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Ole Miss beats Alabama, the day that never comes

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In Oxford, where the Rebels took down the Tide for the first time in 11 tries, goalposts and all.

OXFORD -- Andrew Fletcher and Gary Wunderlich are the Rebels standing closest to the end zone that No. 3 Alabama's final drive is heading toward. No. 11 Ole Miss leads, 23-17.

They're also the only blue jerseys not in the gang hanging off the legal edge of the sideline. The pair is mulling around behind the kicker’s net.

When the Rebels' Senquez Golson lands with an interception of Alabama's Blake Sims, Fletcher’s not even watching.

"Hey ... Did he get that? Did he get in?" Wunderlich asks, grabbing a fistful of Fletcher's jersey. Fletcher says nothing.

Minutes before, Bo Wallace found Jaylen Walton on a 10-yard touchdown pass, a play nobody in the stadium yet reconciles as the game-winner. Wunderlich’s PAT had doinked the goal post. But Alabama roughed the kicker. Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze swapped Wunderlich out for Fletcher, the team’s short-range field goal specialist. Fletcher’s kick never lifted, instead thumping off the hands of Alabama’s Tony Brown.

"I think he got it!" Wunderlich says of Golson's interception.

The missed PAT is now a footnote, except for poor Fletcher. For a man to stand and face the rest of his natural life as the goat of a would-be upset, watching as certainty moves clip by clip, Amari Cooper reception by T.J. Yeldon rush, the horror of the potential is still a greater trauma than you might ever know.

"As soon as he missed, I went looking for him," Wallace later says. "I said, ‘Hey, just be confident man, I’ve been in those situations.’ I’m the guy who throws the interception against A&M my sophomore year. I know what it’s like."

But Fletcher says nothing. When the review turns the ball back to Ole Miss, Wunderlich explodes the same way everyone else explodes, jumping and slapping at the pads of his teammates. Fletcher does not. You couldn’t call the look on his face relief. You couldn’t call it anything. This does not happen.

Fletcher cannot process joy. This moment is simply not of Ole Miss.

ross

This is Ross. Ross is standing on a sidewalk across the street from Vaught-Hemingway Stadium a solid hour after the game. He's just standing around, smiling.

Ross's hat is a cone head, but "people think it's a shark fin. That's OK."

Ross is from Hattiesburg. Ross has been a Rebel fan longer than you've been alive, FYI.

"I think ... Right now ... I think that’s it’s amazing what can happen when every call doesn’t go Alabama’s way."

Alabama is now the second-most-penalized team in the SEC, but the grand mystique around the Tide's Illuminati puppetry of SEC officials remains. It's any number of years and any number of incidents, going back to any number of conspirators, depending on your source. Tonight it was two almost-delay-of-game penalties on the Alabama offense, undercut by timeouts and a missed facemask that would've negated an Alabama touchdown minutes before the half.

It was here in Oxford seven years ago that replay official Doyle Jackson overturned a fourth-and-23 miracle pass that'd set up the Rebels for a game-winning score against Alabama, as the inaugural Nick Saban Tide team that lost at home to Louisiana-Monroe escaped with yet another win over Ole Miss. In the pre-meme days of 2007, and for years after, "Doyle Jackson" became local slang for a bowel movement made in public, usually in a bar restroom during the lunch hour.

The facemask was an obvious, inarguable miss. When told by Alabama fans that Saban credited the Ole Miss crowd for forcing Bama to burn two timeouts and that the officiating crew didn't secretly compensate for Bama's delays of game, a Rebel fan dragging two empty coolers down South 9th Street responds with aplomb:

"Well isn't that goddamn convenient, that Nicky Saban thinks 60,000 people are louder than every week in Tuscaloosa? No sir, that's just a little too goddamn convenient. That's Alabama for you."

drurybrothers

These are the brothers Drury of Nashville, Tennessee, one of whom is grabbing strangers by the shoulder on a sidewalk of The Square around 10 p.m. When he gets ahold you, he gravely says, "Hotty Toddy," and then breaks down the game by quarter, speaking exactly like a coach would, but drunk.

"Solid ... first half execution. Great ... second half performance."

The brothers are wonderfully, blissfully in spirits. They have another brother they're about to meet inside the bar. After some quick math, they determine that they were 12 the last time Ole Miss beat Alabama, 10 before that, and not of this earth prior to.

The Rebels are now 9-47-2 all time vs. Bama, with a few more losses removed by the NCAA. It is the most lopsided of the original Southeastern Conference records. Four of those nine came from Archie and Eli, so minus a quarterback named Manning, Ole Miss now has five wins in 62 tries against the Crimson Tide.

Informed of this, the brothers Drury are that much more excited about what this night brings them: the rationalization of once-in-almost-a-lifetime revelry. They hug strangers.

colreb

At Ole Miss, custom dictates the inflation of some of the most contested imagery in American history. Literal inflation, with a portable electric blower. Custom then dares the uninitiated get mad.

History is the only way to explain Ole Miss football, and more importantly Alabama football, to the rest of the world. That record alone means legions of sidewalk alumni and national recognition. There's no argument as to why the unaffiliated gravitate towards dominance. And as the past seven years have shown us, it doesn't matter anymore if the deity is a living curmudgeon or a dead one.

But maybe that hopeless record explains why the losing end is now famous for doilies and chandeliers and seersucker. The Grove passes the time. It takes something the outside world scoffs at and ascribes importance to it, which is already a Mississippi pastime. It builds a niche. It bastardizes the actual football experience but justifies the long Saturday drives in a 5-7 year.

There are very few "Sports Illustrated" covers, but there are countless Travel + Leisure features to Pinterest. It counts, sort of.

rollthis


Close to midnight Saturday, you're witness to the live birth of the ironic Roll Tide, parented by earlier chants of "Roll On Home" and "Hotty Tidey, Bitch."

The creativity is abandoned around the time the bars close, and hecklers resort to disingenuous, stern-faced Roll Tides, complete with formal handshakes, to any remaining Bama fan still walking the streets.

To the actual, currently enrolled University of Alabama student and not the talk radio-hardened sidewalker, this is pure paralysis. There’s no retort, just the scratching of heads and bellies, the toting of empty coolers, the requisite "Fuck you, faggots; do something!"

They are the young princes and rightful heirs to the throne of all college football elitism, momentarily lost with a visor in one hand, stained polo untucked and no idea where the damn car is parked.

alcohol


Two hours after the final, The Grove is finally absent of all pretense. "GameDay" is gone. There are no bow ties in sight. (To be honest, there rarely are bow ties. The ESPN Ole Miss bow ties thing is an exaggeration likely to produce a trend that folks will always swear has been a part of Ole Miss. This kind of hiccup in the lore is how Ole Miss became Ole Miss, anyhow.)

There are piles of garbage. It’s dark. And it’s loud, and it’s as unkempt and unapologetically happy as Baton Rogue, in the exact same dumb way Ole Miss people disparage LSU people. And there are dance-offs.


A random, college-aged man in a sportscoat embraces linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche and a group of Ole Miss players at the edge of The Grove near the entrance to campus. The young man, obviously drunk, lets the embrace go too long. He touches Denzel’s face.

An old man in a UMAA hat -- that means he's monied and important -- falls over while dancing. He waves off a picture when he picks himself back up. It looks like there's a small piece of glass stuck in his palm, and his pants are muddy. Behind him, the goalposts from the south end zone are propped against the front of The Grove's permanent stage.

posts

The metal goal posts are broken in two like a wishbone. The crossbar disappears. The arms take off in opposite directions; one heads west towards fraternity row, one east towards the downtown bars. The one pictured marches straight down University Avenue, where it heads straight into an intersection against traffic, earning a police escort.

"It was really funny. The cops showed up, and they weren't mad at all. They just helped us make a left turn down Lamar," one of the organizers says on Sunday.

"We tried to take it to The Library," one of the group says. (The Library is not a library. It is a very large bar). "They were like, 'Ha ha, good one guys, but no way.'"

"This was the biggest weekend I can ever remember. In my life," one post-carrier says.

For most with the bias of age, this is not the biggest game in Ole Miss history, nor the biggest night. I pulled an unconscious Louisiana man out of a plate glass window when I was working in an Oxford bar the night before the 2003 LSU game. He was thrown by a Marine, one of our regulars, and a decade-plus later, no one’s thought to ask the Marine to pay for the window.

In 2003, I stood under the goalposts when Ole Miss' Jonathan Nichols -- yesterday’s Fletcher, almost! -- shanked his second field goal of the night in a Lou Groza-winning season. And when old men wept without consolation days later, I knew this nonsense was as much of a journalism career as anything else.

For 20,000-some-odd people too young to throw anyone through a window 11 years ago, this is their 2003 LSU game, so it is the biggest Ole Miss thing ever, until the next thing in 11 years. No one like to hear old bar stories anyway.

Those biggest Ole Miss things come with decades of space, though. Knowing firsthand how the infection grows, these are nights that cost thousands of dollars and untold psychosis in cumulative total, because tonight’s 22-year-old will chase this feeling for 30 more years, solid: putting up tents with chandeliers, toting their kids, angling their professional lives to orbit a half-day’s drive of six home games, and taking ruthless, untold amounts of shit for their Ole Miss-embroidered golf bags on some course outside of Birmingham. Meanwhile, Alabama wins another 11 in a row.

These kids will chase tonight’s feeling through entire election cycles of sub-.500 conference play. If they keep on, they’re better Rebels than I ever was. I quit years ago, because I learned 11 more Alabama wins are always coming.

postgang

A TV reporter hands Senquez Golson a cell phone so that he can watch the video footage of his interception.

Before this, his athletic career was most famous for two things: turning down a seven-figure deal to play for the Boston Red Sox ("I came down to the last minute, for real. I had a pen in my hand staring at all those zeros, y'all.") and being juked out of his skin by Trent Richardson in a 2011 Alabama blowout of Ole Miss.

Quez

"It's cool. You can ask. I made Top 10 Plays that year on SportsCenter!"

In some inevitable way, part of everything happening in Oxford owes a piece of incredulity to Golson for pulling that ball down. On a much more direct level, Golson atoned for Fletcher's and Wunderlich's busted kicks by getting his foot in bounds, by not signing that Red Sox contract, and by staying on the roster long enough to see what he first suspected might be possible.

"I'm telling you. From when I started until now ... we have the best front four in college football. This can be the best defense in college football. We can win a title."

And the thing keeping that "can be" from happening?

"Just now and the end of the season," Golson says.

These are not Ole Miss statements. They simply are not of Ole Miss.

The next day, the location of both goal posts is secured by both interested media and the university itself.

Buckner calls to give to the location of Post No. 1, immortalized by a tweet:

Buckner later wakes up to texts from Ole Miss athletic director Bjork, curious of the post's location.

"He was like, send me your class schedule for Monday, and we'll find a time to meet. And I'm like uhhh ..."

Buckner's roommates and co-conspirators have been fielding inquiries all morning and welcoming newspaper photographers. One local businessman offered to pay $1,000 for just a piece. Perhaps not coincidentally, Post No. 2 is sitting in the Sigma Chi fraternity house that Buckner and most of his friends belong to. The inhabitants of that frat house and this off-campus rental house are suddenly curious about how to conceal a goalpost from inquiring authorities, if need be.

Friends are coming by to see it. Friends of friends. Their parents. Someone's mother is in the kitchen with a camera.

"OK y'all, all the boys from Corinth, y'all get in here and smile!"

Later Sunday afternoon, the post officially becomes memorabilia, the distribution of which won't be controlled by the university:

pole

A woman across the street is trimming bushes in her front yard. She gives interested parties directions to the house.

"Here for the goalpost?"

This is not the kind of street college kids populate. It's one of the city's affluent garden district-type neighborhoods.

"I'm OK with it for a weekend. Not like this happens every weekend," she says. "Or every year even. Hotty Toddy."