It’s late Friday afternoon, and four of us are cramped into my friend Colin’s Audi A4 barreling south down I-55 from Saint Louis. We’re on our way to Mississippi this weekend, for a healthy dose of SEC football and southern hospitality. Colin mans the wheel while I navigate, our friends Elon and Chris are camped in the backseats and the trunk is loaded with tailgating provisions. Living in the metro Saint Louis area it’s easy to forget just how rural the rest of Missouri is as we wind our way through fallow cornfields and limestone rock faces carved into the undulating landscape. Out the window a giant wooden sign in a cornfield reads “vote for anyone but Obama” in hand painted black and white letters.
South of Memphis we exit the interstate and jaunt down state road 161 towards Clarksdale, Mississippi. Nestled in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, the birthplace of blues music, the city is a mecca for musicians and aficionados of the genre. The city has its own Delta Blues Museum, and is one of the integral stops on the developing Mississippi Blues Trail. Red’s Lounge specifically, is our destination, reputed to be one of few authentic “juke joints” surviving in the South.
We spot the place easily enough; when cars line both sides of the street on Sunflower Avenue and the thump of drums can be heard through the walls. As we enter the ramshackle brick building, I spot a black iron smoker chugging away out front, the sweet aroma or pork wafting through the air. It’s a $10 cover as we enter, and the place is packed to the gills. The band plays in the center with a worn out Persian rug marking the stage area. Plastic covers a few missing ceiling tiles and mismatched chairs are strewn about haphazardly. A cloud of blue cigarette smoke hangs from the ceiling like a fog, and the walls are covered with concert posters of old blues legends like Big Jack Johnson.
I elbow my way to the bar and order 4 Budweiser heavies, which the barman pulls out of a plastic cooler – there are no refrigerators here. They serve 18oz bottles exclusively, a bargain at $3 apiece, and you get to screw the cap off yourself. Robert Bilbo Walker wails away into the microphone while the tin notes of his electric guitar ring through the humid crowd. Draped in a three piece suit and sporting an oily Jheri Curl hairstyle, Walker is a typecast Delta Blues musician. The mixed audience of dancing locals and camera toting tourists alike bob their heads and sing along to a few of the better known melodies. There are only two rules here as far as I can tell: 1. Don’t cause no trouble and 2. No taking video. The second is strictly enforced by a heavy set bouncer soon after a foppish out of towner starts recording on his iPhone.
When the 76 year old Robert Bilbo Walker takes intermission for a few minutes, I sprint to the smoker outside for a little midnight snack. Arranged inside the barrel smoker in foil trays, the pitmaster walks me through the menu of hogs feet, chicken wings, pork steak and ribs. Smoked over a mix of pecan and oak, I settle for a half rack of the meaty spare ribs for $13 – hold the sauce. He slices them up on a plastic cutting board while the open flame crackles away, sparks dancing skyward into the night air. After the first bite, it’s obvious that a deft hand tends the smoker here. The pork pulls gently from the bone, giving way to rich, unctuous, perfectly rendered fat. With a rib in one hand, and a cold beer in the other, the four of us soak in another hour of the blues at Red’s Lounge before calling it quits for the night.
Saturday morning is an early wake up call, and we shoot an hour east across the flat expanse of the Mississippi Delta as white blanketed cotton fields stretch towards the horizon in every direction. Getting into Oxford, we make a bee line for Big Bad Breakfast, one of the premier breakfast haunts in the city known for their house cured meats. Evidently we weren’t the only car load of hungry patrons with the same idea, as the hostess jots my name down and informs me of the two hour wait for a table. But the delay gives us a chance to run a few errands, stocking up on ice and beer for the afternoon ahead.
Once we’re finally seated, we collectively order about half the menu at BBB. I opt for two full entrees; a giant egg sandwich topped with their house cured tobasco bacon, and then a full three egg breakfast skillet loaded with bacon, sausage and ham. Munching on a few biscuits with house made strawberry and grape preserves; it’s an agonizing wait for food, but given the massive influx of game day traffic, completely understandable. After gorging ourselves on the hearty breakfast, we settle up and head out the door, ready to hit the pristine Ole Miss campus.
Heading towards campus, the streets grow thick with heavy gameday traffic. As the infamous “Grove” is off limits to vehicles, cars line up along the street waiting for their chance to offload tailgating supplies to be toted into the growing tent city. From the outside, it looks like a refugee camp with a southern gentile twist, as floral arrangements and candelabras are tucked beneath the tents. Amidst the bustle, everyone seems to be carrying something, either trays full of sandwiches or pulling wagons loaded with coolers. After unloading our modest set up, we locate some scarce paid parking a few blocks away in the First Baptist Church of Oxford for $20. Some recent city wide ordinances have made parking anywhere near campus a nightmare on game days, and judging by the standstill traffic in all directions, it looks like they still have a few kinks to work out.
As the four of us tote our setup down the sidewalk and into the throngs spilling out of The Grove, we spot a small unoccupied stretch of grass to claim our own. One of the most remarkable features of this most hallowed tailgating ground is the fact that it is free to all, on a first come first serve basis. A stark contrast to the $50 bucks I had to shell out a week prior for a small stretch of asphalt next to Jerryworld in Dallas. There are no preferred spots or choice areas only available to a few wealthy donors here either, anyone is free to claim any open space they wish. Plopping down our minimalist setup of a lone cooler and four lawn chairs, we get the festivities underway quickly amidst the shadow of the best tailgating spot in the country.
Despite an all clear weather forecast, not long after we set up, ominous black clouds move overhead. As the sky darkens and thunder looms in the distance, one of our neighbors fortuitously needs to move an extra tent into the area, and ours is the only space available. In affable southern fashion, we oblige him, and no sooner huddle our chairs beneath the new nylon canopy before a downpour begins. Watching the deluge from the comfort of our new shelter, feet resting comfortably on the cooler, other tailgates struggle to keep from getting swamped.
After a few minutes the rain passes, and a clear sunny day moves in overhead. We spend the afternoon attacking a cooler full of Coors Banquet beer, while soaking in the splendor – and ample coed talent specifically – of the Grove around us. Ole Miss fans are quick to tell you that they have so many beautiful women on campus that “we can redshirt Miss America’s here”. And looking around, the claim is well founded. A few hours before kickoff, the “Walk of Champions” – the Ole Miss player walk through the Grove, strolls by a few feet from our tent. Fans line the walkways three deep, high fiving players as they pass by in team issued sweat suits, heads bobbing in their gaudy Beats By Dre headphones.
As the afternoon winds on towards kickoff, we visit another friend Sam, who’d generously tracked down four game tickets for us. Against a premier opponent like Texas A&M, the $75 face value is more than a fair price, and in Section P we’ll be staring straight down the 30 yard line. We share a few microbrews at Sam’s tailgate before parting ways and heading towards the beckoning lights of Vaught Hemingway stadium.
On paper, this game was supposed to be a blowout. Judging by the conciliatory attitude of most Ole Miss fans during the afternoon, it seemed that most were resigned to that outcome. But shortly after the first snap, the Rebels make it clear that they will not roll over easily. What follows is an incredible back and forth contest that pits the Ole Miss defense against the heralded Heisman winning QB Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M. Having seen Cam Newton live, I can say that Manziel is actually even more impressive in person. Watching him dance around the backfield, he makes defensive ends look foolish, often simply out sprinting them to the corner for an easy first down. Unlike some of the big dual threat quarterbacks in recent memory like Vince Young, Tim Tebow or Cam Newton – Manziel is incredibly accurate, firing the ball downfield with ease to open receivers. Say what you will about some of his off field antics (which candidly, I could care less about), his exploits between the white lines are simply a joy to watch.
During a break in the action, scores from around the country flash across the jumbotron. I make a remark to Elon about the significance of #5 Stanford getting beaten by Utah, a remarkable feat that is sure to shake up the BCS standings in a few short weeks. In typical SEC homer fashion, an Ole Miss fan in the next row fires back “Stanford? Who the hell cares about the Pac 12 anyway?…”. SEC fandom at it’s finest.
As the game presses deep into the fourth quarter, the teams are locked into a fierce battle for control. For a few minutes, Ole Miss takes a 7 point lead with 10:36 remaining as QB Bo Wallace fires one of his three touchdown passes on the day. For the next seven minutes, the teams exchange three touchdowns in a flurry of scoring. Each of the squads march unimpeded down the field. Ole Miss takes the lead one minute, then A&M responds to knot the score. This is one of those games where whoever has the ball last is going to win…
At 3:07 remaining, the momentum finally swings. With the score knotted at 38-38, the Ole Miss offense takes control with another chance to secure a lead, and possible victory. But their offense stumbles, after three quick incomplete passes, they are forced to punt into the awaiting Aggie offense. When Texas A&M resumes control with 2:33 remaining needing only a field goal to win, the entire Ole Miss fan base already knows the outcome before it plays out. Johnny Manziel streaks down the field with remarkable ease on a few successive runs deep into Ole Miss territory, well within range of the leg of place kicker Josh Lambo. After a few running plays to milk the final few seconds off the clock and center the ball between the hashes, Lambo boots the 33 yard game winning field goal through the uprights. Texas A&M skates away with the victory in anti climatic fashion, and holds on to their lofty top ten ranking for another week. The Ole Miss crowd files solemnly out of Vaught Hemingway, seeking solace in the dwindling bustle of the Grove as the tent city slowly dismantles into the night…
Special thanks to my friends Colin, Elon and Chris for making this an awesome spur of the moment trip! Hopefully you guys are now as hooked on SEC football as I am. Let me know when you’re ready for the next one!
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