By ROBERT WUHL
Published: October 4, 2008
The first 2008 presidential debate was held at the University of
Mississippi. As part of the festivities, the university invited me to
perform my pop-history monologue "Assume the Position." I immediately
agreed. Suddenly I was back in 1970.
I was a sophomore at the University of Houston. That November, our
underrated Cougars football team traveled to Oxford to play Ole Miss,
a top-10 team aiming for a national championship behind a
strong-armed quarterback named Archie Manning. The Cougars had beaten
Ole Miss the previous two years, and Manning (along with the rest of
the state) wanted revenge. A rabid fan, I, along with a few
dormmates, decided to make the drive from Houston.
It wasn't as easy as it sounded.
This was 1970. The heart of the hawk/dove Vietnam era. The year of
the Kent State shootings. "Easy Rider" came out the previous year,
and the images of driving in the Deep South with my bushy Jew-fro did
not lend itself to a sense of serenity. I also had a typical East
Coast "I'm right, you're wrong" college attitude. Perhaps some of my
confidence (arrogance?) had been learned from my freshman roommate, a
surfer dude and art major named Julian Schnabel.
Oh, there was one other thing. Houston was among the first major
college programs in the South to allow black players. This was a fact
of no small importance.
For the most part, the ride to Oxford was uneventful. Once we got to
Route 278, the two-lane road leading into the university, traffic
came to a standstill. We suddenly found ourselves stuck inside a
slowly moving parking lot among cars decked out in rebel colors. We
were receiving disapproving glances caused, no doubt, by our Texas
plates, along with our "Go Cougars" and "Make Love, Not War" bumper stickers.
I was riding pardon the expression shotgun as we approached the
final miles into the stadium. Then, up ahead on the side of the road,
a lone figure began to materialize out of the haze like Omar Sharif's
in "Lawrence of Arabia." Except it wasn't Omar. It was a teenager
hitchhiking, and he was being passed by car after car after car. I
couldn't imagine why no one was giving him a lift. Was this some
countywide hazing joke? Or could it be that he was black?
We pulled over. "Hop in." (Now it's Texas plates, "Go Cougars," "Make
Peace, Not War," and a black teenager. I'm really rolling the dice
now.) He climbed into the back seat.
"Who are you rooting for?" I asked.
Without a beat, he replied, "Ole Miss."
Without missing another beat, I asked, "Why?"
"It's my team."
In spite of all the obstacles placed before him, his loyalty was
still to his home team. I loved it. He even taught me the Ole Miss cheer.
"Hotty Toddy, Gosh almighty
Who in the hell are we? Hey!
Flim flam, bim bam.
Ole Miss. By damn!"
Once we got into the stadium parking lot, the young man jogged
quickly away. I forgot to ask him where his seat was. I soon learned
I didn't need to. He, along with the entire African-American
fan/student body, sat in the end zone where a banner draped across
the front read, "Ole Miss Racism." Nonetheless, they cheered every
Ole Miss play. Why wouldn't they? It's their team.
Despite being surrounded by the Ole Miss faithful, my friends and I
cheered loudly for our Cougars. Unfortunately, Ole Miss defeated
Houston, 24-13. Manning had finally prevailed against his nemesis.
But it was a hollow victory. In the second half, Manning broke his
left arm, ending not just his season, but also the state's dream of a
national championship. Perhaps it's merely a coincidence, but Ole
Miss hasn't scheduled Houston in the 38 football seasons since.
Although Manning never led his team to a national title, his two sons
(one from Ole Miss, thank you) have led their N.F.L. teams to the
last two Super Bowl championships. My roommate Julian has become a
world-renowned artist, filmmaker and pajama model. And I returned to
the road leading to the University of Mississippi.
Except this time, an African-American wasn't sitting in a segregated
end zone. He was debating as a candidate for the presidency of the
United States. At Ole Miss. By damn.
Robert Wuhl is an Emmy-winning writer, actor and director.