Thursday, July 7, 2022

16. Larry Wells: In the End Zone

 

Willie 005_edited
Left to right: Larry Wells, Willie Morris, Dean Faulkner Wells, and Adam
Shaw. Larry Wells recalls, “This was Willie’s ‘scouting trip’ in Oct.
1979 to see if he would like to teach at Ole Miss. We’d already raised
the money for his salary and Chancellor Porter Fortune had offered him
the position, but Willie began to hedge and fret and wonder if Ole Miss
was for him. The answer is in the photo.”

Ole Miss vs Mississippi State 1992.

By Larry Wells

Everything looks different from the end zone. Depth perception is tricky. What appears to be a five-yard gain is actually ten. Plays break faster. It’s hard to see who has the ball. The quarterback rolls out to pass and suddenly a ball carrier comes skittering through the defense, loose and dangerous.

End zoners share the panic of linebackers reacting late or the joy of a tight end open over the middle. When a field goal attempt is good, they signal the score before the referees. As if the game is being recorded in stereo, they first observe home fans rising to cheer on one side of the stadium, then rival fans slumping despondently on the other. Such an overview gives endzoners a feeling of prescience and objectivity, a feeling of being “above it all.”

When the action is at the far end of the field, we relax our vigilance, the threat removed, disaster postponed. When the visiting team mounts a steady drive, however, we become increasingly nervous, radicalized, frantic. Yet never in our wildest dreams could we imagine a game on the line with time running out and eleven offensive plays inside the ten yard-line coming straight at us.

As with so many of life’s happy decisions, we came to the end zone by chance. From 1970-1975, when my wife Dean and I were attending graduate school, we went to most home games as well as some in Jackson and Memphis. Having attended the University of Mississippi as an undergraduate, she had been a Rebel fan practically from birth. Her father, Dean Swift Faulkner, youngest brother of William Faulkner, lettered in baseball at the University in the 1930s and had (briefly) been a scrub on the football team.

In those days, we sat on the student side of Vaught-Hemingway. The Rebels were winning. Archie’s Army was on the march, and in those heady times we assumed that Ole Miss would always contend for the conference title. We had seen ABC TV’s 1969 “shoot-out” between Archie Manning and Scott Hunter, and knew about Billy Cannon’s legendary punt return a decade earlier. We took for granted the aerial magic of Manning-to-Franks and expected Vaught’s patented offense to keep rolling.

We had no idea what was around the bend –– the tough years, the hang on and pray seasons when we grew lean with defeat, joked about building character, prayed that Warner Alford would find a coach who could rebuild while recruiting against rival Division I-A universities and competing in the toughest college league in America. We could not help noticing that the wooden bleachers in the south end zone (the only end zone seating at the time, the north stands not being constructed until 1979) seated mostly African Americans, and this at a time when All-American Ben Williams had broken the color barrier. Yet it was encouraging that despite this de facto segregation in seating, there were high fives in the end zone when “Gentle Ben” jumped off-sides on the first play and flattened the quarterback.

We began to identify with the south end zone, which to us signified among other things that Rebel football was meant to be enjoyed by fans of all races and that the enthusiastic, diehard fans in the end zone knew that time was on their side. In 1970, Southern Mississippi gave Ole Miss a wakeup call with a lightning-quick running back with a German name. Willie Heidelburg single-handedly demolished the Rebel defense in a 30-14 victory. (I never saw as many fistfights after a football game, but the score did not change.)

A new era was beginning, and Dean and I wanted to be part of it. Maybe it was time for us to sit in the end zone. Maybe that was where we belonged. Over the years, some of Dean’s best friends were her tennis partners, who included Ole Miss coaches’ wives, Shirley Crawford, Noonie Carmody (both during the Kinard-Cooper and Brewer eras), Kay Cooper, Brenda Sloan, and Nancy Weltlich.

It was a bonding experience in which Dean would come home after a match knowing which assistant coach had been credited for a game plan, or what key player had been injured, or who had been red-shirted. Nobody on earth is tougher than coaches’ wives, and it was on the tennis court that secrets were shared, spiritual support given and received, frustration vented. If a ball hit Dean in the head, she’d laugh it off, saying she’d take a hit for Ole Miss any day. In that close circle, tears were never shed.

We felt more connected than ever to Ole Miss football, screaming ourselves hoarse on Saturdays, enduring morgue-like Sundays when cars drove to church like hearses. It was during the Sloan era that we became south end zone regulars. Willie Morris has begun his brilliant tenure as Ole Miss writer-in-residence. Rebel football had been one of the attractions with which we lured him from New York. We saw every home game in 1980 together, usually sitting in the west stands about halfway up.

Those Rebel teams had a habit of building an early lead, then sitting on it, abandoning an aggressive offense, playing conservatively. Chilled by foreboding as the sun burned their backs, the fans silently watched the Rebels run a dive or counter play and then on third down—Willie leaping up and yelling, “Throw the _____ing ball!” — an option or a draw often into the teeth of the defense. (Never one to disguise his feelings, Willie sometimes offended fans who objected presumably not to his play calling but choice of phrase.)

In 1983, Billy Brewer’s homecoming season as head coach, enthusiasm abounded and tickets were harder to come by. One afternoon we found ourselves sitting in the south end zone with obliging and welcoming African American Rebels. It was there that we witnessed the birth of an era, as Ole Miss finished strong and went on to play in the Independence Bowl. When Red Parker took over as offensive coordinator, Willie could be seen making the sign of the cross and blessing “Good Red Parker, good Red Parker.”

At first the white fans in the end zone were small in number: Willie and Dean and me, joined occasionally by our sons, David Rae Morris and Jon Mallard. Then David Sansing and Ron Borne of the Ole Miss faculty came with spouses Lib and Jane. At the Georgia game, Morris was interviewed on both Bulldog and Rebel radio networks, and the south end zone began to take on a whole new kind of diversity. In the early eighties, Barry Hannah and his wife Susan became end zone regulars. Longtime Rebel fans Ron Shapiro,  Jane Rule Burdine, Richard and Lisa Howorth, Jim Dees and Elizabeth Dollarhide rounded out the South Endzone Rowdies, a name created by Susan Hannah, who created a banner emblazoning the name on the grandstands.

Somehow, a mutant Visiting Writers program sprang up, featuring such notables as Raad Cawthen and John Little with toasts and pep-talks at half-time. On any given Saturday, our number was swelled by movie producers, actors, magazine editors, literary agents and former Rebel football stars. “Where else could this have happened,” Morris asked, “except in a stadium named Hemingway?”

One Saturday, we invited the photographer Bill Eggleston, an Ole Miss alumnus, to sit with us. Not a football fan by choice, but a selective observer, he was fascinated by a hot air balloon drifting over the stadium. While fans around him erupted into applause over a quarterback sack, he was looking at the sky. Why were people watching young men in shoulder pads and helmets running into each other when a hot-air balloon hung motionless and becalmed above them? How many times could this happen in a lifetime? Could it be an omen? Eggleston, artist and sage, viewed the world through a lens of his own.

We held south end zone pep rallies at Oxford’s Hoka Theatre across from the Gin Company bar and grill. Sansing was elected end zone president. His first, and only, official act was to change his title from president to emperor. We tested good luck charms and mojos, passing them around and pretending that we weren’t superstitious, and invoked the spirits of Knute Rockne, Bear Bryant and William Faulkner.

The night before the 1992 Egg Bowl game, which marked the first time that Ole Miss and Mississippi State had played in Oxford in 20 years, we were in need of industrial strength inspiration. Dean suggested her favorite passage from Faulkner’s The Bear. Fellow end-zoners Ron Shapiro, Jim Dees and Semmes Luckett held a midnight ceremony on the 50 yard line at Vaught-Hemingway, and by the flame of a cigarette lighter invoked Pappy’s blessing:

Who else could have made them fight: could have struck them so aghast with fear and dread as to turn shoulder to shoulder and face one way and even stop talking for a while and even after two years of it keep them still so wrung with terror that some among them would seriously propose moving their very capital into a foreign country lest it be ravaged and pillaged … Who else could have declared a war against a power with ten times the area and a hundred times the men and a thousand times the resources, except men who could believe that all necessary to conduct a successful war was not acumen nor shrewdness nor politics nor diplomacy nor money nor even integrity and simple arithmetic but just love of land and courage.

“And the ability to kick a field goal,” Dean paraphrased her uncle, “don’t leave that out!”

The day of the game dawned grey and chill. Fortified by determination and spirits, the rowdies took their seats behind the goalposts and were soon surrounded by Bulldogs, the end zone being sold out to State fans. Mojos included a Haitian cross made by Jim Weems of wood and feathers, various antique brooches and plastic buttons, seashells (don’t ask), and Jane Rule’s battered French horn to drown out the cowbells.

Ole Miss was a one-pint favorite (sorry) which was meaningless since the injury-plagued offensive line had been rebuilt from scratch. Quarterback Russ Shows would be under immense pressure to execute and not make mistakes. Though we’d have never let the Bulldog fans know it, we were suspended between hope and terror while Shapiro and Howorth vied to tell the best State joke, including one about MSU coach Jackie Sherrill having a bull castrated on the practice field.

The game began. As if with a single pair of eyes. we watched the score seesaw back and forth. At half time, State held a 10-7 advantage. Then the Rebels came from behind in the third quarter and were leading by a touchdown in the fourth. Now came a sequence of events which Hannah called “the ultimate test of manhood” –– eleven offensive plays by the Bulldogs from inside the Rebel ten yard line, and what was worse, in our end zone! Defensive tackle Chad Brown saw the opposing guard pulling and shot through to tackle the ball carrier for a loss. Frosh safety Michael Lowery intercepted a pass by State quarterback Todd Jordan.

On the next play, the Rebels fumbled it back. Susan Hannah held up the Haitian mojo with her eyes closed, chanting, “Stay out of our end zone, stay out of our end zone.” Her prayers were answered when three passes fell incomplete. State was reeling, and we were worse than rowdy –– we were obscene. Saluting his legions, Sansing was every bit the Roman emperor, white hair blowing in the wind. Borne was so hoarse he might have been yelling underwater. Shapiro looked like the wrath of Jehovah.

A fourth down pass fell incomplete. The ball went over to Ole Miss. I started to light a Cuban cigar. Dean tugged at my sleeve. A pass interference call had given State a first down at the Rebel one yard line. “Four more tries?” we asked ourselves. Could this be happening? Bulldog fans clucked in sympathy. In his grey overcoat, Barry Hannah had the stone-like concentration of Rodin’s “The Thinker.” Having lost her voice, Dean could only whisper, “De-fense, de-fense!”

For an eternity, we watched a goal-line stand that Coach Billy Brewer later declared impossible. Four more times the Rebels held –– stopping two thrusts into the line, a quarterback bootleg alertly sniffed out by strong safety Johnny Dixon and All-SEC linebacker Dwayne Dotson, and then, finally, Greg Plump’s desperation pass which State’s receiver almost caught.

Like a priest granting absolution, Ole Miss quarterback Russ Shows took the snap and knelt to the turf. It was over. Ole Miss had beaten traditional rival State and was Liberty Bowl-bound. Of all the things that matter –– birth and death and forgiveness and humility and hope and love –– what else could have made us weep and laugh and grasp the hands of strangers in red and blue? We were one tribe, one nation, indivisible, with victory and glad tidings for all.

In the north end zone, Ole Miss students started tearing down the goalposts. The south end zone would endure a more subtle pillage. As writers and artists exchanged high-fives and praise both Biblical and secular, Dean slipped onto the field and ripped up pieces of lime-streaked turf which she enshrined in our kitchen window along with the Haitian cross.

Underneath it, she wrote the motto of Alexander the Great: “One moment without fear makes a man immortal.”

Larry Wells still sits in the south end zone at Vaught-Hemingway. His cult classic Rommel and the Rebel is in the Kindle Store and available for readers here And at the Nook Store: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/rommel-and-the-rebel?store=nookstore&keyword=rommel+and+the+rebel

ABOUT LAWRENCE WELLS Lawrence Wells’ first novel, Rommel and the Rebel, was published by Doubleday and Company in 1986. He studied writing under Hudson Strode at the University of Alabama, and Evans Harrington at the University of Mississippi. Wells has written three novels and edited six non-fiction books including William Faulkner: The Cofield Collection. With his wife Dean Faulkner Wells, he operated Yoknapatawpha Press, an independent press in Oxford, Mississippi, and co-published a quarterly journal, The Faulkner Newsletter. Co-founder of the Faux Faulkner Contest, he also scripted an Emmy-winning PBS regional documentary, “Return to the River.” He has been a frequent contributor to American Way and Southwest Spirit magazines and The New York Times Syndicate. (Education: B.A., M.A. in English, University of Alabama; Ph.D., University of Mississippi.)

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