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It’s not always easy being a Rebel

Being a Rebel isn’t always easy, especially when expectations are high.

We have too many memories, like Laquon Treadwell breaking a leg on the one-foot line and fumbling away chances at a Southeastern Conference football championship. Or of Bryce Drew sinking a bucket for the other team at the last second in the first round when Ansu Sesay, and our team, belonged in the Final Four.

So as Ole Miss approaches its 2016 opener against No. 4 Florida State, when the Rebels are ranked No. 11 in the preseason poll, forgive me for having a bit of home-brewed queasiness.

A lot looks good for the Rebels this season, and maybe that’s the problem. We have a talented, experienced quarterback with a quick delivery who should compete for the Heisman Trophy, not to mention good receivers, a solid defense, and a seasoned coaching staff.

Ole Miss has learned how to win in recent years, and that Sugar Bowl victory in January remains sweet. So maybe anything is possible as we approach this season of hope.

But it’s hard for a well-curated Rebel to let caution have a break for one season. The NCAA investigation is still underway, the schedule is excruciating, the chance of key-player injury never goes away, and bad fortune that can rain down at just the wrong moment always circles nearby.

This happened in 1977, the pouring of misfortune, and some of us haven’t gotten over it yet. The mishap was set up by one of the greatest Ole Miss wins ever, our 20-13 victory over Notre Dame in Jackson.

The Rebels were three-touchdown underdogs to the No. 3 Fighting Irish but a sweltering September day melted the favorites and Ole Miss seized the moment. Reserve quarterback Tim Ellis came off the bench, connected on a rare bomb with Oxford native L.Q. Smith to get us back in the game, and the rest is history.

Ole Miss made the Top 20 poll after that upset win for the first time since its heyday run had ended in 1972, and we thought prominence had returned to Rebel football. The momentum seemed a given since lowly Southern Mississippi was coming into town the next week, assuring another win.

Twelve years old at the time, I got into the USM game by selling Cokes but found little demand for the goods as a heavy rain began to pour into Vaught-Hemingway, putting a soggy chill in the air. The Rebels were up 19-0 and seemed to have a lock on returning to greatness but the rain pelted heavier from the sky, resembling a South Mississippi soaking or remnants of a hurricane.

Ole Miss took on too much water. The game turned. Few fans were left in the stands. I was wearing shorts and a red cutoff Jon Fabris Rebel game jersey I had gotten from the player in the previous year’s spring game. The tear-away had little warmth or protection in the cold drenching.

A nice lady with an umbrella called out, urging me to get under her arm and her umbrella and I did, even though it was no match for the chilly downpour. I shivered and she clutched me tight as Southern Miss scored, and scored, and scored, claiming a 27-19 upset win.

Her comfort was needed, since my Rebel heart was broken.

The Ole Miss football program wasn’t the same after that stunning loss for years. It cost Ken Cooper his coaching job and led to the era of Steve Sloan, with little defense and few wins. It also cost some of us our Rebel sanity. We learned to not expect too much.

The underdog role is much easier to manage than a No. 11 preseason ranking, after all.

But it’s getting better. Ole Miss has an SEC championship in basketball, a trip to the College World Series in baseball, and a couple of wins over Alabama in football in recent years.

So anything is possible in 2016. Here’s hoping, anyway.

David Magee is Publisher of The Oxford Eagle. You can contact him at david.magee@oxfordeagle.com.