HUCKABY: Grudges die hard in SEC football rivalries

My cousin, Carl Wood, lives in Oklahoma City and has been to more than 180 consecutive Oklahoma Sooners home games. His streak goes back to the 1970s — or something ridiculous like that. He is a football fan, understand. A big one. But my cousin Carl just doesn’t get the SEC.

He gets the rivalries and the strength of the teams and the skill and competitiveness, but he doesn’t understand how a Georgia fan, for instance, could or would cheer for the Alabama Crimson Tide against Texas in the BCS Championship game. He doesn’t understand why next Labor Day weekend 55,000 Georgia fans will stand as one and chant SEC! SEC! SEC! as the game clock winds down in their season opening victory over the perennially over-rated Broncos of Boise State. He can’t fathom why LSU fans would stand and chant the same thing as their team clinches a Cotton Bowl victory over Texas A&M.

Carl is not alone. You can’t fully fathom Southeastern Conference football by mere observation. You have to live it — for many years — to fully grasp the eccentricities of the rivalries and relationships among its member institutions — or the passion of its fans. Friends have fallen out and marriages have dissolved because of events that have occurred on Southern gridirons — and grudges have developed that last for generations. I’m not saying that it’s right or reasonable; I’m just saying that’s the way it is.

But every now and then something happens to befuddle and astound the most seasoned and experienced SEC fan. Such has been the case this week as a bizarre story has unfolded about how an Alabama supporter turned the live oak trees at Auburn University’s famed Toomer’s Corner into potential tombstones. And this story is so astounding, even by SEC standards, that no embellishment is needed in its telling.

Toomer’s Corner, for the uninitiated, is an Auburn landmark that is named for the drug store across the street. The rolling of Toomer’s Corner with toilet paper after Auburn victories has become a tradition at Auburn, akin to tailgating in the Grove at Ole Miss or the Vol Walk at Tennessee. It is just one of many traditions that make SEC football so special to its denizens. And even though there are many bitter rivalries within the conference, most fans respect the traditions of their foes.

Speaking of which, of all the conference rivalries — Alabama-Tennessee, Georgia-Florida, LSU-Ole Miss — none is more heated than that of the two Alabama schools. If you are raised in Alabama you generally choose one side or the other at a young age and never deviate. More often you have a team chosen for you prior to birth. Tech and Georgia proclaim that their rivalry is stoked by clean old-fashioned hate. There is nothing clean about the hate between the Tide and the Tigers.

Last year Bama celebrated a return to prominence by going undefeated and winning the National Championship. This year Auburn won the title, after two months of controversy over their means of acquiring talented quarterback Cam Newton. Apparently this was too much for one Bama fan, former Texas State Trooper Harvey Almorn Updyke, to take. He has been arrested for allegedly drenching the famed trees at Toomer’s Corner in a deadly herbicide.

Now get the picture. A 62-year-old former law enforcement agent apparently drove from his home in Dadeville to Auburn and poured enough poison into the ground to potentially kill two 160-year-old live oak trees and endanger several acres of vegetation. Why would he do this?

According to one source, it was because in 1983 Auburn students rolled Toomer’s Corner to celebrate the death of Alabama icon, Bear Bryant. And then this year anonymous Tiger fans placed a Cam Newton jersey on the Bear Bryant statue that stands in a prominent position outside Bryant-Denny Stadium on the Alabama campus. Plus they beat Bama using a player that most Tide fans believe was bought and paid for.

Who is this source? Why, Updyke himself, of course. On Jan. 27 he called a Birmingham radio station and told host Paul Finebaum that he had done the deed in December, the week after the Iron Bowl game between the two schools. When questioned about the legal ramifications of such an act, “Roll Damn Tide” was his only explanation. I think he assumed that was akin to the old Southern murder defense, “Your honor, he needed killing.”

Well now Updyke is being held on $50,000 bond and has been charged with criminal mischief and could face 10 years in prison. The state of Alabama is in turmoil. A squadron of police is said to be guarding Bear Bryant’s statue around the clock, in fear of retribution from Auburn supporters. And at Auburn students are said to be holding prayer vigils over the historic trees and former Auburn athletics director David Housel is calling for “divine intervention” to save the trees. Auburn may be getting ready to enlist God as their chief recruiter. “He saved our trees! Who can be against us?”

Only time will tell. Meanwhile, football season is still 196 days away, and the Alabama-Auburn rivalry is in mid-season form.

The SEC. It ain’t for sissies, y’all.

Darrell Huckaby is an author and teacher in Rockdale County. E-mail him at dhuck08@bellsouth.net. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/darrellhuckaby.