For the Love of the Tailgate

Brett Rolladinio is meeting a friend at the Walk of Champions. Straight from Chicago, he sticks out from the crowd in his dark jeans and plaid shirt. As Rolladinio meanders between tents and trees, immersed in a sea of red and blue, he’s entranced by the magic of one of the most top-ranked tailgating spots in the nation.

“This is unreal,” Rolladinio mumbles under his breath. “Is this how you do it every day?”

If it’s a home game in Oxford, we do.

Football season for the Ole Miss Rebels has come and gone, ending with a 2-10 record and a 14-game losing streak in the SEC. From the almost-victorious opener against Brigham Young University to a wet and depressing Egg Bowl defeat to Mississippi State University, the season left a lot to be desired on the field.

But step back from Vaught-Hemingway Stadium into the shade of the Grove’s majestic oaks, and you’ll remember why you came.

The Grove has been the center of the Ole Miss tailgating scene since the 1950s, long before some surrounding rivals even understood the concept. After a storm turned the space into a swamp, typical trucks and campers were discontinued and replaced by red and blue pop-up tents coating more than 10 acres of manicured grass and oak trees.

And despite the crushing losses that never seemed to end, Rebels and rivals alike flocked to Oxford for all seven home games.

Many students had to forego the luxury of student tickets this season after a slight price increase, but just because you’re not going to the game does not mean you’re not Groving.

Jonathan Moore and Samantha Webb are dressed for a night out, yet it’s 10 a.m Saturday. While most would assume it’s the ultimate walk of shame, Webb woke three hours earlier to pull this off, sporting a red Ralph Lauren cocktail dress with strappy heels to match.

“It’s a lot of work, and it’s not always easy dragging yourself out of bed after a usual Friday night,” Webb said. “But when you think about what you get here (in the Grove), the food and the drinks and the company and the entertainment, the lost sleep is beyond worth it.”

Moore and Webb haven’t made it in the stadium quite yet, but the dedicated freshmen didn’t miss a Grove all season. The commitment isn’t as transparent as the homemade pimiento cheese or the daylight drunkenness.

“The Grove is a lot of awesome things, but what it represents is irreplaceable,” Moore said. “A lot of people want to be us and have this, but you can’t have the Grove without the Rebels.”

Every home game is a packed town, but it’s taken to a new level when the SEC rolls in. No matter the school, the fans don’t pretend to hide among the diehard fans. Many dig into the depths of the closet to find those perfect purple and yellow overalls or that oh-so-witty (and still so tacky) maroon and white t-shirt.

But when friend and foe meet in a tent, a brawl isn’t on the menu. Southern hospitality reigns supreme, and even the worst Razorback or Gator can share the food and fun as if, for a moment, football isn’t top priority.

Matthew Sanford and Houston Budde made the trek from Death Valley for the slaughter of Nov. 19. Both were decked head to toe in nothing but the jarring colors of their alma mater, yet no one treated the pair as inferiors out of their territory.

“No one was begging to befriend the drunk LSU guys,” Budde said. “But they’re the ones who helped get us drunk.”

The sight after the solitary home win resembles nothing different from the crushing defeats from SEC titans Alabama and LSU. The Grove has the ability to forever shield Rebel fans from the realities of AP polls and ESPN analysts.

“I don’t see it as a win or a lose day,” Moore said. “It’s just a Grove day, and no scoreboard can ruin this party.”

Ole Miss students transform a Saturday morning into a cocktail party by slipping a bit of orange juice into that liquor-filled Solo cup proudly held high during the Pride of the South’s pregame Grove performances. Many of them have a deep-seeded love for Ole Miss, having been the children darting between legs all day just a decade or two earlier.

Ole Miss alumna Kathy Stevenson can’t quite recall her first trip to the Grove when she was 6 months old, but still relives the memories of her childhood half a century later.

“I was here as a baby, a teenager, a college student, an adult and a parent,” Stevenson said. “Hell, I even got engaged under that tree.”

She points to one of the sky-high oaks, and it’s a wonder she remembered the specific tree considering the abundance. There is no marking or sign to distinguish it from any other, but the confidence in her voice left no doubt she was right.

“I’ve been here when we tore the opponent to pieces and I’ve seen some of the most crushing defeats possible,” Stevenson said. “But when it’s all said and done, the football team isn’t the bigger picture. It’s the little girls with a Hotty Toddy bow and the boys playing football in red and blue jerseys. It’s the young adults mingling with the old adults, sharing a drink and a memory.

“It’s more than anyone can explain.”

@ The Daily Mississippian — Oxford, Miss.


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