Tragedy at Toomer’s Corner

This morning authorities arrested 62 year old Harvey Updyke for poisoning the 130 year old live oak trees at Toomer’s Corner. If you don’t know what Toomer’s Corner is let me quickly explain. It sits at the intersection of College and Magnolia Streets in Auburn Alabama. It gets its name from Toomer’s Drugs which sits on the opposite corner. When an Auburn athletic team scores a big victory, the fans shower the trees with toilet paper. Lots of it!!! It is one of those unique traditions that makes Auburn University unique.

Mr. Updyke allegedly used a powerful herbicide in lethal concentrations, then later called the Paul Finebaum show to brag about it, using the name “Al from Dadeville”. His motivations supposedly have something to do with his rooting interest in the Crimson Tide of Alabama. It has also been said that he did it in retaliation for Auburn fans rolling the corner on the day Bear Bryant died (of which there is no credible evidence) and for someone placing a Cam Newton jersey on the Bear Bryant statue outside of Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.

People not living in the midst of the Auburn/Alabama rivalry would be hard-pressed to understand how intense it can be. Their annual football game is a more important day than Christmas in the state. Passion runs deep. I have even been defriended on Facebook by an individual who made very derogatory statements about Auburn University as a whole then got called out by myself and others. Apparently he just couldn’t take any criticism directed at him or the Tide. I thought at the time that it was childish and I still do, but that is what this rivalry does to people.

I moved to Alabama in the fall of 2000. I hadn’t lived here two days when I was asked what side I was going to take. I figured I had two options. Be miserable or join in the fun. I chose the fun. I chose Auburn because my wife preferred Auburn and because I used to sort of root for Clemson. Auburn and Clemson are a lot alike so it wasn’t hard to choose a side.

On the eve of the first Iron Bowl, I was in the grocery store and everyone was wearing team colors. Many of them hollered at each other good-naturedly “Roll Tide” or “War Eagle.” It seemed to be mostly in fun and everybody was having a good time. Of course I wasn’t nearly as emotionally invested then as I am now.

As the years passed, the rivalry seemingly got uglier and uglier. The comments I would hear would contain more and more vitriol with each passing year. Of course Alabama is a proud program with a storied history. For much of the 2000s Auburn owned them winning six consecutive Iron Bowls. Alabama struggled with one coach after another even firing one before he ever coached his first game. He was guilty of moral impropriety. The level of frustration mounted for the Tide faithful.  Mike Shula was fired and Nick Saban was hired.

Coach Saban had been successful at Michigan State and at LSU before an ill-advised jump to the pros. Given the chance, he returned to the SEC to take the reins. Saban was instantly welcomed as a hero and the guy who would turn things around and right the ship. He has met those expectations well, going undefeated in the regular season for two of his four years and adding another National Championship to the trophy case.

Meanwhile at Auburn, longtime coach Tommy Tuberville was sent on his way. Gene Chizik was hired as his replacement to almost unanimous bewilderment. However he proved himself to be capable as well going undefeated and winning the National Championship in only his second season on the Plains. Instead of a buffoon, he now seems like a genius and the fan base just about universally loves him.

Along the way this past season questions arose concerning Auburn’s eventual Heisman Trophy winner and all everything quarterback Cameron Newton. Allegations surfaced that his father Cecil Newton had shopped him to Mississippi State, attempting to extort $180,000. No evidence has heretofore been discovered that there was any sort of wrongdoing at Auburn University or that the younger Newton had any knowledge of his father’s activities.

Tide fans never need much of a reason to heap scorn on Auburn. The converse is true as well. For weeks at a time, the scandal or controversy dominated sports talk radio in the state with many of the fringe elements who regularly call those programs going to unheard of extremes in their denunciation of the Barn, as they derogatorily call Auburn University.

When Auburn made an unprecedented comeback in the Iron Bowl, rallying from a 24-0 deficit to defeat the Tide on their home turf 28-27, it was just another vicious reality check. See the Tide started the season ranked number one and held onto that spot until a Saturday afternoon in Columbia, South Carolina saw Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks virtually end the Tide’s dreams of back to back championships.

The Tigers went on to crush the Gamecocks in the SEC Championship game and then defeat a tough Oregon team in the BCS National Championship game. It was more than many Alabama fans could stomach. They had lost three games in the season and then watched their rival play on the stage they had believed in their hearts would again be theirs.

Now I am of course calling out the fringe elements. You know the type. They did not to go to school at the school they have chosen to identify with, have no interest in the school other than the football team, and do not support the university in any sort of tangible way other than buying an occasional tee shirt. Many of them are uneducated and are the loudest of the fan base. Lest you think I am throwing rocks only at Alabama, Auburn has those type elements as well. I am fearful that one of those unknown nut cases will launch a retaliatory strike in Tuscaloosa. I hope that never comes about. I may root against their team, but I respect the traditions that the University has established.

Mr. Updyke is that element. Listen, I go to church and worship with quite a few wonderful Alabama fans who I cherish and value. The ones I have heard from express sorrow and outrage at what has happened at Toomer’s Corner. I choose to believe that 99% of both sides fan base will fall into that category. Mr. Updyke does not. He has visited shame upon the University of Alabama by association.  His actions, which might be understandable if he were 19 or so, are not those of a mentally stable person in control of their faculties. But neither is he not guilty by reason of insanity. His actions have also proven it was a deliberate pre-meditated act of extreme malevolence.

Some of the less sensible people who have called the radio shows today have said “what is the big deal? It’s just a tree.” Let me tell you what the big deal is. I heard this analogy made. When someone burns the flag we don’t react in anger to the burning of a piece of cloth.  It is what that piece of cloth represents, the ideals, and the values. The same with the Toomer’s Corner trees. Those trees and that place are so much identified with Auburn and the traditions of the school that it was not only an ecological crime which may result in numerous federal charges, it was a desecration of the very things that the War Eagle nation loves and cherishes.

Will this get worse? I hope not, but I am also not optimistic. I can’t blame everything on the rivalry. In the past decade there has been an alarming increase in general nastiness. Internet message boards allow all sorts of outrageous comments to be made behind the cloak of anonymity and lack of accountability. Democrats hate Republicans. Republicans hate Democrats. Georgia and Georgia Tech still hate one another and Duke and North Carolina are close to being just as ugly of a rivalry as the Tide/Tigers.

Ironically this act of hatred may have done more to unite the two sides than anything before. Here’s hoping both sides reject the fringe elements and let them know they are not welcome. And if Mr. Updyke, after receiving his due process under the law is convicted of this, I hope he gets punished to the full extent that the law allows. He deserves it. And we as fans, no matter who we cheer for, deserve better.

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2 Responses to “Tragedy at Toomer’s Corner”

  1. Amen brother! I also am hoping and praying that none of the fringe-fans of Auburn retaliate and just make this whole thing worse than it already is. I too have spoken to numerous Alabama fans who are just as outraged about this act of vandalism as the Auburn fans are. I have also seen posts about “what’s the big deal?” Yes, Alabama and Auburn have an intense rivalry, but I really don’t think anyone with a lick of sense wants it to go where it could go.

  2. seguros de furgonetas…

    […]Tragedy at Toomer’s Corner « Mojo’s World[…]…

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