Fans say goodbye to Toomer's Oaks

Originally Published: April 23, 2013
By Kevin Van Valkenburg | ESPN.com

AUBURN, Ala. -- There was a funeral at the intersection of Magnolia Avenue and College Street this weekend, and thousands of people traveled great distances to be here, determined to say a final goodbye to a pair of old friends. Many took pictures, hoping to freeze the moment in time, while others paused to say a few words before offering a final gesture of love.

Few tears, however, were shed, despite the finality of the day, and the undercurrent of sadness touched all who attended. Everywhere you looked, people were hugging and smiling, soaking up the sunshine on an afternoon when the sky was immaculately blue. Yes, technically, this was a living wake for the 130-year-old oak trees that have marked the entrance to Auburn University since its inception, but, primarily, it was meant to be a celebration.

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John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAuburn fans gathered at Toomer's Corner this weekend for one final rolling of the trees.

The rolling of Toomer's Corner, and the majestic trees that have stood here for generations like twin sentinels, has always been an act of joy, not sorrow. To say goodbye without one last act of revelry would have felt like a betrayal. And so thousands stood -- shoulder to shoulder, at times -- and blanketed the trees with reams of toilet paper, a sacred tradition for Auburn fans that will be forever changed after 7 a.m. Tuesday, when the dying trees are scheduled to be cut down and removed. The final rolling was the centerpiece of Auburn's A-Day festivities, which were kicked off by the Tigers' spring football game, watched by a record crowd of 83,401.

"We're trying to take as many pictures as we can and just savor the memories," said Tellie Embery, who played fullback for Auburn from 1996-2000 and brought his wife and three daughters to Toomer's Corner to throw one final roll. "I just wanted my kids to get a chance to do this one time before it changes, because it's truly something else. It's still beautiful to see the tissue flowing in the wind."

No one can pin down exactly when the tradition began of celebrating big football wins with the rolling of Toomer's Corner. Even Auburn historians concede its origins are somewhat murky. Legend has it students would gather outside Toomer's Drugstore in the late 1890s to await word of Auburn road victories, and when good news would arrive by telegraph, fans would string ticker tape over the power lines to celebrate. At some point in the late 1960s or early 1970s, students began launching rolls of toilet paper into the trees to revel in victory, and when Auburn knocked off undefeated Alabama in the 1972 Iron Bowl, the ritual was solidified.

Over time, Auburn students and alums began to view the trees as hallowed ground. It wasn't just a place they went to celebrate after football games. It was where they went on nervous first dates, where they bear-hugged friends and where they returned each homecoming, eventually bringing their young kids with them to try and explain why the school meant so much to them.

The honest-to-god truth is that you feel like you're home when you come here. My wife and I have been all over the world, and we've never found a place that feels as much like home as this does.

--Auburn fan John Roberts

What did it feel like to roll Toomer's Corner for the first time? John Roberts, a Nashville lawyer and 1998 Auburn graduate, looked up at the oaks and paused for a moment as he weighed the enormity of the question. How could he ever explain something so deeply rooted in his family history? Roberts and his wife, Beth, met when they were students at Auburn. Roberts' parents, who were each raised on family farms, also met as students here. He has every intention of sending his daughter, Anna, and his son, Graham, here someday.

"If you can remember the feeling of having your first shot of whiskey when you were 16 years old, and it warms you from the inside and you don't expect it, that's exactly what it feels like," Roberts said. "The honest-to-god truth is that you feel like you're home when you come here. My wife and I have been all over the world, and we've never found a place that feels as much like home as this does."

It's not a place anyone ever imagined would come under attack, but that's exactly what happened in 2010 when longtime Alabama fan Harvey Updyke Jr. laced the trees with poison after Tigers quarterback Cam Newton led Auburn to a comeback victory over Alabama in the Iron Bowl. Updyke, who eventually pleaded guilty to the crime, might never have been caught had he not called into Paul Finebaum's popular radio show to brag about the act. Scientists from Auburn's horticulture department scrambled to try and save the trees, even digging up their roots and washing them by hand, but nothing could be done. The trees began a slow, but steady, march toward death. When nothing more could be done, the administration determined it was time to remove them for safety reasons, and so the past six months have felt like watching a member of the family in hospice care.

Just bringing up Updyke -- who was sentenced to three years in prison and five years of probation for his crime -- is a bit like picking at an open wound for the Auburn community. Whether or not his actions represent the unchecked id of Alabama fans is still a matter of debate.

"I don't think we blame all Alabama fans," Gavin Brunsvold, a Birmingham doctor who graduated from Auburn in 1991, said. "But I'd venture to say that well over half of them like it, and there is evidence to support that. Any time [Updyke] goes to games, they swarm him and take pictures. That's not really a fan base that's rejecting what he did. Probably a better question to ask would be: Is he their hero? And to a degree I'd say yeah."

Brunsvold smiled as he watched his young son, Erik, fling a roll of toilet paper toward the one of the oaks, but fall well short of its upper branches. Brunsvold grew up in a family of Alabama fans, he says, and the program's lure was so strong, he even wore a Crimson Tide hat to his freshman orientation at Auburn. But after a few years on Auburn's campus, the school began to feel like a second home. He and his wife would roll Toomer's Corner while they were in medical school, and when their kids were old enough to join the celebration, it became as important as ever. Brunsvold is convinced the tradition will live on in some form, even though the trees cannot.

"I think it's going to be a bit like the children's story, 'How The Grinch Stole Christmas,'" Brunsvold said. "The trees will die, but it doesn't matter. Auburn people will still be here celebrating."

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Kevin Van Valkenburg/ESPNAuburn plans to eventually replace the oaks at Toomer's Corner and will erect concrete poles in the interim so the tradition will continue.

The Auburn administration announced that it plans -- eventually -- to plant replacement oaks near Toomer's Corner. But the soil will need several years to recover from the damage the poison did to the ground. In the interim, as a temporary solution to keep some semblance of the tradition alive, three concrete poles will be erected and wire cable will be strung between them. It will be an ode to the origins of Toomer's Corner and will give fans a chance to "roll" the corner after big victories.

"Here's the plan in the fall: to give the Auburn family numerous opportunities to roll these trees," Tigers coach Gus Malzahn shouted to a roaring crowd during Saturday's goodbye ceremony.

"The trees may be dead," Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said, "but the Auburn spirit is alive!"

Still, it was difficult for many to juggle the swirling emotions surrounding the unofficial end of one of college football's truly special traditions. Fans of every age elbowed for position on Saturday, and the sky was filled with an endless barrage of white streamers. Small children dressed as tigers (with painted-on whiskers) darted through the crowd, dodging errant rolls as they fell back to earth, and countless fans donned T-shirts with slogans to commemorate the day: We Will Roll Forever! Grandmothers inched forward with the help of a walker to throw one final time, pregnant women cocked an arm and flung a roll while bracing their belly with their opposite hand, fathers lifted their young children up on broad shoulders to get a better view and students used their keys to pry off small pieces of bark to take home as mementoes. Every few seconds, someone shouted the words that Auburn fans use as both a greeting and a call to arms: War Eagle.

On Sunday, two Auburn graduates, Toni Beth Holland and Ray Sapp, even held a small wedding ceremony beneath the oaks.

"Since this was the last roll for Toomer's, we just wanted to make it really special, so we knew we would remember this day," Holland told a local newspaper. "This would be the best day to get married ever."

There were quiet moments, too. Courtney Dell, a Birmingham native who met her husband, Hal, when they were both students at Auburn, took a black marker and carefully wrote the last line of the university creed on her roll: I believe in Auburn and love it. But then, she gazed up at the trees for several minutes, unable to part with the roll just yet.

"So, are you going to throw it?" her husband asked, a gentle but loving tease.

"Leave me alone!" she replied. "This is the last time we're ever going to get to do this, and I will take as much time as I want."

When Dell finally worked up the courage to send her roll of paper into the tangle of branches, her husband, a fourth generation Auburn graduate, pulled her into his arms and hugged her.

"I think when we were in college, we took it for granted that the trees would always be here," Courtney Dell said. "I think we always thought that our kids would get to roll the same trees. It's probably our favorite place in the whole world."

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Mike Zarrilli/Getty ImagesThe venerable oaks at Toomer's Corner may die, but the tradition of Auburn fans gathering in that shared space will continue.

At a superficial level, Updyke won. It's hard to dispute that. The trees are dead, and one hateful act has irreparably changed one of Auburn's most sacred traditions. The scar will fade with time, but it will never disappear. Students, some who are third and fourth generation Auburn fans, will know the rolling of Toomer's Oaks only through fuzzy childhood memories, through photographs or the stories their parents and grandparents tell. But a simple celebration -- an act once thought of as a birthright, and a mile marker on the journey toward adulthood -- has been forever changed.

But on a deeper level, every Auburn fan will tell you: Updyke lost. Because rolling Toomer's Corner was never really about the trees. It isn't really even about football. It's about love and memory.

"I love these trees, but I'm not sad, because this is really about the spirit of celebration," Brian Jennings, a 1998 Auburn graduate who brought his four kids to Toomer's Corner for one last roll, said. "We're going to roll forever. It sounds kind of cheesy and corny, but Auburn really is a family place. This has always been about coming down here and gathering together with 80,000 of your closest friends. We were talking about this in church last week. God can take something bad and turn it into something good, and I think we have to look at it the same way."

In the years and decades to come, Auburn fans will gather at the corner of Magnolia and College because here, on grounds they regard as sacred, the act of cocking your arm, taking careful aim and launching a roll high enough into the air that it snags on a branch and dances in the breeze has always been secondary. Maybe most people don't understand that, but Auburn fans do.

What matters, instead, is the act of communion. The enduring commitment to gather together as strangers and form -- for the briefest of moments -- an extended and blended family.

That, too, is a living, breathing thing, one that crosses borders, transcends race and class divisions, and it spans generations. Trees are born and trees can be killed, but in the end, the most important things find a way to live forever.

Kevin Van Valkenburg | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine