The following column was written Oct. 20, 2013, following Ole Miss football’s upset win over then-No. 6 LSU. Kicker Andrew Ritter’s 41-yard field goal with two seconds remaining lifted the Rebels to a stunning 27-24 takedown of the Tigers, who had national championship aspirations. Ritter finished the year — his first as the full-time kicker — with 16 field goals. He averaged 6.9 points per game and was 7 for 10 from 40-plus yards in leading Ole Miss to an appearance in the Music City Bowl, where the Rebels defeated Georgia Tech.
OXFORD | I call my dad after every Ole Miss game. Without fail.
He's the biggest Ole Miss fan I know. Our postgame conversation, when we diagnose what just happened, my dad and me, has become our thing. The highs and lows. His euphoria. His disappointment.
He expects my call, and he always, no matter what, picks up, regardless of hour.
He's an emotional guy, my dad. Not in the sense that he sobs uncontrollably after a win or a loss, but he has so much built-up hurt, so much disappointment and ever-so-close-but-not-quite with Ole Miss that he preemptively expects the worst. And in our years and years around Ole Miss football, he's been right far more often than he's been wrong.
There are many long-suffering Ole Miss fans like my dad out there. You're probably one of them. These words are familiar because you've ridden the emotional rollercoaster of sport, too. The ups. The downs. Oh, the downs.
He almost gave up after Eli. The prodigal son returned home wasn't able to get Ole Miss to Atlanta. If Eli couldn't do it, who could? He's still awaiting the answer.
He stopped caring under Ed Orgeron, opened himself up for a letdown with Houston Nutt, and celebrated a 7-6 finish in the first season of Hugh Freeze as if Ole Miss had won a national championship. The Compass Bowl might as well have been the Rose Bowl. Well, except the Rose Bowl isn't surrounded by rundown public housing and nothingness.
My dad bought 16 season tickets on the 50-yard line for this season, his expectations through the roof. This is my dad, the biggest Ole Miss fan I know.
I hadn't called him yet after Ole Miss lost another game in the final minutes, a 41-38 disappointment at the hands of Texas A&M a week ago today. The game didn't finish until the late-night hours, and I was caught up in the Ole Miss locker room gathering quotes. So, he sent me a text.
“This is making me consider quitting after this year,” he wrote.
I couldn't blame him. In 2012 alone, he'd suffered through close losses to Vanderbilt and LSU and Texas A&M, all stacked on top of some 40 whatever years of complete investment — emotional, financial, etc. — in a school with little payoff to speak of. As my dad has learned through all his years of Ole Miss sports misery, the Rebels rarely, if ever, love you back.
He'd seen the movie before. He knew the ending.
My response was simple. “Sports aren't fun,” was my response, and I left it there. Keep in mind, I was still reeling from the Braves losing yet again in the NLDS. My dad, my brother and I were in attendance for games one and two. The hopelessness and the emptiness and the scars were too fresh.
He's in his 50s now. My daughter, Gracie, is his first grandkid. His second, a boy, will arrive in November. His priorities have changed. The sting never leaves, to be sure, but sports aren't what they once were.
That is, until a game like Saturday night comes along. When it all comes rushing back. When all the pain of fandom seems worth it for the moments of genuine and uncontrollable joy.
“This is the biggest win of my life,” senior defensive end Cameron Whigham would say afterwards, a 27-24 Ole Miss upset of No. 6 LSU. His words could have easily been spoken by my dad.
I was on the field as Andrew Ritter connected on a 41-yard, game-winning field goal. I walked behind the Ole Miss bench, looking to the stands for him. I waved to try and get his attention. Nothing. He had a blank look on his face, eyes turned only to the field, as if he was taking in every last minute of an improbable win he never expected.
Still, I wanted to talk to him.
I was alone as I walked from the Manning Center back to the press box. I had some time. I pulled out my cell phone and gave him a call.
“What's up?,” I asked jokingly, well-aware of the triumph he was feeling, even if he didn’t throw a pass or play a snap or call a play. He paused for a second. “I'm just excited, son,” he said, sincere as he’s ever been. We talked for about 10 minutes, the sportswriter son and the Ole Miss fan of a dad. But tonight was different, Ole Miss finally closing out a close game against a Top 10 opponent.
Win or lose, I’ll call him again next week, too. And he’ll answer. Of course he will.
But few nights will be able to beat this one. Because nights like tonight don't come around very often. Because Ole Miss delivered, the Rebels beating a Top 6 team for the first time since 2008. Because 61,160 fans — the ninth-largest crowd in Ole Miss history — packed Vaught-Hemingway Stadium to see it happen.
But more than anything else, because I got to talk to my dad. And that’s sports.