Galvanized by the prospect of drawing awareness to the University of Mississippi's self-inflicted mascot debacle, I wedged myself out of bed Saturday morning after another grueling shift at the Hub and visited Ole Miss for the first time since last March to join a contingency of like-minded individuals bent on keeping the memory of Colonel Reb alive.
Gameday in Oxford is a special experience. Especially in October. Loyalists by the tens of thousands have pilgrimaged to The Grove for generations, almost without regard to the Rebels' historically inconsistent gridiron performance, in the interest of assembling with their fellow Southerners to extol the insular attributes of all that sets Ole Miss enthusiasts apart from everyone else. Heck, they revel in it.
Who the hell are we? ... Ole Miss, by damn!
The campus atmosphere is infectious from the moment you arrive. And this, in part, is central to why many object to the banishment of their mascot -- a symbol that both embodies a regional vibe and externalizes certain idiosyncrasies that go far in transcending the obstinance of the past. In essence Colonel Reb, over a period of decades, became the principal emblem of what draws so many thousands to Ole Miss in the first place.
Some people take issue with that. Some say that the depiction of what appears to be a plantation owner -- that was never official, by the way -- has no place in the 21st century. Indeed considerable efforts have been made to either rewrite, or erase the past altogether by redefining that which makes Southerners who they are. Evidently those opponents are unaware of how that favor, as it were, could be returned at least threefold. But I digress.
Because the Colonel has been dismissed by the very individuals who should have been front and center to defend him, the forced acceptance of inessential change amid this era of hypersensitivity has left many to consider the cultural wax and wane, unwanted by most, that assuredly lays ahead.
The future, of course, is unknown. And while the uncertainty is pervasive, it never takes away from the moment. Not at Ole Miss. Last Saturday, amid the inviting scenery and perfect weather, a near-record crowd marched in unison out of The Grove, through Whiskey Alley, and onto Vaught-Hemingway Stadium to watch the Rebels battle the top-ranked Auburn Tigers. And for just a little while, everything was alright -- even after Ole Miss fell, 51-31.
The rally I was told about, for the record, never came to fruition. But that was irrelevant because I was in Oxford, and simply being there was enough. The ambiance, all by itself, makes the 75-mile trip worthwhile. As a wise man once said, Ole Miss is mood, emotion and personality. ... The University is respected, but Ole Miss is loved.
That, too, could be said for its retired Colonel.
"...in Oxford lies, as promised, the most magical place on all of God's green, football-playing Earth: the Grove. A school of red and white and blue tents swimming in a shaded 10-acre forest of oak trees, floating in an ocean of good will and even better manners ... Yes, they drink bourbon and eat boiled peanuts and finger sandwiches from sterling-silver platters and serving dishes arranged by caterers and frantic moms on elaborate tabletops. They partake in front of flat-screen TVs with DirecTV, underneath chandeliers and amongst intricate candelabras and ornate flower arrangements. ... Because that's what the Grove really is: a place for adults. A secret place run, governed and funded by grown-ups. Sure, the students drink their booze and scarf their food. But they also lug the tents in at 4 a.m. (often for $100 or more). It's as if the Ole Miss'ians have swindled their Li'l Miss'ians into attending only so they themselves have an excuse to come back."
-- Sports Illustrated; September 27, 2004