11.16.13 10:45 AM ET
Ole Miss Football Games Unite a Son and His Aging Father
Lately I’ve been going to a lot of football games. The University of Mississippi football games, to be more precise. Just me, my 95-year-old dad, and tens of thousands of our kindred spirits.
It was a notion that first came to me about a year ago, on election night, 2012. That dreary night I found myself thinking about everything I had missed during the long campaign. Intense, single-minded focus was the only way to try and elect a president, but it meant most of us on the campaign had no other life. Christmas had been one day off, followed by over 100 days on the road. I rarely talked to my parents and when my father was dealing with treatment for prostate cancer, I knew I should have been there with him, taking him to treatment, trying to help in any way. Instead I was fighting through a long slog of primaries that seemed never to end.
That’s how this idea came to me: my father and I would go to all the Ole Miss football games of the 2013 season. We would spend one more season together, doing something we both loved.
I didn’t attend Ole Miss, but my father and mother had, as had my grandfather. Now at 95, my dad was the oldest living member of the Ole Miss hall of fame, which he joked you should get by default at 95.
When I was growing up, my father and I had connected through football, particularly college football and especially Ole Miss football. There were two great passions sweeping the South in those days, college football and civil rights, and the two were impossible to escape and inextricably linked.
My father and I will be in the Ole Miss stadium stands this Saturday, like we have been for every home game this season, stealing a few simple moments together in this complicated world.
The last year Ole Miss had won a national championship was 1962, which also was the year that James Meredith had integrated Ole Miss. There on the night of Sept. 30, 1962, in the wooded heart of the campus known as The Grove, there had been a pitched battle fought between the National Guard and a crowd protesting Meredith’s enrollment. Two people died that night, a French photographer and a young jukebox repairman.
After the tragedy, there had been talk of closing the university for a semester but it stayed open and a few days later, just a short walk from the Grove, Ole Miss won its third game on its way to a national championship. It was one of the last years an all-white team would win the championships.
Today on game days at Ole Miss, that same Grove is packed with thousands of Ole Miss faithful, black and white. On its way to the stadium, the team passes through the Grove down the Walk of Champions, mobbed by adoring fans. The crewcut, all-white team of 1962 has been replaced with big, strong kids who look a lot like Mississippi: long hair, short hair, scruffy beards and locks. Led by a coach, Hugh Freeze, whom they adore, they glide through the Grove’s dappled sunlight, graced with the chance to grab a bit of immortality on lazy Saturday afternoons.
That’s where my father and I will be this Saturday, like we have been for every home game this season, stealing a few simple moments together in this complicated world. We were there to see a young Mississippi team fight its heart out against a bigger, more talented Texas A&M, led by Johnny Manziel, the sport’s most exciting player. The teams played with the intensity of a vicious bar fight stretched over four quarters, with one injured player after another carried out of the game. By the fourth quarter, the Ole Miss squad was so depleted that Coach Freeze was fielding kids in positions they’d never played.
Johnny Manziel was dazzling, like watching Secretariat run. He scored and scored and scored. Every time it looked like Ole Miss was done, they fought back, playing the sort of Big Heart football that makes the college game so unique. In the end, the team with the ball last won. A&M kicked a last second field goal to break a tie: 41 to 38, final score.
My father and I stood in the stands exhausted, not believing it was over. As the Ole Miss team left the field, a few in the stunned crowd began to applaud and then soon thousands were cheering the team in defeat.
The next Saturday night we were back in the stands for Ole Miss vs. LSU. As my father said, “LSU is always the biggest,” and for Ole Miss fans, that’s a Holy Truth. The stage was set for a slaughter: LSU ranked sixth in the nation and Ole Miss was so depleted by injuries that 18-year-old freshmen were starting their first game.
But the Gods of Sport sometimes grace us with little miracles, and that night it was Ole Miss’s turn to win on a last second field goal. Strangers hugged each other and cried as the thousands once again cheered their team, this time in victory.
There are three more games left in the season and then a bowl game. My father and I will be there for each, cheering for victory but knowing we can’t lose. Special Saturdays. If you get a chance, grab one. You’ll be glad you did.
Stuart Stevens was the chief strategist for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. He is the author of five books, and his articles on politics and sports have been published in The New York Times, Esquire, Outside, The Washington Post, and others. He has also written extensively for television including the Emmy Award–winning series Northern Exposure, Commander in Chief, and HBO’s K Street. He is at work on a book about attending all the Ole Miss football games with his father, which will be published next year by Knopf.