It was the first Ole Miss game that season in Jackson, and I’d been looking forward to it all summer. I had an Ole Miss hat, sort of a cross between a baseball hat and a newsboy cap that I wore to bed most nights. I knew the names of every starting Rebel as though they were family members: the all-American quarterback Glynn Griffing; the running back Lou Guy; the full-back and linebacker Buck Randall. I knew them all. The way the radio announcers described them was how I thought of the Rebels: “rocket-armed” Griffing; “swivel-hipped” Guy; “bruising” Randall. They were like titles bestowed upon knights competing on fields of battle.
I was 10 years old.
My parents had a party before most Ole Miss games in Jackson. My favorite was the party before the Arkansas Razorbacks game, which was always a “hog roast” with lots of great barbeque and a big pig. I loved the pig.
The opening home game of that 1962 season was against the Kentucky Wildcats. You can’t roast a wildcat, but it was still a good party. They always had good parties.
The bootlegger came to the house before every party. Mississippi was the only state in the country that had not repealed Prohibition, so the entire state was dry and everybody had a bootlegger. Ours drove a pickup truck with cases of booze in the back. Not very discreet, but nobody really tried to hide bootlegging. The state tax collector even received a percentage of a bootlegger’s tax. You could make a lot of money, and one famous candidate for the office, when asked how long he intended to serve, said, “I figure it will only take one term.”
I liked our bootlegger. He was a friendly guy who always gave me an ice-cold Coke. Once I saw a pistol in the cab of his pickup, and I asked my father if he was a police officer. He laughed and said that he wasn’t but he probably had a lot of friends who were.
The pregame parties always ended with a couple of the Ole Miss chants, “Hotty Toddy,” and a dash for the stadium. For evening games, there would be an inevitable clothing ritual with my mother that played out with the predictability of a catechism.
“Take a coat. It’s going to get cool.”
“I’ve got a jacket.” I held up the light Ole Miss windbreaker that had been a birthday present the year before. I’d learned not to fight these things. Submission was inevitable, so best to make it speedy.
“Is that heavy enough? Shouldn’t you wear that nice wool coat we got you for Christmas?”
The wool coat was the sort of thing that the lead character in Sergeant Preston of the Yukon wore in one of my favorite television shows. Unless the temperature plummeted seventy degrees, I knew I’d want to abandon it on the walk to Memorial Stadium, like heavy equipment on the German retreat from Stalingrad. I’d seen pictures of that in the Life magazine book of World War II that I kept in my room. Next to the Rebels, I was probably in love with World War II more than anything. “I’m okay. Really, Mom. I’ve got a coat.”
As he always did at some point, my father stepped in. “He’s fine,” he reassured her. Then he held up the overly warm coat he had slung over his arm as a talisman to head off the next round of antihypothermia suggestions.
My dad and I always went to Memorial Stadium the same way: He’d drive just a couple of miles to the parking lot of Bailey Junior High School, and we’d walk. My aunt taught at Bailey, and later it was where I went to school. It was a formidable-looking art deco structure that always reminded me, not in a positive way, of the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. It was about a mile to the stadium from our usual parking spot. I loved that last stretch. Dad and I would hold hands and talk about the different ways the Rebels were going to win. He usually wore a snazzy hat, and sometimes when the afternoon sun caught us just right, our shadows fell long and lean on the sidewalk, stretching his hat out in funny shapes that made me laugh. The walk never felt routine. Even from a distance, the band warming up the crowd always seemed impossibly loud. The roar probably had something to do with the sound being funneled by the structure and amplified through the crowd. But it might have been my imagination teased to a frenzy in anticipation.
Walking to the game wasn’t like going to the Capri movie theater, our neighborhood favorite. Even if you didn’t know what was going to happen in a movie, it had already been made. But the game was different. Nobody had made what was going to unfold. No one had any idea what was going to happen. We were walking to history. I imagined families all across the country huddled around radios and big cabinet televisions like the huge Zenith in our living room, listening and watching what we were going to see for real. Going to the game seemed like being on the inside of the most important secret in the world.
I knew that my friends at school who didn’t go to the game would ask over and over, “What was it like?” Some wouldn’t want to believe that I had really been there. I always carried the ticket stubs with me for at least a week after a game.
On the way to the game, Confederate flags were everywhere, but that was normal. What would Rebel games be without Rebel flags? Cars drove by with guys and sometimes a girl holding flags and yelling, “Go to hell, Kentucky!”
I always loved the way the crowds got bigger the closer we got to the stadium. It was like seeing kids on the playground before the first day of school after the long summer. Not that I was friends with my fellow fans, or even knew more than a handful of them, but they were Rebel fans. We were Rebel fans. Perfect strangers would greet each other with “Hotty Toddy,” and it was like a password into our special clubhouse.
But this time, my dad steered us clear of any large groups. There was a crowd in the parking lot shouting, “Hell no!” and even I could tell they were drunk.
At halftime, Ole Miss was ahead 7-0. But my father seemed uneasy, shaking his head and talking about how “sloppy” the team had played. One of my favorite players, Buck Randall, had scored, but the refs called it back on holding. “We should be killin’ ’em,” my dad told me, and I nodded solemnly.
As soon as the teams had headed to the locker room, Colonel Reb, the Ole Miss mascot, led out the world’s largest Confederate flag, which seemed to cover the field, followed by the Ole Miss band wearing their standard uniforms of Confederate battle dress. This was the ritual of every Ole Miss game: Colonel Reb, the giant flag, and when the marching band finished its famous rendition of “Dixie,” the crowd would rise as one to shout, “The South shall rise again!”
But tonight, the ritual changed. A podium was placed in the center of the field, and a man I had seen before but couldn’t have named came out flanked by Mississippi highway patrolmen.
“It’s Ross!” somebody shouted. “Hey, Governor!”
Governor Ross Barnett looked old and addled. People were laughing. Someone handed us a leaflet with the words for a new Mississippi anthem. The band started playing the Ross Barnett campaign song that I’d heard on the radio many times, “Roll with Ross,” but now the crowd was singing the new lyrics:
States may sing their songs of praise, With waving flags and hip-hoo-rays, Let cymbals crash and let bells ring ’Cause here’s one song I’m proud to sing: Go, Mississippi, keep rolling along, Go, Mississippi, you cannot go wrong, Go, Mississippi, we’re singing your song, M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I!
A few people near us in the stands looked uncomfortable, but most were laughing and singing. My father pushed his hat back on his head and stared at the paper. I wanted to join in, of course, but his look told me not to.
Ross Barnett was now waving his arms like a conductor. The crowd tore into the next verse:
We will not yield an inch of any field.Fix us another toddy, ain’t yielding to nobody.Ross is standing like Gibraltar, he shall never falter. Ask us what we say, it’s to hell with Bobby K.Never shall our emblem goFrom Colonel Rebel to Ole Black Joe.
That was more than enough for my father. “Time to go,” he said and pulled on my hand. I assumed he meant time to get some hot dogs. I loved hot dogs. We started to move down our row toward an aisle. Barnett was bellowing, “I love Mississippi! I love Mississippi! I love her people! Our customs! I love and respect our heritage!”
The crowd had stopped laughing and cheered wildly.
When we got to the hot dog stands on the ground floor, I stopped because I thought it was hot dog time. My father walked ahead for a few steps, then came back. “Halftime hot dog?” he asked. He bought me one, but he didn’t look happy.
“Aren’t you getting one?”
“Not tonight,” he said, and instead of turning to go back into the stadium, he motioned toward the exit. “Let’s go home.”
He looked at me and then rubbed his stomach. “I don’t feel good. I ate too much at that party. We can listen to the second half at home.” Then, when he saw me hesitating, he said, “There’s peach cobbler left from the party.”
I loved the cobbler. I took a big bite out of the hot dog, and we walked out. Ross Barnett was still shouting.
Twenty-four hours later, the Ole Miss campus was a war zone in the last battle of the Civil War, federal troops fighting southerners over integration. Two weeks after that, the United States and Russia would come close to war over nuclear missiles in Cuba. But for me, 1962 will always be most remembered as the year my father and I cheered as Ole Miss went undefeated and won the national championship. It’s there, floating in memory, that perfect season in that most imperfect year.
There were other seasons, some good, some not so good, but always shared with my father. And then life’s wheel began to spin, and days and nights spent in stadiums faded into the past.
Until one day I woke up at the age of 60 and realized that what I wanted most in the world was one more season. With my father and football and the Ole Miss Rebels. It didn’t need to be a perfect season. One last season would be perfect enough.
This is an excerpt from THE LAST SEASON by Stuart Stevens. Copyright © 2015 by Stuart Stevens. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. All rights reserved.