By Larry Wells
This article marking the 30th anniversary of the 1992 Ole Miss victory over Mississippi State (17 -10) is being reprinted in memory of the “Rowdies” of the south end zone of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium: Willie Morris, David Sansing, Ron Borne, Barry Hannah, and Dean Faulkner Wells.
It was the night before the 1992 Egg Bowl, the first time in twenty years that the state rivalry was being played in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The Rebels were 7-3, the Bulldogs 7-4, with invitations to Liberty and Peach bowls, respectively, in the balance.
A small group of South End Zone fans held a pep rally at Oxford’s legendary Hoka Theatre located barely a block southeast of the Square. We elected Ole Miss history professor David Sansing president that night, and his first official act was to change his title from president to emperor. Susan Hannah’s motion that the group be called the “South End Zone Rowdies” was accepted by acclimation. We tested good luck charms and mojos, passing them around and pretending that we weren’t superstitious. Invoking the spirit of her uncle–Oxford’s patron saint, William Faulkner–Dean Wells recalled a favorite passage from Faulkner’s The Bear.
Inspired by Dean’s example, fellow endzoners Ron Shapiro, Jim Dees and Semmes Luckett held a midnight ceremony on the fifty yard line at Vaught-Hemingway and by the flame of a cigarette lighter invoked Pappy’s blessing on the battle to come:
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 added, “don’t leave that out!”
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 an option or a draw, often into the teeth of the defense. Never one to disguise his feelings Willie would yell, “Throw the _____ing ball!”–occasionally offending nearby fans who objected presumably not to his play-calling but phraseology.
In 1983 head football Coach Billy (Dawg) Brewer began fashioning a winning era of Rebel football. Enthusiasm soon abounded and tickets were harder to come by. Willie, Dean and I moved to the south end zone bleachers, de facto segregated seating for African American Rebel fans who welcomed us into their midst. It was from these plain, wooden bleachers that we witnessed the rebirth of Rebel football. Brewer hired Red Parker as offensive coordinator, and Willie often was seen making the sign of the cross and blessing “Good Red Parker, good Red Parker.”
At a Georgia game Morris was interviewed for the “Bulldog” radio network by Lewis Grizzard, conservative columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Noting that Willie had sneaked a pint bottle into the stadium Grizzard, enthused that Rebel fans had it made: the players knelt in prayer before the game, the band played ‘Dixie,’ and the fans toasted the proceedings with bourbon!
Susan Hannah dangled a “South Endzone Rowdies” banner on the front of the grandstand. A mutant Visiting Writers program sprang up featuring such notables as the aforementioned Grizzard, sportswriter Raad Cawthon and outdoors writer John Little. On any given Saturday our number might be swelled by actors, magazine editors, literary agents, or former Rebel football stars. “Where else could this happen,” Morris asked, “except in a stadium named Hemingway?”
The day of the 1992 Egg Bowl dawned grey and chill. Fortified by determination and strong spirits, the South End Zone Rowdies took their seats behind the goalposts. The south bleachers having been sold out to visitors we found ourselves surrounded by Bulldog fans. To counter their cowbells we waved silent mojos such as a Haitian cross of wood and feathers made by Jim Weems and various antique brooches and plastic buttons, even a seashell from the Gulf Coast. Jane Rule Burdine tooted a battered French horn in a vain attempt to drown out the noisy cowbells.
Though we never let the Bulldog fans know it, we were suspended between hope and terror. Shapiro and Howorth competed to tell the best State joke, including one about MSU coach Jackie Sherrill having a bull castrated on the practice field.
Ole Miss was a slim, one-pint (point, sorry) favorite to win the game, but the injury-plagued Rebel offensive line had been rebuilt from scratch, and we knew quarterback Russ Shows would be under immense pressure to execute.
As with a single pair of eyes the Rowdies watched the score seesaw back and forth. Everything looked different from the end zone. Depth perception was tricky. What appeared to be a five-yard gain is actually ten. Plays broke faster. It was hard to identify the ball carrier. Russ Shows would roll out to pass and suddenly tailback Cory Philpot came skittering past State defenders, loose and dangerous. We endzoners shared the panic of our 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.
At halftime 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 Barry Hannah called “the ultimate test of manhood”–eleven offensive plays by the Bulldogs from inside the Rebel ten yard line, which as the gods of football would have it was at our end of the field. 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. Former Ole Miss cheerleader P.D. Fyke and I started to light victory cigars. Dean tugged at our sleeves. A pass interference call had given State a first down at the Rebel one yard line. “Four more tries?” we asked, stunned. Could this be happening? Bulldog fans actually 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 which Coach Billy Brewer later declared “impossible.”
Four more times the Rebels held, blunting two thrusts into the line’ a quarterback bootleg was alertly sniffed out by strong safety Johnny Dixon and All-SEC linebacker Dwayne Dotson; and on fourth down Greg Plump’s desperation pass glanced off the hands of a Bulldog receiver.
Somehow, the Rebels had held.
Like a priest granting absolution Ole Miss quarterback Russ Shows took the snap, knelt, and it was over. Ole Miss was Liberty Bowl-bound, and State accepted an invitation to the Peach Bowl.
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. On the far end of the field Ole Miss students were tearing down the goalposts, while the south end zone underwent a more subtle destruction. As writers and artists exchanged high-fives and praise both Biblical and secular, Dean Wells ripped up pieces of lime-streaked turf which she enshrined in our kitchen window along with the Haitian cross. Underneath it she painted the motto of Alexander the Great:
“One moment without fear makes a man immortal.”