2011-02-23 / Editorials

Other Voices

Rivalry gone bad
Mitch Clarke

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit without shame that I’m pretty fanatical when it comes to college football and the University of Georgia.

I’ve been known to bark at fans of opposing teams. I have a whole closet dedicated to the red-and-black wardrobe I wear on game days. I schedule my whole life around fall Saturdays. I refuse to wear orange.

And, I admit, I’m not an Auburn fan. I grew up in southwest Georgia where college football was huge. We had a few Alabama fans and a few Florida State fans. But mostly, we had Georgia fans and Auburn fans.

For the most part, the rivalry was goodnatured. We all loved to tell jokes about the other team.

For instance, how can you tell a funeral at Auburn?

The lead tractor has its lights on.

But it is the traditions of college football that make it the greatest sport of all. It goes beyond the marching bands and the cheerleaders. Every school, it seems, has its traditions that its fans love and embrace, but that its rivals ridicule.

The hedges, Uga and the chapel bell at Georgia. The Ramblin’ Wreck at Georgia Tech. Dotting the “i” at Ohio State. Touchdown Jesus at Notre Dame. Rubbing the rock at Clemson.

And, at Auburn, Toomer’s Corner. After Auburn wins a football game, fans rush to Toomer’s Corner, just a short walk from the stadium, and throw rolls of toilet paper into the 130- year-old oak trees there.

It may sound like a silly tradition to folks who aren’t Auburn fans, and I’ve made my share of jokes about it. But folks who aren’t Georgia fans probably think it’s silly for grown men to cry when a bulldog dies. Like I said, every school has its thing.

That anyone, particularly someone who purports to be a college football fan, would poison the Toomer’s oaks is deplorable. That the idiot who was arrested did it to avenge a slight he says happened 27 years ago is nothing short of depravity.

You have to understand the Auburn- Alabama rivalry is perhaps the most intense in all of sports. It’s bigger than any rivalry Georgia has. In Alabama, there are no professional football teams. There are no professional teams of any kind.

In Alabama, if you are a sports fan, you have two choices. You can be an Alabama fan or you can be an Auburn fan. The two fan bases don’t like each other. Hate is a strong word, but it probably applies here.

But when Harvey Almorn Updyke Jr. drove 30 miles from his home to Toomer’s Corner and poured lethal doses of a deadly poison around the oak trees, he took the rivalry to an ugly place.

He then called a sports radio host in Birmingham to say he had poisoned the trees because, he claimed, Auburn fans had rolled Toomer’s Corner in celebration when legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant died — in 1983.

This isn’t a fraternity prank gone wrong. This isn’t showing your school spirit. This is criminal vandalism. This is pure evil. Georgia fans get rightly upset when victorious opponents snap off twigs from the hallowed hedges that surround the football field. Imagine the outrage if someone killed them.

Updyke is, no doubt, a die-hard Bama fan. His children are named Bear and Crimson. (More disclosure: Glory, the black and white springer spaniel who lives at my house, is named for the Georgia fight song. But if I ever have a child, I don’t plan on naming him Dooley.)

The line between “fan” and “fanatic” is a narrow one. Updyke didn’t just blur the line. He obliterated it.

Certainly, we don’t need to paint all Alabama fans with the same poison brush. But it’s a wake-up call to all fans that the game we love is just that — a game. Cheer for your team. Pull good-natured pranks on your rival. But keep it in its proper perspective.

The Toomer oaks probably won’t survive the attack. One of college football’s great traditions will die, too.

Every college football fan should be saddened by that.

Mitch Clarke is executive editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays. Read previous columns at gainesvilletimes.com/ mitch. Follow him on Twitter @MitchTimes.

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