closed practice.” Apparently, 1980 was a good year for Mississippi State, as I learned one Saturday afternoon. I was studying in the room I rented from a professor. In Jackson, Mississippi, over two hours away, Mississippi State was playing Alabama, ranked number one in the nation, coached by Bear Bryant, defending back-to-back national championships, and riding a twenty-eight game winning streak that extended beyond the previous season. The Crimson Tide had won the previous twenty-two annual meetings with State, but on this November day, Mississippi State, leading six to three, held off an Alabama drive by forcing a fumble at the four yard line with six seconds left. You can watch the last two minutes on YouTube:

As I studied that afternoon, I heard a distinct roar rise over the town of Starkville, followed by what sounded like hundreds of car horns honking simultaneously. It took me a while to figure out what exactly had happened, but I later learned that hundreds of people who hadn’t attended the game started an impromptu car parade, driving all over town, ringing cowbells, a State tradition, and honking their car horns. The rest of the weekend followed the same pattern, as all over town and up and down Frat row and in the dormitories, celebrations erupted into parades, the campus-wide party growing exponentially as the students who had attended the game in Jackson made their way home. Late Sunday night students camped on the lawn of the school president, demanding that Monday be declared a holiday, a request that failed. State went on to have a good year and went to the Sun Bowl in El Paso Texas on New Year’s Day. Three guys from my parents’ church, one a private pilot, invited me to fly to El Paso in a single engine Cessna and attend the game. I went for the plane trip and to spend a night in Mexico. Mississippi State got blown out by Nebraska, and I fell in twenty-year -old love with one of Nebraska’s cheerleaders, a woman who will never know I ever existed.

All of my ambivalence changed the next semester, when I began my cooperative education job at a particleboard mill in Oxford, Mississippi, the home of Ole Miss. I was a student at Mississippi State, hanging out with kids who attended Ole Miss, living in Ole Miss territory. I heard all the jokes:
• Do you know why the Mississippi State football team should change its name to the “Possums”?
– Because they play dead at home and get killed on the road.
• Why doesn’t Mississippi State have ice on the sidelines?
– The guy with the recipe graduated.
• How many Bulldogs does it take to screw in a light bulb?
– One, but he gets 3 credit hours.
• Did you hear the Rolling Stones are playing at Mississippi State’s stadium?
– Yeah, They’re 10-point favorites.

The hazing I received, good-natured enough and expected, drove me to be a Bulldog fan out of self-defense more than anything else. It follows a pattern in my life. I often find myself out of step with the people around me, not quite fitting in, defending my allegiances out of self defense. I love a healthy rivalry. I love to be not quite like everyone else.

The Immaculate Deflection

The annual game between Ole Miss and Mississippi state, played for an engraved trophy and dubbed the Egg Bowl, has been played since 1915. Ole Miss leads the series sixty-one to forty-three, with six ties. Traditionally, the game is played on Thanksgiving weekend, the final game of the regular season.

In 1983, Ole Miss began the season by losing five out of six games, before running the table at the end of the season by beating Texas Christian, Vanderbilt, LSU, and Tennessee. They went into the Mississippi State game at Jackson, with a five and five record. Mississippi State’s record was three wins and seven losses.

Trailing by one point, MSU got into field goal position very late in the game. Former Ole Miss coach Billy “Dog” Brewer recalled the play:

[Mississippi State] had an outstanding kicker, one of the best I’ve been around in Artie Crosby. We called timeout and they called timeout. We didn’t have the video replay then, but I’m not so sure it didn’t cross the cross bar. Anyway they kick the ball for the winning field goal. The Mississippi State stands got up and roared. Some guys can’t look, I’m looking and I thought it was good. Then the Ole Miss fans got up. The whole (stadium) was full. The kick is on its way and the rotation on the ball, it’s like a little single engine plane. You cut the motor off and it kicks back the opposite direction. That’s exactly what this ball did. The wind caught it, stopped it, reversed it and blew it back and it fell down right in front of the crossbar. We win.

Below you’ll find the YouTube clip for the actual kick.

Legendary Mississippi State radio sportscaster Jack Cristil called the play:

With 24 seconds left to play, Place Kicker Artie Crosby lines up a 27 yard game winning field goal. The ball is snapped, it is placed down, laces out. Crosby approaches the kick and gets a good foot into it. By golly, it is going to split the uprights……..wait a minute……WHAT WAS THAT?

The game is still referred to as the Immaculate Deflection. A forty mile per hour gust of wind blew the ball back onto the field, negating the field goal. There’s a documentary available on YouTube, produced by Ole Miss, naturally. Brad Schultz, who produced the documentary, said, “It’s as if the hand of God had reached out and knocked it down.” The link is below. Personally, I can’t stand to watch it.

Brewer still remembers what he told State coach Emory Bellard as the two were about to shake hands. “As Emory came across the field, he said ‘Billy, I’ve never seen anything like this in all my days of coaching.’ I gave him kind of a smart alec deal,” Brewer said. “I said ‘Emory, God’s a Rebel. He’s not a Bulldog, he’s an Ole Miss Rebel.’ He said ‘get out here boy’ in that old Texas drawl.”

Karma

There was a time, the late 80s, when my brother lived in Starkville, and my uncle Sid, a life-long Alabama fan, lived in the same town as my parents, Tupelo, Mississippi. For a few years, they thought it would be fun for the men of the family to get tickets to the Alabama- Mississippi State games played in Starkville, where we would meet up at my brother’s house, go to the game, and cook out sometime before or after. It was always my uncle and his two son-in-laws, pulling for Alabama, and my father and my brother and I, pulling for State. I should mention that after State broke Alabama’s 22 game winning streak in the rivalry in 1980, Alabama ran off another fifteen straight victories before State won again. It was an excruciating experience.

I love my uncle Sid, and he is a gracious winner. Sid always treated every game as if it was a squeaker. He’d attribute a win to luck, hard work, discipline, but he would never gloat. He had seen enough hard time to know better than to be an ass. One of Uncle Sid’s son-in-laws, however, a cop, who never, I think, warmed up to my earring or ponytail, loved to dig at me, even though he never attended the University of Alabama. He was arrogant, boastful, condescending, and dismissive, of me and my school. He felt no sense of fear, nor respect. To be honest, I tried to piss him off every chance I got. It wasn’t that hard, he was that hung up.

And then in the mid-90s, something miraculous happened. Mississippi State beat Alabama four out of five years. I was living in Colorado at the time, but I still followed SEC football. As I would dance in front of the television screen after reading the final scores on the scroll, my wife would tell me I ought to call my Uncle Sid, probably watching the game down in Alabama, and rub it in. This is something I never did, and would never do. I love that man. And besides, an SEC victory, especially for Mississippi State, is a precious thing. They just don’t happen very often, and because they truly matter, they are not something to be taken lightly, nor should we tempt the fates and invite bad karma upon ourselves by gloating, a more malicious cousin of Schadenfreude.

This is the same arrangement I have with my best friend, Jim, a wonderful person, perhaps the most kind-hearted and generous person I’ve ever known well. His only flaw may be that he’s an Ole Miss Rebel fan, but I’ve chosen to forgive him. We met at Oxford all those years ago when I was a Mississippi State student in a Rebel world, and we hit it off. Jim, like me, had a choice in the formative years of his life. Ole Miss or Mississippi State. He chose Ole Miss, and I respect his choice. We’ve been in each other’s weddings, and he flew across the country to drive my furniture to Arkansas when I moved here from Mississippi. When he was single, his house was decorated in Rebel memorabilia, and now that he’s married, he carries Ole Miss season tickets and has indoctrinated (brainwashed?) his children into the Ole Miss culthood.

Over the years, Ole Miss and Mississippi State have gone back and forth, trading Egg Bowls, enjoying bowl years, enduring losing seasons, firing coaches, retooling, fighting for dominance in a state still dominated by a defeated nation mindset, doomed perhaps, to always be looking up at the Auburns, Alabamas, and LSUs on either state line. But Jim and I have an understanding, though we’ve never really discussed it, that what happens in the Egg Bowl stays in the Egg Bowl. There’s no gloating, no bragging, no mention whatsoever, in person, over the phone, or on FaceBook. I’ve even learned to cheer for Ole Miss when they play LSU and Alabama. I’d like to think Jim does the same for Mississippi State. Hopefully, we both earn good karma for our teams.

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