Sports brings people together for a chance to play with teammates or cheer for their favorite team. That’s what encouraged Neil White to use his passion for football to tell a side of the game most people don’t get on a Saturday in a recap of the action.
White knows there’s always more to a game than meets the eye. Formerly a newspaper editor, ad executive, and federal prisoner known for his best-seller, “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts,” White owns Nautilus Publishing Company in Oxford and credits his life experiences for making him the man he has become.
White said he believed he was going to “conquer the world in business” when talking about his dreams of building a business empire. After spending time as an inmate, his perception of life being only about image changed. He was sent to a place where “image meant nothing,” he said.
He also realizes human interest stories are some of the most meaningful stories written, and those that are real and meaningful make for the best stories. The inspiration for his book, “Stories from 125 Years of Ole Miss Football” comes from stories like these.
Born a third-generation Ole Miss fan, football is White’s first and foremost favorite sport to not only watch, but also to write about.
Many people’s favorite part of Ole Miss football is the Grove on game days. White’s favorite memory is the overwhelming cheer of the stadium filled with the students and band. Now an acclaimed author and publisher, White always looks for the interesting tidbits and little vignettes of players who were there and of those who weren’t supposed to be there.
Several people, many of them close to Ole Miss football, wrote stories and assisted him with the book. He explained, the most interesting stories are the ones “behind the scenes.” Linemen are face-to-face with each other for four hours on a football field during the course of one game.
“You can feel their breath, you can smell their sweat, you get blood splattered on you,” said White, acknowledging that what is seen on TV doesn’t compare to what the players see, hear and experience. Those are the stories White focused on.
There’s a lot of drama surrounding a sporting event. There’s a lot of money involved and there’s an overwhelming devotion of fans across the world. The stakes of a game are very high which makes for a dramatic setting, and that’s what sports is all about.
“People will do pretty much anything to win,” White said.
A perfect example was when Ole Miss played LSU in 1959. He explained the story between the rivals. Ole Miss was No. 3 and LSU No. 1. Although Ole Miss was a little bit smaller, they were a much faster team. Before the game, the LSU coach, Paul Dietzel, had stadium workers hose down the field, so the turf was soaking wet. It was a perfect way for the Ole Miss players to not be able to get their footing. LSU ended up winning 7-3. In a Sugar Bowl rematch a few weeks later, Ole Miss beat LSU 21-0.
White was looking for stories that aren’t retold and reread time and time again. Not just the facts of a football game, but the memories of athletes, coaches and fans.
White wanted to find stories that had never been told, from anyone and everyone that had a story to tell.
“Tell me a story you couldn’t tell anybody until now,” White would say to those he interviewed.
The more people interviewed, the more interesting stories flowed. One really transformational story was that of Larry Grantham in 1958. Ole Miss played in the Gator Bowl against Florida. White told the story of how every player on the team during the game had valuables stolen from the locker room. No one could understand how; mysteriously Larry Grantham was gone, dropped out of school and was written off as someone who stole their money.
Eight months later, in August, Grantham and his father showed up at the first team practice. Coach John Vaught gave them the opportunity to address the team.
Grantham couldn’t make eye contact with his friends, and he said he had given his life back to Christ and asked for forgiveness. The Granthams left the room and the team was ready to vote whether to let him back on or not.
White continued the story, “The Ole Miss captain at the time, Charlie Flowers, said to his teammates, ‘Larry Grantham is a lying, cheating, stealing son of a…..but he’s the best end we have, so throw him a jersey and get a lock for your lockers.’”
The next year, Grantham was an All-American, drafted by the New York Jets, had a long pro career, hosted celebrity golf tournaments and embraced several charities.
For White, the true stories of Ole Miss football are not the ones telling about a heartbreaking loss or a record win. It’s the stories of experience and feeling.
As he explained, “For Grantham, if he was never given a second chance, he never would have become who he was.”
The book “Stories from 125 Years of Ole Miss Football” takes a simple football game and turns it into so much more. They are true, meaningful, crazy stories that are never brought to the public eye.
Most times, those stories are the reason players play and coaches coach, for the passionate memories no one else knows of how they came to win a game.