The following is an excerpt from "My Conference Can Beat Your Conference: Why The SEC Still Rules College Football" by Paul Finebaum with Gene Wojciechowski. The book is an all-access pass into the powerful teams and passionate fanbases of the Southeastern Conference.
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In late 2010, I was asked to give a eulogy for a friend of mine -- a devout and longtime Alabama fan who had died shortly before Auburn was to play Oregon in the BCS National Championship Game. So devoted was he to Alabama football that he used to visit Bear Bryant's grave site every September 11 -- the Bear's birthday. More than anything, my friend despised Auburn.
I was the second of two eulogists at the funeral service. Preceding me was a man who began to tell a story about the final moments of my friend's life. Everybody at the service, including myself, leaned forward in his or her seat.
The eulogist explained that my friend had spent his last days in hospice care. A nurse had stood mournful watch. As the time approached, my friend's sister had stepped to bed's edge to say her final goodbyes. Tears welled in her eyes as she told her brother, "I love you."
My friend, recounted the eulogist, had half-whispered something into his sister's ear. His dying words, the last he would ever speak, were ...
If only every Alabama-Auburn story were that innocently absurd.
For instance, when I met Harvey Almorn Updyke Jr. this past June in Opelika, Alabama, it was hard to think of him as the most famous man in the Lee County Detention Center and the most infamous fan in college football.
When he walked through the door for our scheduled visit, he was fifty pounds lighter than the last time I had seen him. His thinning, dull blond hair was longer, though, and he had grown a thick, bushy handlebar mustache that gave him a Sons of Anarchy look.
His flip-flops made a small squeaking noise on the floor, and on the chest-high pocket of his county-issued orange jumpsuit he wore an unauthorized message over his heart. "Roll Damn Tide," it said, scrawled unevenly in black ink.
We hugged. Actually, I did most of the hugging; Harvey was wearing handcuffs. This was his seventy-sixth and final day in jail. He would be released the following day from a facility whose official Web site features a photo of the Lee County sheriff posing in front of the 2010 BCS National Championship trophy, won by Auburn, and another photo of the school's mascot, Aubie the Tiger, standing on a Lee County Sheriff's patrol car.
"My wife wants me to read a statement tomorrow when I get out, apologizing for what I have done and saying my fifteen minutes of shame are up," said Harvey.
What he did was so shocking that not even the most fanatical Alabama followers have condoned it. Well, maybe the most fanatical have.
And somehow I was in the middle of it.
That BCS crystal trophy in the sheriff's photo was made possible by one of the greatest comebacks in Iron Bowl history. That was the year the No. 2-ranked Tigers trailed the 11th-ranked Tide, 24-0, late in the second quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Not much was at stake for Auburn-only a place in the national championship game, as well as the Heisman hopes of its quarterback, Cam Newton, who had escaped the clutches of the NCAA after allegations that his father had essentially tried to sell his playing services to the highest bidder. (Allegations or not, some clever Bama stadium employee played the song "Take the Money and Run" over the Bryant-Denny loudspeakers during Auburn's pregame warm-up that year.)
What happened next is Iron Bowl legend. Newton threw three touchdown passes and ran for another as Auburn rallied to win, 28-27. Newton went on to win the Heisman and the Tigers went on to defeat favored Oregon in the national title game.
A year earlier it had been Alabama that had won it all. Now Bama fans had to endure not only the searing pain of a Tide home-field collapse in the Iron Bowl, but the images of the Tiger faithful draping the historic trees at Toomer's Corner -- two 130-year-old, thirty-foot-high oaks-in toilet paper. And, of course, they would have to listen for month after month to the hyena-like taunts of Tiger fans.
Some Bama fans took the dignified approach and offered Auburn their reluctant congratulations. Some Bama fans seethed quietly and began the countdown to the 2011 Iron Bowl. One Bama fan took revenge.
On January 27, 2011, the call screener for our show typed, "Al from Dadeville ... Bear Bryant's death," on the studio monitor. I decided to take the call.
"Al is from Dadeville, Alabama. Hey, Al."
"Hey, Paul, how you doin'?"
Al began to recite an Alabama football old wives' tale: that Auburn students had viciously TP'd those same Toomer's Corner trees to celebrate Bear Bryant's death in 1982.
"Now stop, stop, stop, stop, stop," I said. "I just have the most difficult time ever believing that Auburn students rolled Toomer's Corner when the news broke that Coach Bryant died. Does anyone else remember that? I don't."
But "Al" insisted it was fact. He offered to send me a copy of a newspaper story detailing the supposed offense. I didn't come right out and call him a liar, but I said there was "no way that could be true."
Al was undeterred. He wanted to tell me a story, to build a case for some action that had not yet been made clear.
"This year," he said, "I was at the Iron Bowl and I saw where they put a Scam Newton jersey on Bear Bryant's statue."
I reminded Al that Bryant's been dead for twenty-eight years. My finger hovered on the kill button -- a red X that I could push to take us to the next caller. I was this close to cutting off Al.
I laughed. "OK, well, that's fair."
"I put Spike 80DF in them," he said.
I didn't know Spike 80DF from Spike Lee but I assumed it was some sort of poison.
"Did they die?" I asked.
"Did... they... die?"
"They're not dead yet," said Al, "but they definitely will die."
"Is that against the law to poison a tree?"
"Well, do you think I care?"
"I really don't. Roll Damn Tide."
It had been an entertaining and bizarre one minute and fifty-nine seconds of radio, but I figured it was another Bama crazy whose whole mission that day was to get a rise out of Auburn followers. You have to understand that the Toomer's Corner trees were sacred at Auburn. In Mafia terms, they were made men. To damage, desecrate or poison those trees was to wage holy war on all those who held Auburn dear to their hearts. It would be like serving Bevo for supper at a University of Texas alumni fundraiser, or painting a giant eye patch on Notre Dame's Touchdown Jesus.
I might have thought Al's claims of poisoning the trees were fantasy, but the Department of Homeland Security thought otherwise. Soil samples were taken the next day, and Auburn later announced that a "very lethal dose" of a tree-killing herbicide had been discovered and that there was little long-term hope for the two oaks.
"Al" was really a sixty-two-year-old former Texas state trooper named Harvey Updyke. He was arrested and charged with assorted felonies and misdemeanors, and later pleaded not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.
Harvey wasn't unlike a lot of Bama fans I have met or spoken with on the show. He was the first to have ever poisoned an opposing school's trees, but his utter devotion to Bama wasn't unusual.
The national media portrayed him as a lunatic. After all, what kind of person kills trees out of spite? What kind of person has an entire Bama wardrobe? What kind of person names one of his children Bear Bryant and another Crimson Tyde (and would have named another child Ally Bama if only his wife had capitulated)?
But Harvey was more like the rest of Bama's die-hard fans than the outside world could ever know. In 2012, seventy-six baby girls in the United States were named Crimson, Krimson or Krymson. Thirty-five of those girls were from Alabama. In that same year, nine baby boys in the state were named Crimson. Six were named Auburn.
See what I'm getting at? In the context of the Bama-Auburn rivalry, at least, Harvey was no freak. His actions were deplorable, reprehensible and grotesque, but they shouldn't have come as a complete surprise. There are some extremist Bama fans who supported the spirit of his actions, if not the poisoning itself.
His was arguably the most famous caller to a sports talk radio show in history. The story became a national sensation and since Harvey wasn't talking anymore, all the major TV networks began asking me to appear on their programs.
Most of the people asking the questions knew very little about college football and even less about the anatomy of the Bama-Auburn rivalry. To understand it, you had to live it.
Harvey called the show again in April 2011. His first call had lasted less than two minutes. This one lasted forty-five.
"I'd like to apologize to my children, the University of Alabama and my high school coach," Harvey said.
He didn't apologize to Auburn. Instead he said he regretted phoning my show back in January to brag about the poisoning, calling it "one of the biggest mistakes I ever made in my life. All my adult life my wives kind of said I'm a crap-stirrer. I like to stir crap. I was just trying to upset the Auburn Nation. Paul, I never thought it'd come to this."
He kept talking.
"I don't want those trees to die. I would give anything in the world if that had never happened. I don't want my legacy to be the Auburn tree poisoner. I guess it's too late now."
Before he hung up, I asked him what he would say to Auburn fans who wanted their pound of his flesh.
"If I was an Auburn fan, I would be upset too," he said. "I just want to tell them I'm not a bad person. I'm an Alabama fan. Tommy Lewis and the '54 Cotton Bowl. He came off the bench and tackled the Rice player. They asked him, 'Why'd you do it?' He said, `I just have too much Bama in me.' Too full of Bama.
"To the Auburn people, I don't blame them. I'm gonna get what I deserve."
But then the supposedly apologetic Harvey reversed course.
"This is gonna make people mad, but I gotta do it," he said. "Roll Damn Tide."
That was in April. Twenty-three months later he pleaded guilty to felony criminal damage of an agricultural facility. Harvey was doing his time and now there we were, hugging in June 2013.
Our meeting was weeks in the making. Sheriff Jay Jones approved the meeting under the condition that it wasn't media-related. Since I was a man without a radio program or employer (it wouldn't be until that May that I joined ESPN), I qualified. Another stipulation was that the contents of the interview not be revealed for a minimum of a year, or until this book was published.
On the way to the jail, I stopped at a local Books-A-Million store and bought Harvey two preseason football magazines so that he could thumb through them while he was locked up (if not while we spoke). Each inmate had three pairs of plain white underwear, three pairs of plain white socks, three plain white T-shirts and one pair of plain white tennis shoes. Upon request, an inmate would be issued a Bible or Koran. And apparently a pair of flip-flops.
Harvey missed his freedom and his family, but what he said he missed most was walking his dog: Nick Saban.
I was told Harvey was housed in the "safe" part of the jail, but he said he had had several brushes with other inmates and had a vast experience in getting his "ass whupped."
"When you get into a fight," he said, "you don't even feel the pain."
He might have been targeted by a few prisoners, presumably Auburn fans or arborists, but Harvey said he was a celebrity to most of the other inmates.
"I can't tell you how many times I signed autographs," he said.
He was paid for the autographs with the currency of that particular jail: Little Debbie Honey Buns.
We talked about the Tide's upcoming season. Harvey wanted to go over the entire Tide lineup. He wondered about the wide receivers. He raved about running back T. J. Yeldon. We talked about the issues he would be facing upon his release.
He said he had found religion in that jail-issued Bible. He said he had mellowed. I wanted to believe him, but I'm not sure I did. Something about the "Roll Damn Tide" tattoo on his bicep said otherwise. He was still reveling in his fifteen minutes. It was weird, pathetic, but mostly it was sad. He gave me his phone number. I wished him the best.
When he was released the next day from the detention center, Harvey did the impossible: he kept his mouth shut. I later jotted down the memorable parts of our conversation. The truth is, I have a soft spot for Harvey - not for what he did to those oak trees, but for his Bama passion, however incredibly misguided it was.
I never thought Harvey should be sent to jail. Fine him. Make him do community service. But having Harvey Updyke sit in jail trading autographs for Honey Buns served no purpose. Jail would never make Harvey less of an Alabama fan.
Harvey had too much Bama in him. But Bama has always had a weird effect on people.
Excerpted from "My Conference Can Beat Your Conference: Why the SEC Still Rules College Football" by Paul Finebaum. Copyright © 2014 by Paul Finebaum. Reprinted by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.