Fathers, daughters and Ole Miss football

Published 7:54 am Friday, September 1, 2017

This piece was originally published by AL.com Nov. 1, 2014—the day after Ole Miss’ crushing loss against Auburn, and two weeks after I lost my father to cancer. It’s our third season without him. And though Ole Miss football games will always be a family tradition, they’ll never be the same without him. 

Two weeks after my daddy died, I sat on my living room floor crying over the outcome of a football game.

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I wasn’t angry or bitter. I was heartbroken for a team my daddy loved, a team he’d say probably deserved to win.

Heartbroken because when you tell stories for a living, you can’t ignore the longing for a happy ending.

Growing up, Daddy would tell me stories about the Ole Miss team of his youth. Johnny Vaught’s boys, feared and revered, were for a time among the top college football teams in the nation. And though my father knew he’d never be able to attend the university, it didn’t stop him from loving the school, and years later, giving me the opportunity to spend my college years in Oxford.

He loved his Rebels, for better or worse, always holding onto hope when hope wasn’t enough.

This season, he said months ago, hope wouldn’t be necessary.

As the Rebels rolled through the start of the season undefeated, Dad was recovering from another vicious cycle of chemotherapy, unknowingly consumed once more by a cancer that just wouldn’t let up.

My father was so weak the morning my mother drove him to the ER he had to be carried to the car. Looking back, we wonder if he knew somewhere deep down he wasn’t coming home.

The day before he died, I was warned the pain medication and his weakened condition meant he might not know me when I entered his room in the ICU.

The man I saw lying in the hospital bed was a tiny, chemo-ravaged shell of his former self, not the man he was before his diagnosis, not the one I’d always remember and carry with me.

Cancer had robbed him of almost everything. He’d never see his daughters get married or teach his grandson how to fish. He wouldn’t live out the rest of his days growing old with my mama on the front porch.

Yet, when he opened his eyes and saw me, the tubes and machines and trappings of this horrible disease slipped away.

“Hey, Puddin,” he said. My lifelong nickname.

“What time’s the ballgame?”

My daddy. Ten feet tall and bulletproof.

When I returned to his room that evening to turn on the Ole Miss-Tennessee game, he could barely speak or move. In a strained whisper, he asked me to remove his oxygen mask and help him sit up. It took two people to prop him so he could see the TV, at which point he soon slipped out of consciousness, leaving us all to wonder what motivated him to exert what little energy he had to a football game he knew he wasn’t capable of watching.

I had to leave shortly after, but left the TV on just in case. Part of me hopes he woke up for a few moments at the end of the game, just long enough to see them win one last time.

We buried Daddy in Oxford the following Friday, the day before the Rebels took on LSU in Baton Rouge and earned their first loss of the season.

The Ole Miss Band played beside his grave as my mother and sister fought back tears. A proper sendoff for a man who loved Mississippi and derived a lifetime of happiness from Ole Miss football, scoreboard be damned.

I struggle to cope with the fact that I’ll never spend another fall Saturday with him in the Grove. No more childlike celebrations after impossible wins or mutually wounded spirits after soul-crushing losses.

So when Auburn sealed Saturday’s victory, I cried, not for some dashed dream that my father’s death would magically yield the storybook ending he knew his team deserved.

I cried because the weight of losing him hit me hard, harder than it had since he died. I cried because of the deafening aloneness I felt, even with others in the room.

I cried because it didn’t matter if the game ended in a win or a loss. He was gone, and it would take months if not years of moments like this, moments we used to share, for me to fully grasp the impact of his absence.

I cried because choosing to love something means accepting the inevitability of pain, disappointment and loss, along with all of the god-awful feelings that come with it.

I cried because when you fight like hell to save something that seems so damn attainable, it’s gut-wrenching watching it slip away.

Failed effort, however, it isn’t.

For even in my daddy’s final clouded moments, he knew me. He remembered our life together and the sweet memories we made following a team that didn’t always have much to brag about.

He fought a winless battle, suffering for two long years, but by god, he went down swinging.

Regardless of how the season ends for Ole Miss, I’m tickled Daddy went out on a high note, his beloved Rebs unbeaten. Even on the last night of his life, he stayed true to form, unconcerned with polls or the score of the last game or where they were projected to land in the postseason.

All he wanted to know was what time the game started.

To watch his Rebels play one more time.