I had no good reason to check into a king suite at the Hampton Inn in Tupelo, Mississippi the evening of Friday, Sept. 23, 2011 — well, the morning of Sept. 24. I still had tickets in my pocket to the Florida-Kentucky football game in Lexington scheduled for that evening. I didn’t even have a change of clothes. 

Nevertheless, I slid in the room key, used the complimentary toothbrush and toothpaste to scrub away the lingering taste of fried chicken and beer, and slid into the king-sized bed. I looked at the clock on the nightstand. It was way too late. 

But as my head hit one of the five pillows on the bed, I was entirely too awake.

Huh, so that’s what Adderall does.

Such ended the first day of my second trip to Oxford, Mississippi. Much like the first trip nine years earlier, this journey was ill-conceived and recklessly executed, full of grace and guardian angels.  

Nine years later, with the Florida Gators slated to start the weirdest college football season in our lifetime at Ole Miss, it just now dawns on me that I’m missing out on a rare, proper football trip to Oxford. 

Because even though I have been to two football games at the University of Mississippi, I don’t think I have made a proper trip to Oxford yet. 

Happy Birthday to me

Florida was set to play Ole Miss in Oxford in October 2002. The game fell on my 19th birthday weekend, and I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate than with my first SEC road game on Saturday and a NASCAR race at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama on Sunday.

Having decided this to be the plan earlier that week, I scored tickets to both events via eBay and convinced my buddy Brandon to come along. There was just one small snag: Brandon had to work that Friday. The two of us would have to make the 11-hour drive from Jacksonville, Florida, through the night to get to Oxford in time for an 11 a.m. kickoff. 

Thanks, Jefferson Pilot! 

We left Jacksonville just after 9 p.m. It was already past midnight when we reached Macon. The highways through Atlanta at 2 a.m. were filled with more fog than cars. By the time we passed by Talladega Superspeedway around 3:30, my Saturn SL2 was the only car on the road.

Which was important, because Brandon could have hit one if given the opportunity. I was awakened in the front seat around 4:30 a.m. by an alarming series of clatters, only to look forward and see how we were mostly off the road, mowing over a line of reflectors at about 25 mph. Brandon didn’t put up a fight to relinquish his driving duties.

‘Dixie’ with love

We arrived on the outskirts of Oxford just after 7 a.m., picked up some fried chicken, beans and potato salad at Kroger and met up with our ticket seller, who happened to be an Ole Miss cheerleader. She led us to the walk the players were about to make to the stadium. The Rebel band started up a slow, budding version of “Dixie” as the players walked by, the sun still low over the Grove. 

I had always thought of “Dixie” as a song plucked by banjos or perhaps the first bar played by a car horn. To hear it in a grove in Mississippi on a cool fall morning, blasted by the full Pride of the South band with the brass just building and building was enough to get every hair standing up. 

I didn’t think much about the deeper implications of that song then, nor was I taken aback by Colonel Reb messing with Albert and Alberta on the field or the Rebel Flags on most every pickup truck parked around Vaught Hemingway Stadium.

I only remember a few things about the game. Sitting amongst the alumni crowd, we were offered dip twice. I remember the Ole Miss cheer:

We’re gonna beat the hell out of you

Hotty Toddy, God Almighty, 

Who the hell are we?

Flim flam, Bim bam

Ole Miss, by damn!

And I remember a late Rex Grossman interception, a 17-13 Ole Miss victory, and their students storming the field and tearing down the goalposts. I realized that Ron Zook was not the answer as Florida’s new head coach.

The drive back east to Birmingham was mostly quiet. The next day, we watched Dale Earnhardt Jr. win the caution-free EA Sports 500. On his victory lap, some women climbed the catch fence off turn 4 and threw their bras at his car.

We made it home to Jacksonville before midnight.

Change of plans

Fast-forward to 2011, and I had just gotten off a bit early from my reporting job at the Athens Banner-Herald so I could get home and pack for Lexington. Brandon and I were set to head up to Kentucky at about 6 p.m. Friday to see the Gators take on the Wildcats Saturday night.

When I moved to Athens in 2009, I found the nicest garage apartment in Athens — it had a steam shower — and quickly became friends with my neighbors. Robert was one of them, a divorced father of two who worked for a crazy person in the healthcare industry. We both fancied ourselves a Maker’s and Blenheim’s Spicy Ginger Ale.

That week, I knew Robert was looking for a used BMW 7 Series to replace his 20-year-old Merecdes. 

What I didn’t know is that Brandon wasn’t going to Lexington after all. He texted at 5:50 p.m. Friday to give me the news. Suddenly, I needed to find another Florida Gator fan in Athens to go to this game with me. 

Maybe Robert would want to go.

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A few minutes later, Robert pulled up — still in the old Mercedes — as I was picking up my mail. He didn’t want to go to Lexington, for he and his girlfriend were going to Marietta to buy a Bimmer. I made an immediate peace that I wasn’t going to Lexington for the weekend and climbed in the backseat to tag along.

Another overnight

Driving over to Marietta, the three of us talked about the Georgia-Ole Miss game the next day, but we weren’t exactly making plans to be there. For one, none of us had brought a change of clothes. The game was another 11 a.m. kickoff — thanks, Raycom Sports! — and we still had to go look at this BMW.

“This BMW” turned out to be a 2006 BMW 760 with a V-12 engine, cradling seats, TV monitors and some questionable after-market upgrades. It was a steal at $21,000, and Robert was the perfect buyer for a second-rate car dealership looking to move one more piece off the lot before the weekend.

I don’t know how many 2006 BMW 760s with a V-12 engine were made, but I can’t imagine many have been purchased at 9:45 on a Friday night. The one Robert purchased made it about a mile before the tire pressure warning lights lit up the dash. We drove back to the dealership — no help there — and around Marietta for about a half hour before deciding that the car was probably fine.

At some point during that meandering, Robert decided we were driving to Mississippi. We pulled through a gas station and Bojangles and hit the road shortly before 11 p.m. with a sixer of Heineken, a box of chicken and biscuits, and a BMW with no plates.

The nice thing about traveling through the night with a V-12 is that you find more room to see just what it can do. A cruising speed of about 95 mph didn’t feel impressive at all. Bursts to 120 and 130 came quick and easy. 

Robert and I made quick work of the chicken and biscuits while his girlfriend dozed off in the backseat. We were losing steam ourselves as we closed in on Birmingham. But as unprepared as we were for making this journey, Robert had an ace up his sleeve for keeping us moving. 

Namely, he had a prescription for Adderall. A half-pill was all I needed to stay on top of my navigating duties. The conversation picked up, too.

By the time we reached Tupelo, Mississippi, it was after 2 a.m. Central Time. Robert, armed with a Marriott Platinum card, walked into a Courtyard Inn to get his guaranteed room. But, being so close to Oxford, every room was booked. Because of this, Robert insisted that Marriott pay for two rooms at the Hampton Inn next door. 

Gathered in the Grove

Waking up at 7:30 the next morning — if there was any sleep at all — I finally had a moment to assess my unexpected situation. 

Here I was with no luggage and no fresh clothes, with a pair of tickets to a football game I wasn’t going to go to and no tickets to the game we were going to. A neighboring Walmart and liquor store took care of most of the immediate needs.

I had already reached the bottom of my new Ole Miss Rebels Tervis tumbler and reloaded with my Florida-Gator-Standard-Issue Jim Beam and Coca Cola by the time we rolled into Oxford. We found a beautiful tree-lined street to park on and set on a nice stroll through the Grove in search of tickets. 

Ole Miss fans had already grown tired of Head Coach Houston Nutt by the time Mark Richt’s Georgia team rolled into town that season. Georgia was a double-digit favorite, and Ole Miss fans responded by selling tickets well below face value. They were just as hospitable as I remembered, welcoming us into their tailgates and fueling us with Evan Williams. I ate a bunch of ribs on a real plate standing under a chandelier hanging in a pop-up tent.

There were some noticeable differences in 2011 compared to my visit in 2002. For one, Colonel Reb had been replaced by a black bear. I noticed fewer Rebel Flags waving. No one offered me any tobacco.

I didn’t hear “Dixie” played either. Then again, there was not much to celebrate for the Rebels that day. Georgia scored early and cruised to a 27-13 win.

While our seats put us just a few rows up behind the Ole Miss bench on the 40 yard line, we encountered a lot of fans who weren’t ready for our enthusiasm. Ole Miss fans yelled at Robert and his girlfriend to calm down when they celebrated the early Georgia touchdowns. And then they yelled at me for trying to cheer for Ole Miss on defense.

I was confused enough to post a Tweet from my seat:

Dear #OleMiss. Your fans are lame, your Grove is overrated and your team is awful. That is all.

Spurned by the limits of the Rebels’ hospitality and completely uninspired by the game, we left the stadium early in the third quarter and walked back downtown. We decided to try our luck with more BBQ at the Rib Cage, a little barbecue tavern. The ribs were tough, and the pork was soggy, but it was the best barbecue we had at the moment — and the closest thing to a real meal we had eaten that day.

And, just like that, we got back in the BMW and started driving east. Blue lights chased us down as we crossed back into Georgia around 9:30 p.m. Fortunately, Robert’s lady was driving. The state trooper gave us a warning for driving without a tag.

We made it home to Athens just before midnight. The following Monday, my boss yelled at me for taking the state of Mississippi to task on Twitter. I couldn’t figure out what was inaccurate.

Missed connections

When the SEC expanded from 12 to 14 teams in 2012, games against Ole Miss became an even rarer occurrence for teams in the Eastern Division. Georgia hasn’t played in Oxford since 2011. Until this week, Florida hasn’t played in Oxford since 2007.

It’s a shame, as I would love to see how Oxford is doing, to see its continued transformation. Ole Miss stopped playing “Dixie” in 2016. Its student athletes are playing no small role in getting the state to take the Rebel Flag design off its state flag. 

I was excited for my friend and Flagpole Editor Blake Aued to show me around his alma mater and maybe to a good restaurant. I was really looking forward to catching up with one of my mentors, Dr. Mark Dolan, who has taught at the University of Mississippi since 2004. I was certainly looking forward to having a few more bourbon drinks in the Grove.

Then again, maybe it’s for the best that COVID-19 is keeping me home this weekend. An overnight drive feels like more work than it used to, and that half pill was all I ever needed to know about controlled substances. I don’t have a Marriott Platinum card to magically manifest a hotel room, and my Mazda is much more comfortable cruising closer to the speed limit.

I don’t think Robert would be up for the trip either. His girlfriend became his wife, and drip coffee and cantaloupe smoothies have become the refreshments of choice. The BMW is gone, replaced with a GMC. Bedtime is around 10:30.

For the Gators, their trip to Mississippi this weekend is for business. 

For me, I long to travel for pleasure again. 

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Joe VanHoose is a writer and promoter based in Athens, Georgia. He is a Florida man who recognizes that Florida is too hot to inhabit, but rumor has it that he was a Gator Football booster for nearly 20 years. Joe has more enthusiasm than talent for playing music, but he can put you on a good band or barbecue restaurant just the same. On the weekends, you can find him in a haze of red clay at one of the dirt tracks of Northeast Georgia. He is not ashamed of the gospel of short track racing.