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A Yankee in the Grove

There was almost nothing normal about my first Ole Miss Football Saturday in Oxford, though it started out that way. I woke up, got dressed and hopped on a shuttle bound for a legendary place that I had only heard exalted by other Oxonians: The Grove.

I moved to Oxford in late August, bearing little to no knowledge as to what awaited me in this gem of a Southern town. Apart from spending four years in North Carolina for my undergraduate years, I’ve spent the majority of my 26 years in New England and the Northeast. I knew about Ole Miss, but Oxford wasn’t just a blip on an expansive map for me, it was practically nonexistent; the entire Deep South felt that way.

Ole Miss Football culture was the best greeting to this region that I could have imagined.

The moment I exited the bus and entered The Grove I was in shock and awe. I had never seen so many people (young and old alike) celebrating the same cause. And I do mean “celebrating”.

As many Oxonians know, the tents in the Grove cover its grounds, leaving practically no space bare. Sure, we have tailgates up north, but it usually consists of grilling by someone’s parked car in an unadorned cement lot. There are no tents with dangling chandeliers or lush set-ups with flat screen televisions. If you attempted that, you’d get your fair share of side glances and concerned looks.

The Grove and Ole Miss Football is a culture all on its own. I’ve learned that “Hotty Toddy” isn’t just a greeting between fans, it’s a way of life, embodying the spirit of the university. When the famous cheer rises up from the crowd either before the game to get everyone fired up, or in the stands after a nail-biting touchdown, it’s simultaneously a rallying cry and a joyous prayer.

After all, in Oxford, football isn’t just a sport, it’s a religion; and a welcoming one at that. Its missionaries come bearing smiles, stiff whiskey drinks and Chick-fil-a nuggets.

A friend once told me the famous Oxford adage that, “we may not win the game, but we always win the party.” Yeah, no kidding.

But the Grove is more than just (what I imagine to be) the greatest party in the Magnolia State. The grounds represent the coming together of a community regardless of background or beliefs. During an autumn that felt divisive, the Grove remained a steadfast place during home games where anyone could come to relax and forget about the outside world. No matter what the week brought, there was nothing a trip to the Grove couldn’t remedy.

It may have been my first Grove season, but fingers crossed, it won’t be my last time on those hallowed grounds.

andy belt is reporter at the Oxford Eagle. Contact him at andy.belt@oxfordeagle.com