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A Ride Down Paradise Road

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Wright Thompson On Mississippi (1:41)

Mississippi native Wright Thompson explains how residents of Mississippi are dealing with being in the college football spotlight given the state's long history of "first in things that are bad, and last in things that are good." (1:41)

Right now, Mississippi is living through days of worry and hope. It's October, one of the driest months of the year, and the farmers are racing to get the crops out of the field. In the sporting news, the past three weeks have been the best in the history of the state. In the real life, beneath the surface of feel-good narratives, millions of dollars are at stake.

Everything seemed fine until about two days before the Ole Miss-Alabama, Mississippi State-A&M weekend, when the rains started. The first sheets of rain diminish the value of cotton immediately, and things grow worse by the minute, catastrophic by the day. The farmers saw the forecast: rains and high winds, which can knock down a crop in the field. They found a little blessing in the forecast, too, the kind of thing that makes a nonbeliever keep going to church: A strong northern wind moving ahead of the front would keep dew off the crop and allow them to run the pickers all night, pausing just to rest the drivers. The headlights of the big, arachnoid machines shine in the roadside fields. They've been mostly lucky.

"It's nerve-wracking," says Delta farmer Cliff Heaton, my boss when I chopped cotton in high school. "You spend your year and all your money making a crop and you're at the mercy of Mother Nature. I got a million dollars of cotton pickers sitting in the yard. We're gonna try to pick tomorrow."

Earlier this week, I went to a Pearl Jam show in Memphis, Tennessee, with a group of Mississippians, some I knew and some I didn't. One of them, a farmer, said he'd lost $100,000 because the storms ruined some of his beans before he could get them out of the field. That night, after about a dozen beers, he stood on his toes and sang along to every word, dancing when the band played the opening chords of the final song, "Yellow Ledbetter."

"I'm about to act a fool," he said, and he did, and we all smiled.

There is no happiness without something to forget.

• • •

TUNICA, Miss. -- Many Ole Miss and State stories will be written and broadcast in the coming weeks, and all of them, in ways big and small, will be wrong -- including this one. Mississippi is a mystery, to the people watching our football teams from afar, as well as to those of us born and raised.

I'm sitting at the Blue & White Restaurant on Highway 61, the most charged name in American asphalt, in Tunica, once among the poorest counties in the country, now flush with casino dollars and all the sins that come with easy money. This week, the editors told me to drop everything else and write about my home state, so I've been talking to Rebels and Bulldogs. I tried to say no to this assignment, honestly unsure how to write in a very public forum about things I cannot fully articulate in private.

What follows, then, is an act of faith.

For a week, I've driven the highways of Mississippi, feeling lost on these familiar roads, and also found. The Blue & White sign still flashes between Clarksdale and Memphis, but the Campbell's BBQ and the Delta Kream ice cream shop have faded away, passings in a place that dies a little bit every day. Visions from my own dying youth return ... Hunter Corso's red Mustang GT 5.0 ... Scott Thomas' black Pontiac Formula, with the unforgettable license plate: NOHALO. The hot rods rumble again on Sunday afternoon in Gunnison -- take a left at the gas station and drive until you smell rubber. Kicker 12s and nitrous tanks, Sonic cups half-full of whiskey, Stoney Stonestreet frying deer meat in a pan. White bucks, Flowmasters, and, of course, the Debutante Assembly -- one in Greenville and one in Greenwood, split from one party to two because of a mostly forgotten race fight once upon a time. Rush parties and Old Charter. Q-Beam spotlights, sweeping a dark field. Ward Lake, Moon Lake, Desoto Lake. Riding out to a deer camp at night. Reading poetry and dreaming of escape.

Taste a bologna and hoop cheese sandwich, and you're a boy again, staring up through dusty beams of light at a counter and a jar of pickled eggs. Feel the warming sun on Highway 61 south of Tunica, the green John Deere 8640s and the red Case IH 8230s in the fields, then feel the shade of the trees near Rudyard. Feel the sun and shade of contradictions. All of us have them. I am from an Ole Miss family that helped breed one of the Mississippi State live mascot dogs; Sid Salter, the university spokesman, researched this fact and delivered it to me with glee and a note: "You closet Bulldog you!!"

I could pick a serious contradiction, too: My father ran our county's Democratic Party for years out of his law office. He paid for the letterhead and ran the get-out-the-vote operation, bringing in national politicians and lobbying them on behalf of the town. He was a pallbearer at the funeral of Aaron Henry, the powerful African-American civil rights leader in the Delta. Party fundraisers were at my house. My mother cooked the food. She, too, was on the board of directors of the party. A year or two after my father died, she received some news. A meeting had been held, one she wasn't invited to, and the board had voted her off, which she believes was the result of the racial politics that cut both ways in Mississippi. This is the Mississippi I never see on the news and in the papers. We elected liberal Democrat William Winter and conservative Republican Haley Barbour as governor in my lifetime, and you will find people in both parties speak fondly of each of them. Nate Dogg and Tennessee Williams grew up in the same small Delta town. I am an Ole Miss fan whose family raised a Mississippi State bulldog, the son of a civil rights advocate who I believe was kicked off a liberal political board for being white. I cannot tell you what each of these things means, or whether they represent larger ideas, but I know for sure that the duality of them -- to rip off the Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood -- is at the core of what it means to be from Mississippi, and why there's always a disconnect for people viewing the state from the outside. The problems that seem simple to do-gooder foundations and conservative political action committees are actually very complicated, deeply rooted and almost impossible to solve.

The editors wanted to know what it felt like here the past two weeks, a time of such football joy, and that is complicated, too. Waiting on my breakfast at the Blue & White, I remember an old story.

Mississippi writers Willie Morris and Eudora Welty went for a drive through dying country towns, and they passed a sign. Morris noticed it first.

"We are going to turn left on Paradise Road," Willie said logistically.

"We'd be fools not to," Eudora answered cosmically.

• • •

AMORY -- Four framed photographs hang in a row at Bill's Hamburgers, on the curve of Main Street called Vinegar Bend. Dolly Parton, Jerry "The King" Lawler and Bill Dundee, Eli Manning and Hugh Freeze. The fry cook, James Wilkerson, is wearing an Ole Miss hat. A man in a Mississippi State shirt, a teacher named Josh Funderburg, sits on the stool closest to the door. It's lunchtime, the flat-top griddle shimmering with grease, balls of ground beef waiting to be flattened with a spatula and fried. Buns soak up the grease, too, making them warm and soft. Three guys from the Monroe County Road Department swing open the door, wearing gray work shirts with their names on patches. Kevin, Bill and Scott.

"Hotty Toddy!" KevinBillScott says.

"Hotty Toddy!" Wilkerson says back.

This isn't special -- except for the burgers, which are next-level special -- just a scene repeating itself over and over the past few weeks. At the Mayflower Cafe in Jackson, or Abe's in Clarksdale, or Lusco's in Greenwood, all north of Highway 80. The Mississippi you're reading about isn't the entire state, just the half above 80 (including all of Jackson ... calm down, Jacksonites). Everything below that might as well be Louisiana. On the far east edges of the state, the growing bandwagon of Alabama football claims morally low-hanging fruit. Otherwise, the state is divided between Ole Miss and State, and according to the accepted myth, the once wealthy and fertile river delta cheered for the Rebels, and the poor hill folks cheered for the Bulldogs.

The shallow leading edge of the rivalry is marked by State fans' insecure hatred and Ole Miss fans' smarmy dismissal, but in truth, the schools compete for the same students. "The old 'city people go to Ole Miss and country people go to State,'" says former State dean Roy Ruby, "that's no longer the case." Then, with a grin, Ruby stumps for his school, shots fired: "We like to say that if you come to Mississippi State, it doesn't matter if your parents belong to a country club. We are the people's college. We care just as much for Sally Sue as we do for Buffy Vanderbilt."

In Amory, Wilkerson says, about 60 percent of the people cheer for Alabama, and the rest are evenly divided. During the lunch rush, many people are wearing Rebels or Bulldogs gear. They all smile, and compliment the other team on its success, and the narrow room is friendly and polite. Everyone is waiting for the Egg Bowl -- the annual showdown between Ole Miss and State -- for the fights to begin, for Ole Miss fans to make culture versus agriculture jokes and for State fans to opine about Ole Piss.

"I'm hoping both teams are undefeated," Wilkerson says. "It'll finally mean something."

"I just wish it was at State," Funderburg, the teacher, says.

"Thank God it's not," Wilkerson says.

• • •

Paradise Road isn't the easy binary rivalry of sports pages and live broadcasts, nor is it anything more than a distant cousin of Auburn-Alabama. Nobody is gonna kill any trees, if that makes sense. During lunch at Bill's, a voice mail popped up on my phone. Once outside, I returned the call.

"I'm from a mixed family," says former governor and longtime GOP ninja Haley Barbour.

He and his older brother went to Ole Miss for undergrad and law school. His grandfather, the son of an Irish immigrant and the first to attend college, went to Mississippi State. So did Haley's middle brother. "My mother was more State-oriented," he says. "She had a brother who went to State. I thought very seriously about going to State."

Two weeks ago, he watched the Ole Miss-Alabama game in a private room of a Jackson steakhouse, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Yazoo City High's football team. Twelve seniors played that year, and 10 are still alive. Nine came to the dinner, stopping by to visit the 10th in the hospital first. They told stories and drank and laughed. Five of the nine attended Ole Miss. The other four attended Mississippi State. They all sat together.

"The State guys were pulling for Ole Miss, too," Barbour says.

It's hard to explain. My dad grew up outside Yazoo City. At Ole Miss, he and Barbour both lost to a third candidate in a student body president election. Many of the people who appear in this story are connected randomly to other people in this story, because Mississippi is a hopelessly interwoven place. Almost no families in the state are ideologically pure in their fandom, and while the coaches foster the rivalry, and some fans give in to the hate, most people, somewhere deep in their hearts, understand that love for the state trumps love for a school. When any Mississippian does well, most Mississippians feel a lump in their throats.

"If you were your daddy's age ..." Haley says. "Mississippi's image has suffered greatly all of our lifetimes. Some deserved. Some not. What's the old country song? 'I've been down so long it feels like up to me'? When you been down a long time, good news is better received. The bad news is we got six games and [four] of them are against SEC West teams. We're not counting any chickens before they hatch."

• • •

STARKVILLE -- Ben Beckwith left his small rural high school with no scholarship offers, so he walked on at Mississippi State, watching games at first from the stands, fighting his way onto the field. Two years ago, coach Dan Mullen offered him a scholarship. First thing Ben did was call his mother, who burst into tears. He's a senior now, an important part of the offensive line, and after working at his internship at Snap Fitness last Monday morning, he comes into the Bulldogs' new facility, where televisions replay Saturday's ass-whipping of Auburn. He looks like the drummer in a Kings of Leon cover band.

With a bye week at hand, he's making plans to head home to Benton, where he graduated in a class of 21. First morning back, he plans to wake up, get his black lab Ella in the truck and head out to his grandfather's deer camp with his bow. His grandfather died during Ben's junior year in high school, but at the land something of his spirit remains.

The drive doesn't take long, down Highway 49, taking a left at the cell phone tower and driving six or seven miles back toward the Yazoo River. When the road opens into sprawling crops, he'll turn left on the levee and head toward the camp. The house is wooden with a tin roof, powered by a generator his uncles fill with gas. One day, when football is over and he goes back home, it will be his responsibility to haul gas out in the woods. By the house are the empty beagle pens. His granddad raised them for hunting rabbits. The empty pens make Ben sad.

"As soon as you pull up," he says, "it's just knowing that he's not there anymore."

Everyone called his grandfather "Tennessee," because that's where he was born. When he married Ben's grandmother, both of them poor, he made a promise, one Ben knows by heart: "I'm gonna get us out of this. I'm gonna work my tail off, and we're not gonna have to want our whole life."

Tennessee did construction, coming home at midnight to eat supper, falling asleep with a fork in his hand. His wife worried about his health and he told her not to. Eventually he turned manual labor into a good job at the local chemical plant. They found a piece of land over by the river. It symbolized both his prayer and the answering of it.

"It took him awhile," Ben says, "kinda like me."

Ben grew up on that land, hunting and running dogs with Tennessee, and along the way, the story of a family got passed down to another generation. The old man used those hours by the river to give advice. "Just life," Ben says. "You know, 'One day, you're gonna have to nut up and be a man, you can't just be a baby.' You know, like when you'd be whining about getting a briar in your hand or something like that."

He thinks about his family on the field sometimes, remembering those lessons. Like many players for Mississippi State, he came from a small school. His grandmother often tells him he inherited Tennessee's work ethic, the highest compliment she could ever give. People back home agree with her, even Ole Miss fans.

"Nobody's ever just been like, 'Go to hell, State,'" he says. "When I put a picture up [on Facebook], everybody's like, you know, 'Good game, I liked watching y'all,' and they'll put the little line: 'Rebel fan.' I had a split household. My brother went to Ole Miss, my dad went to State."

Two weeks ago, after beating the Aggies, Ben walked over to his family's tailgate in Starkville. He hugged his mama, who keeps a detailed scrapbook of this journey, cutting out newspaper stories and saving even sweaty gloves. People stopped and told him how much the team means, tears in their eyes. He's proud that the name "Beckwith" is on the back of his jersey, because he feels like he's carrying his whole family on the field with him, those who are living, and those who have passed on. He's been remembering his grandfather a lot. "He'd be all up in it," he says. "That's what I think about all the time. I wish he could've seen it."

At every tailgate, his grandfather makes an appearance, this season serving the same purpose for the Beckwith family as that spread of land by the river. Someone will see Ben, and come up and make sure he hears what they all know in their bones.

"Tennessee would be so proud of you," they'll say.

• • •

OXFORD -- C.J. Johnson walks into the dining hall in the Ole Miss football facility smiling, telling fond stories about his first deer rifle and the puke-inducing ritual many Southern boys and girls anticipate and fear: the smearing of first blood on his face. Broad-shouldered, with a quick sense of humor, the star defensive end laughs when asked what first attracted him to Oxford.

"The women," he says.

His mere presence in this particular room is proof of a sort of Mississippi miracle, one started long ago but being moved forward by this year's team. He is black and from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. Sitting in the corner, by a window looking out on the practice field, he brings up the long-ago killings on his own, casually, as a way of describing what life was like where he grew up.

He was born in 1992, and the past isn't abstract to him, but part of daily life.

The local man convicted of delivering the civil rights protesters to their killer was named Cecil Price, and Johnson grew up playing sports with Price's grandchildren, even fishing on the Price family land. Once, Johnson asked his grandfather if he wanted to fish with him. His grandfather heard where and forcefully declined, adding that black people might end up as target practice out there.

"We're just fishing," Johnson told his grandfather, a man of his era as inescapably as C.J. is a man of his.

The violence of the '60s has ended, although some of the feelings behind it remain. Johnson matter-of-factly starts telling stories. Not being served in a restaurant because he and a white friend tried to eat together. The slurs used to shame one of his white girlfriends.

In the halls, the black football players learned that they could be friends with the wealthy white girls from established families, Johnson says, but that dating one of them wasn't really possible. Everyone got along, an unimaginable leap forward, but the two worlds remained so separate that he dated a white girl and a black girl for more than a year -- the girls even had class together -- before they found out about each other, even living in a small, gossipy town.

That wasn't the only thing he learned in Philadelphia. He learned how to hunt and fish, catching bass. He didn't play youth baseball in the black league, wanting the better competition and opportunities of the white one, part of an organization named Dixie Youth. Those summers with mostly white kids taught him, and them, that they weren't different. They liked to ride four-wheelers and drink at the annual summer fair, rolling hungover into the next morning's football practice. Johnson's first car was a 1997 GMC four-wheel drive, which he mud-rode all over Neshoba County, getting stuck once in his annoyed mother's back yard. Mostly, he worked, reminded by the example of fellow Philadelphia native Marcus Dupree that all potential can be squandered.

He's a country boy who grew up in town, who learned to get along with the ancestors of bigots, just as they learned to get along with him. Easy labels don't stick on him, except maybe for one. C.J. Johnson is a Mississippian through and through.

He said he and a group of touted in-state recruits made a conscious decision to turn down other offers and try to build something at home. These players, the core of Houston Nutt's last recruiting class, are among the leaders of this undefeated, third-ranked Ole Miss team. There's something profound in that, especially to someone who loves this place. Ole Miss is finally good at football again, partly because a group of talented African-Americans loved their state so much they wanted to work to make it better.

Johnson didn't make his decision about Ole Miss blind, or ignorant of the history. Two of his great-grandparents, and three of his grandparents, are still living, and their memories formed C.J's opinion of the University of Mississippi.

"I hated Ole Miss," he says.

When asked why, he references the opinion shared by many black Mississippians of his grandparents' age. Ole Miss wasn't a place of education as much as a symbol of white power and dominance, and the almost completely white Grove wasn't a bucket-list tailgate but the mechanism by which a society indoctrinated future generations. Visiting the campus showed him the difference between cultural memory and the reality of the place. The noose hung on the James Meredith statue this year made headlines, as it should, but it really is the exception now on a campus working to deal with its history on race.

These days his family members are Ole Miss fans, and after the Alabama game, he talked with former Rebels quarterback Romaro Miller about coming back to campus when his playing days ended. That made Johnson happy, and he walked around the Pharmacy building, headed into the raging party at the Grove, which is a little more integrated every year. It's a walk no one in his family had ever wanted to make, but now one they'll all make for years to come.

For the past 50 years, Ole Miss has fought its past, and while all the memorials and truth projects help, none of them brings the visibility or positive attention of this group of players -- 52 of them from this state, just as 61 of State's players are from Mississippi, too -- the living example of the future they want.

Johnson and I walk out of the facility together, he and some teammates headed off into the darkness, undefeated and on top of the world. I sit in my car for a moment, a little overcome, feeling for the first time in a long time that Mississippi is finding its way.

• • •

Paradise Road doesn't lead in a straight line, and there are times when it seems headed in the wrong direction entirely. Wide swaths of Mississippi remain segregated, regardless of how many games a team wins.

"Separated," corrects Ole Miss professor Chuck Ross early one morning in his office, smiling.

I've come to talk about my conversation with Johnson, to explain what I'd felt after our conversation, and first he points out that "segregated" is a legal definition. It isn't a law that keeps whites and blacks apart in Mississippi, but something deeper and subtler. In the state, all-white or nearly all-white private academies opened up after desegregation, using money to do what laws once did. The society is still very divided, which makes the success of the fully integrated Rebels and Bulldogs even more symbolic. Ross went to the Alabama game and sat next to a white stranger, and when the game ended, they turned and hugged each other. "The beauty of sports is I think it is the one area -- more than religion, politics, war maybe -- that voluntarily makes human beings drop all this baggage when it comes to differences."

The problem, he points out, is things go back to normal a few hours later. Confederate flags are waved and young black men are serenaded with Dixie. Nooses end up on statues, or a very small group of students chant epithets on election night, and the news trucks show up, and again Mississippi is hurtled back into its past.

"Change on this campus takes place two steps forward, one step back," he says. "It's a slow, meticulous process."

It is fitting that during football season in the South, even a conversation with the head of African-American Studies at Ole Miss turns to recruiting. The history of the university formed an impression in living rooms around the country.

"From 1962 until now," Ross says, "we've really struggled recruiting those athletes. Alabama has been able to do it. LSU has been able to do it. Georgia has been able to do it. We have struggled. That's the crux of it all."

Something is changing, with athletes and with the high-achieving graduate students lured to the campus, people who wouldn't have dreamed of coming to Oxford when Ross arrived nearly 20 years ago. He credits Hugh Freeze for the football part of that change. "More than any other coach," Ross says, "he has been able to go after a level of African-American player we have not seen on this campus."

This team has taken two steps forward, and everyone is waiting for the inevitable step back, followed by two more forward, and on and on. I ask Ross whether one day the Grove will be a place with an equal number of whites and blacks, united in their love for a team, and for a place. He believes that day will come.

"You'll maybe be 50 or 60 years old before it finally all changes," he says.

Leaving his office, I pass the building next door, named for James Vardaman, a former governor and U.S. senator who once said, "If it is necessary, every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy." That's the kind of detail that usually defines stories about Ole Miss, but I love what the university did. Instead of renaming it, they used it for many years to house the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation (it moved recently), the ultimate repudiation of Vardaman. The center takes the ideas of hope and peace from the university to the state and to the world.

Two steps forward, one step back. A moment from earlier in the week returns, as it has often in the past few days. I'd wrapped up an interview with a wonderful, politically moderate white couple, and leaving, I saw their uniformed black maid down a hall. I waved. She didn't wave back. I smiled, and her face remained unmoved.

• • •

CLARKSDALE -- In high school, when I wanted to think, I'd drive a few miles out of town, past the Stovall Plantation, to an empty, roofless shack next to a cotton field. It had been Muddy Waters' house, and it sat here abandoned, until some museum folks decided to pack it up and put it on display a few years later. This week, I drove back out there, pulling my car onto Burnt Cane Road. Once, I brought a musician friend out here, a mystic lead singer, and he said he could sense the old blues man's presence. I don't hear guitars or anything, but a strong, deep bass line plays in my head when I'm there, elemental and driving.

The sky towers, blue and cloud-streaked, with the skeletal arms of a dead tree reaching toward those clouds. A chill cuts the air. The white cotton, still in the field, spreads out toward the horizon, and I feel at home. It reminds me of story I heard recently, about a road trip taken by a friend of a friend.

John Stirratt, an Ole Miss grad and the bass player in the band Wilco, took his wife through the farmland searching for all three reputed grave sites of another blues legend, Robert Johnson. "The Delta has all that mystery," he says, "the tragic nature, the beauty, the landscape, the scale of it, the way the sky looks."

They found them: the one in the lonely field near a crossroads, the least likely spot in a little place named Quito, and the marker by the church, shaded by a stand of trees. The last one felt right, and they drove away, not sure whether Johnson was actually buried in any of the graves, not really sure of anything at all but the cotton fields, the endless highway and the discovered treasure of the search itself.

It is the most Mississippi drive I've ever heard about. No clear route, no certain destination. All journey.

• • •

Paradise Road is traveled by the departed, the memory of Ben Beckwith's grandfather, and the history C.J. Johnson is helping to change, and most recently by two people woven into the lives of fans from both schools -- beloved Mississippi State radio announcer Jack Cristil and Ole Miss radio sideline reporter Stan Sandroni, who died four days apart in September, missing out on the greatest season either of their teams has ever had.

Cristil had been retired since 2011 after broadcasting games for 58 years, spending his time catching up with friends, leading Friday service as a lay rabbi at the Tupelo synagogue. He watched his beloved Bulldogs play on Saturdays, chain-smoking Pall Malls. "There was no place in the state of Mississippi where people would tell Jack Cristil, 'You can't smoke here,'" says his son-in-law, Andrew Nelson, laughing. "Except maybe Oxford."

The night before Mississippi State's second game, Cristil fell at his house, landing back against a wall, hard enough to cave in the drywall. Around him, the home looked exactly like it had when his wife, Mavis, died in 1988, her things still in place in the bathrooms, figurines collecting dust, candles never lit again after she blew them out. "It was almost Miss Havisham-like in how much things stayed the same," says his daughter Rebecca Nelson.

Earlier that day, he'd met with a nurse to ask questions about how long he'd live if he stopped his dialysis, and the next Monday, doctors had him scheduled to begin radiation for lung cancer. He was 88. Saturday morning, Rebecca and Andrew called before heading to Starkville for the game, and they stopped off to visit, soon canceling their plans and settling in to watch with him. Sitting in his recliner, Jack could not get comfortable.

"He hung in there until halftime," Rebecca says.

In pain, he moved to his bed, his frail arms about the diameter of a whiffle ball bat. Andrew said they should dial 911, and Jack said no, trying to get himself out of bed. He couldn't and Andrew made the call. One of the EMTs, an Ole Miss fan, looked around and joked, "What's with all the maroon?" Jack laughed. He loved stuff like that, giving it back just as good.

"He was flirting," Rebecca says now, laughing.

The paramedics got him on a gurney and began wheeling him to the door. As they crossed the threshold, Jack understood what was happening. His mind never failed, only his body. He waved his hand, leaving behind a museum to his dear Mavis, and he boomed out, "Goodbye, house."

"In that Jack Cristil voice," Andrew says.

The next day, a Sunday, Cristil died. Four days later, after a surgery for kidney stones, Sandroni suffered a heart attack. He was only 64 years old. The people who met Stan never forgot him, a presence who swallowed the energy in a room. A huge Red Sox fan, he once built a scale replica of Fenway Park in his backyard and arranged a game for his son, Christopher, and his friends. Ever the fan of the grand gesture, he got former Yankees catcher Jake Gibbs to manage the "Yankees" and former Red Sox pitcher Boo Ferriss to manage the "Red Sox," and got his radio partner, David Kellum, to handle public address duties.

An ambulance rushed Sandroni to the emergency room. Kellum got a call from an athletic department friend, and he began racing across town to the hospital.

His cell phone rang en route.

"You don't need to rush," a mutual friend told him. "We've lost Stan."

The next Saturday, Ole Miss didn't use a sideline reporter for the radio broadcast, keeping Stan's headset and microphone on a stool. Christopher, now 16, watched the game on the field, and the members of the radio team have since made a schedule to make sure one of them is at each of Christopher's high school basketball games this season. I called Stan's wife, Glenda, this week, and she began to sob on the phone.

"It's been so hard," she says. "He would have just loved to be here."

Cristil's family understands. Last weekend, watching Mississippi State dominate Auburn, the Nelsons sat in their matching brown leather recliners, side by side.

"I wish your dad could have been here to see this," Andrew said.

"I'd like to think that he can," Rebecca replied.

During the visitation, his children put a cigarette in one hand and a microphone in the other. Everyone got a kick out of that, especially Cristil's kids, who inherited his sense of humor and now found it a powerful weapon against pain. In each pocket, he took a pack of Pall Malls to the great beyond, one for him, and one for a neighbor who'd wanted to be buried with them. A note on them read: "Please deliver to Murlene Reedy."

They buried Cristil with full Bulldog honors, and at the funeral, former athletic director Larry Templeton walked down the aisle of the funeral home with a leash in his hand, bringing Bully to say goodbye, too. During quiet, emotional moments of the service, the crowd heard the faint ring of Bully's bell around his neck. At the front of the church, amid the countless bouquets, one stood out. Those flowers were red and blue, sent by that school up north. A few days later, Stan Sandroni was laid to rest, too, and in lieu of flowers, a donation to a scholarship fund set up in his name was made by Mississippi State University.

Underneath the rivalry is a shared history, connections not broken by hype or competition. Templeton and Rebecca sat at a Danver's in Tupelo after Cristil died. He pulled out a cell phone and repeated a text message he'd received.

"We've lost a legend," it read.

Then Templeton told her who sent it.

"Archie Manning," he said, and in a fast-food joint where her dad liked to go for coffee or a burger, a woman who'd used laughter to battle her grief found herself unable to say a word.