Football More Than Just A Sport At Ole Miss

Writer Bill Thomas recently took a trip to Oxford, Mississippi to explore the fervent football tradition in the town that’s just as well known for its contribution to the history of the American Civil Rights Movement. Thomas wrote about the Southern town and its devotion to its team and also checked in with James Meredith, the man who integrated the university, in this week's Washington Post Magazine.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now, we open up the pages of the Washington Post magazine, something we do just about every week, to find interesting stories about the way we live now. Football season is finally underway. Fans all over the country are breathing a sigh of relief. But in Oxford, Mississippi, well, football love is a whole other thing entirely.

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MARTIN: Thats the sound of the preliminaries at an Ole Miss game, one of the most storied college football teams in the country. Writer Bill Thomas recently took a trip to Oxford, Mississippi and he wrote about the town and its devotion to its team in this weeks Washington Post magazine. And hes with us now.

Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. BILL THOMAS (Journalist, Washington Post): Nice to be here.

MARTIN: Now what got you on this quest? Youre not a Mississippian.

Mr. THOMAS: I'm not a Mississippian. No, you could probably tell by my accent. But I was in Memphis, Tennessee, I was on my way to give a speech in Florida and I drove through Mississippi just to have a look and met Hiram Eastland in Greenwood and the nephew of...

MARTIN: The nephew of the late senator. Mm-hmm.

Mr. THOMAS: The nephew of the late Senator James O. Eastland from Mississippi, long-time Mississippi senator, and we started talking about Mississippi and Oxford and Faulkner and football and food, and I thought, this would make a great story, and a couple years later I got around to writing it.

MARTIN: Why dont you read us a passage, just to give people a just a little taste of what you experienced. This is a passage about Friday night before game day.

Mr. THOMAS: This is the Friday night before game day, when Oxford turns into a little mini New Orleans, really. And, (Reading) by nine oclock, the sidewalks are filled with students and alums. Sorority girls in cocktail dresses and high heels stroll from bar to bar, while frat brothers whoop it up in front of Proud Larrys, Roosters, and other noisy hangouts. Later, a few of the more literary types will be visiting nearby Saint Peters Cemetery, where spilling a shot of bourbon on Faulkners grave is an honored tradition. Its Breakfast at Tiffanys meets Animal House. Part fashion show, part pep rally and part hangover in the making.

MARTIN: But Friday nights mark just the beginning of the festivities. Now, a lot of people have heard about the Grove, which is...

Mr. THOMAS: The Groove. Well...

MARTIN: ...help us see it. Yeah. Mm-hmm.

Mr. THOMAS: Its a wooded area in the center of campus and at midnight, the night before the big game, hired help start setting up tents in the Grove. And these tents will eventually contain people from all over the state. And they set up these buffets and bars. Theyll have candelabras hanging down, cotton plant centerpieces and things like that, incredible feeds, Elvis impersonators, string quartets, I mean any kind of entertainment you could imagine. By 10 oclock in the morning game day, smokers are cooking barbecue and people eating venison chili and its like a giant state reunion.

MARTIN: What is the source of the obsession with football at Ole Miss?

Mr. THOMAS: Well, I guess, you know, its a state where there's no professional football team. Its a chance for people to get together. I think Oxford is sort of the hub of Mississippi in a lot of ways. Its the intellectual center of the state. William Faulkner lived there. A lot of writers live there. And its the emotional focus of the entire state, Oxford Mississippi, and especially Ole Miss football.

MARTIN: But Mississippi, for obviously for many people, will conjure up lots of different images. You know, football being one, Faulkner being another, but obviously, race being another.

Mr. THOMAS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And some of the ugliest scenes from the civil rights era played out in Mississippi. And one of the interesting things that happened at the game that you went to, one of the people you met was James Meredith, who in 1962, became the first black student to enroll at Ole Miss and he was quite the celeb.

Mr. THOMAS: Well, he's a big Ole Miss fan and that might come as a surprise to some people, considering the problems he encountered when he enrolled there in 1962. But as a couple of people put it, Hiram Eastland, James O. Eastlands nephew said, you know, a lot of people have ideas about Mississippi based on things that happened 50 years. And all of that stuff, as Hiram put it to me, is in our rearview mirror. And I was a visitor, but I was really surprised by the nature of race relations in Mississippi.

I live just outside of Washington, D.C. and theres a mayoral race going on right now in Washington, and its all about race. You dont see any of that in Mississippi. People are friendly. You see blacks and white socializing together in a way you dont here in Washington at all. It really, really was stunning to me, actually, to see this.

MARTIN: And how did James Meredith react to how he was feted as by...

Mr. THOMAS: That would be the good thats a good word, really. Everywhere you go with Meredith you have to build in like 20 extra minutes for people who come up and stop him, thank him, shake his hand - white people, black people - white people coming up and apologizing to him for what he had to go through to change the school change the state, really. This was the first big civil rights struggle, you might say, and it made Oxford the focus of national attention. John Kennedy sent 10,000 National Guard troops to Mississippi to help keep order. So, it was the big a crisis, as one magazine put it, in the South, since the Civil War.

But I was amazed by the number of people who would just stop Meredith, there were three young guys, freshman at the University of Mississippi, black guys. One guy said Meredith is my hero. I never thought I'd get a chance to meet him. I can't believe I'm meeting him. Everybody was coming up and talking to him.

GROSS: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with writer Bill Thomas about his piece in this Sunday's Washington Post magazine about football at Ole Miss.

So did you get the sense that both African-American fans and white fans had equal devotion to Ole Miss football? That it was one of those unifying things and...

Mr. THOMAS: Oh, no question about it.

MARTIN: And if you can agree on nothing else, you can agree on that you love your Ole Miss football.

Mr. THOMAS: You love your Ole Miss football. Whites at the game, blacks at the game, half the team is black, which would have never been the case, obviously, 50 years ago. But it's a way I think that everybody in Mississippi can all agree on, obviously, that Ole Miss, the Rebels, are the greatest thing in the world. I mean but, you know, for I think, for people who dont come from the South or dont spend any time in the South, it might come as a big surprise that people do get along as well as they do. They are not just over - not get along over football, only, but just the way people are friendly. The communal spirit there is just amazing.

MARTIN: One thing you didnt talk about in your piece because the game you went to was last year, that the Colonel Reb mascot has been officially retired.

Mr. THOMAS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing about whether this was a good thing or not. But the students voted. The Colonel Reb is no more. Do you have a sense of how people are going to deal with this? What are they going to do to replace it now that probably without...

Mr. THOMAS: Theyll find something else, I suppose. I remember that Stanford was the Indians and is now the Cardinals or whatever they call themselves. It's one of these things that happens, I suppose, as societies change and as cultures change, things like that. I mean it doesnt seem like any big deal to me, but maybe it is in the South. Maybe it is in Mississippi but I'm...

MARTIN: Oh, it was a big deal. Trust me on this. But how good is the team?

Mr. THOMAS: Well, they did pretty well last year. They were in a bowl. I can't remember which one. But they won it and I think this year is a rebuilding year for Ole Miss. But they played Alabama. Look, Alabama was the national champion last year and they lost, the game that I went to, something like 23 to three.

By the way, I had Archie Manning on the phone. I'm not only sitting with James Meredith, I'm talking to Archie Manning. Archie Manning, the two of these guys changed Mississippi, one on the football field, one culturally, socially. And Archie Manning is such an icon at the University of Mississippi, all over the state, really - the speed limit on the campus at the University of Mississippi is 18 miles an hour, Archie Manning's number when he played quarterback at Ole Miss. And, of course, Archie Manning, he played in the NFL for a while. His greatest contribution probably is his sons Eli and Peyton.

MARTIN: Eli and Peyton. Of course. All right. Writer Bill Thomas, his piece, "The Sounds and the Fury," appears in this week's Washington Post magazine. If you want to read the piece in its entirety and we hope you will, we'll have a link on our website. Just go to npr.org, click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE.

Bill Thomas, thank you so much.

Mr. THOMAS: Thank you.

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