I had been to Oxford, Miss., but never for a football game. So when Jacksonville State signed up for what conventional wisdom figured was a $300,000 butt-whipping, we accepted the invitation of the Puckett Rebel Club and headed west.
Our hosts were the Bentons, a Grove-veteran family whose patriarch played on the Rebels’ 1959 “SEC Team of the Decade.” Most every home game they pack up, drive up, show up and enjoy the get-together.
My son was particularly interested in seeing Oxford. He had heard me tell of once visiting an Ole Miss friend who took me to Sorority Row about 15 minutes before classes began to watch the house doors open on cue and out walk what had to be the greatest collection of female beauty these eyes had ever seen.
This year Hollis, the Bentons’ middle girl, is one of them. My son could hardly wait.
The towns of Oxford and Jacksonville have a lot in common. Their respective universities are the heart and soul of the communities. But Oxford could teach Jacksonville a thing or two.
Oxford has preserved its history. Jacksonville has torn its down. Oxford has a square with safe parking. Around Jacksonville’s square you take your life in your hands. Oxford’s square has one of the South’s great bookstores. Jacksonville’s doesn’t; maybe it’s the parking. Oxford took William Faulkner and transformed itself into the literary capital of Mississippi. Jacksonville has Rick Bragg, who is about as good as it can get, but he is over in Tuscaloosa now.
However, I was not there for intellectual pursuits or to assess street design.
I was there for The Grove and the game.
My buddy Jimmy, who is managing editor of the Oxford-based New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, warned me that tailgaters were allowed wine and whiskey, but we had to keep our beer out of sight. He told of folks coming back for a cold one after the game only to find a “large puddle of foam soaking into the ground” and an orange sticker on their cooler explaining that the pour-out was compliments of the University Police.
He felt I needed to know.
The night before the game, the younger members of our group went to The Grove to put up our tents and mark our spot. The women of our group went out in search of food for the gathering. I went back to the motel and went to sleep — age has its privileges.
The next morning we arrived to find the tree-shaded center of campus transformed into a sea of canopies under which were tables decorated with flowers and finery, laden with foods of infinite variety, set off by all sorts of Rebel fol-de-roil. There the faithful were assembled to celebrate the victory that was to follow.
Even though some of them weren’t sure who they were playing.
Leaving the motel wearing my JSU shirt, I was accosted by a Rebel fan wearing trousers covered with Colonel Reb appliqués who snidely suggested that we would be sent back to Jackson with our tails between our legs. When I pointed out that he was confusing us with Jackson State University down in the Mississippi state capitol, he replied, “one A&M school is like any other.”
Later in the day, a much nicer guy (without the silly pants) asked how long it would take to get back to Florida. I gently set him right.
Members of the Puckett Rebel Club were not confused. They knew who we were and made us feel at home. So we ate, drank and watched people — a few fraternity men in seersucker suits and bow ties, lots of sorority girls in high heels and short skirts.
Then we hid our beer and went to the game.
The first half was just as my Mississippi friends expected, and as JSU fell further behind, I began thinking of excuses.
Then came halftime and our band went out and wowed ’em, causing someone to mutter that it would be nice to have a football team the Marching Southerners could be proud of.
Meanwhile, about half of the Ole Miss student section, figuring it was over, left for their victory parties.
They shouldn’t have.
By now, you know what happened.
JSU roared back, won the second half and the game. Our band and the rest of us were as proud as we could be.
Afterward, back at The Grove, things were quiet. Not much to celebrate. Folks packed up and headed out.
At supper, the Bentons told us that if they had to get beat, it was better to get beat by friends.
Besides, it was only one game. They have another one coming up.
So do we.
Go Gamecocks. See you Saturday.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. E-mail: email@example.com.