When I was fourteen, kids in town could sell football programs. We’d get a ticket to the game as a part of the deal, and we’d come home with a good chunk of change if we were good at selling programs. Kids really devoted to making money would sell soft drinks during the game, too, and come home even better off. I sold programs, and frequently would go on and sell cokes. I remember being excited with coming home with $73 from a game (this was in the late 60s), and the money I made was part of how I got my first ten speed bike.
The year I turned fifteen was Archie Manning’s senior year. That year, I’d sell programs, and get into the games, and pretty much watch the games rather than sell soft drinks.
The most memorable, and horrible, moment I witnessed was when Manning’s arm was broken in an assault by players from the University of Houston. It has always been my worst memory of a sporting event, and I was sure I’d never see anything that bothered me as much. Until tonight.
In some ways, I think I’m the last generation of white southerners to grow up influenced by the idea of the Lost Cause, an idea that was perfectly expressed by William Faulkner in Intruder in the Dust, describing that moment at Gettysburg before Pickett’s charge:
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago….
The idea that this… tragedy (not how I see it, now, but bear with me) could have gone another way, and imagining it at that moment was central to the school boy’s view of the lost cause, perfectly expressed by this passage.
I am not the first person to connect this notion of tragic loss to Ole Miss football. My friend and law school compatriot Sam Tumey won the Faux Faulkner contest one year with a rewrite of the Pickett’s charge passage set in the moment before Billy Cannon’s punt return.
I’m not sure when the idea of the Lost Cause got connected to Ole Miss football. Maybe we would have been better off without the rebel flags and other trappings. Maybe it’s karma. But I have never been fully able to shake the idea that there is some sort of connection.
Last week’s LSU game was one of the worst sporting events I’ve watched on television, comparable to the 1969 game when Alabama and Scott Hunter beat Ole Miss and the last two games of the 1985 World Series (I am a Cardinals fan). It was upsetting. But tonight, watching the game with Auburn inside the stadium got to me in a way comparable to my fourteen-year-old self watching Manning’s arm broken.
After a brilliant run, and a brilliant game, Laquon Treadwell went into the end zone, apparently scoring the winning touchdown. I’m not as clear he was horse-collared, but it seemed clear to me he broke the plane with the ball in his hands. That doesn’t really matter as much, though, at the injury that was the cost of that final play. It was very sad, and very tough to watch.
It was clear he was badly hurt, and it was very hard to take without reacting against Auburn fans around me shouting, with a nasty edge to their voice, “Get him off the field,” and, essentially, jeering at a seriously injured player. I’ve not really experienced that sort of disregard for an injury from the other team quite that way.
I don’t intend any of this to suggest I am a front-running sort of fan. The team this year has given everyone a ride better than we could have expected, and I’m hopeful for the games to come. The offense played an exciting game today, and Treadwell was brilliant.
Who knows– if we win out, and Bama beats State and Auburn, and LSU beats Bama (not an impossible sequence?) there’s a five way tie in the SEC west. In any event, it’s been a thrilling year, already. But the tragedy at the end of the game tonight was a heartbreaker.