OTL: Ghosts of Mississippi


Sam Owen
Courtesy of Ole Miss Athletics
Lineman Sam Owen couldn't believe the scene on campus the morning after the riots.

1. Oct. 1, 1962

Sam Owen wakes up early, slipping out of Miller Hall. The sun is up, shedding light on the destruction. The walk to the Lyceum takes only a few minutes. Around campus, little puffs of tear gas rise from the grass. It's hard to breathe. He feels as if he has walked into a swamp.

He sees the burned-out skeletons of cars, some of them flipped over, still smoldering, sending black smoke into the air. A bulldozer and fire truck rest at strange angles, as if tossed by a giant toddler. At the Lyceum, chunks of wood have been blown out by rifle fire.

He has never thought about segregation before. Not really. Never broken it down to its essentials: his people keeping another group of people from being free, by laws, by social order and by violence. He has never questioned what he has been taught, that it is good for everyone. This is just the way things are done. He isn't for segregation -- his high school had been integrated, which made his father livid -- but he isn't really against it either.

But this? He didn't know segregation looked like this. For a moment, he just stares, his life divided into two parts now. On one side, this mystical thing: segregation, the Old Mississippi. On the other: the New Mississippi, an honest-to-god war zone, the physical manifestation of hate and fear. He looks back at his life and realizes a Rubicon stands here, and he has crossed it. The cars and the gunshots and the bleeding marshals, all of it works its way through his brain and into his heart.

After checking on his girlfriend, Judy, he finds a pay phone and calls his folks back in Tennessee. He tells them what has happened and that he is safe.

"Do you want to come home?" they ask.

Not a chance.

"We gotta play Houston," Owen says.

John Vaught
Courtesy of Ole Miss Athletics
Rebels coach John Vaught was a well-organized taskmaster, but he had struggled to win the big one.

2. Will the showdown go on?


The game is only five days away, and thousands of federal troops are camped out on Vaught's practice fields. More are camped outside town, one radio call away from marching on Oxford. Helicopters move men and equipment. Troops screen every car coming onto campus, and they will for months, looking in trunks and under seats for weapons. Meredith goes to class, escorted by armed guards, harassed the entire way. The first walk of the first morning brings frothing crowds. Someone gets right in his face and screams, "Was it worth two lives, n-----!?" Meredith puts on his pope face.

Some politicians are demanding a total shutdown of the school. Straw polls estimate half of Mississippians want the university closed. There is really only one overwhelming reason not to shutter the place: the highly ranked Rebels. No school, no football. Few have more influence in Mississippi than Vaught. Robert Kennedy calls him after the riot: "Coach Vaught, I want you to do what you can to keep the situation calm."

Vaught certainly appreciates the call, the ego boost of the attorney general of the United States needing him. Vaught has a lot of good traits, but he is also vain. He is bald, and hates it, and always wears hats. The team calls him Slick, but only behind his back. He needs glasses but won't wear them. If it's sunny and he can wear prescription shades, he is a great game coach. If not, he can't see the action and sometimes doesn't know who is in the game or what plays are being run. "Vaught was a good organizer," Frank Kinard, member of the '62 team and son of assistant coach Bruiser Kinard, would say years later. "On the day of a game, he didn't know where he was."

Even if the school is to remain open, pressure is growing to cancel the Houston game. The government does the math: thousands of outsiders, pouring into town, gathering in one place, right next to thousands of the hated federal troops. Add in booze, and the passions of a game, and, well, they just tried that a few days earlier. Two plus two equals four.

The game is now only four days away, and Katzenbach wants it called off. Vaught argues with him, during several conversations, until finally Katzenbach flies to Washington to meet with Robert Kennedy. The news out of that meeting isn't good for Vaught: No way in hell is there going to be a public event on that campus.

The game is now three days away. Across campus, Meredith eats his first meal in the cafeteria. One student even walks over and shakes his hand.

The game is now two days away.

Among the players, the rumor mill is going wild. On Monday and Tuesday, they're told the game will be in Oxford. On Wednesday, they're told it will be in Houston. By the end of the week, after contentious negotiations with the government, Ole Miss-Houston is set for Jackson.

The game is now just minutes away.

Once again, the team gathers in the locker room, the same one from just a week before. Everything is different now. Vaught almost never gives pregame speeches, thinks they are silly. But this ... well, he needs to say something. Vaught feels like the entire university is riding on the backs of his team. Vanity? Sure. True? Probably. He needs them to understand, these young guys. He needs them to see. "It is very important that we play this game, boys," Vaught says, "and we have to win it."

The team roars in response and rushes out of the locker room onto the field. Vaught gets chills watching them. The Rebels dominate undefeated Houston 40-7, with Griffing throwing three touchdown passes to Guy. But the most emotional two ovations of the day have nothing to do with the game.

One comes at the beginning, when Barnett enters his box. The other comes when the public address man announces other scores from around the country. Michigan, he tells them, has beaten Army, hated invader of Ole Miss 17-0.

James Meredith at Lyceum
AP Photo
Meredith received letters of both support and hatred during the integration process.

3. Oct. 8, 1962

Two days later, about 6:30 p.m., Meredith heads for the cafeteria for dinner. Most of the students have eaten already and are milling around. A few more arrive, then a few more, until a crowd has formed. Meredith, accompanied by a marshal, sits at a table near a window, working his way through hamburger steak and potatoes. The crowd chants: "Eat, n-----, eat."

A student throws a hand-sized rock through the cafeteria window; it lands three feet away, glass falling on the marshal and Meredith. Troops rush to the scene. The mob hurls the usual projectiles: lit cigarettes, rocks, bottles. Someone lets the air out of the marshal's tires. During the commotion, Meredith, shaken, is hustled out the back.

The insults continue, along with the constant cursing. Effigies hang from dorm windows. Mail pours in, more positive than negative, but the negative is truly vile. Meredith reads every letter.

Two students who eat dinner with him have their rooms wrecked, "n----- lover" painted on their walls with shoe polish. Later, a political science major, a girl named Judith Gardner, makes the mistake of sitting next to Meredith in class. Harassment grows so vicious that she is forced to leave school and her family is forced to move from the state.

One afternoon, two football players stand outside the old union, both boys from the Delta, watching the pretty girls go by. Along comes Meredith, with marshals in front and behind and soldiers nearby. One of the players starts fuming, getting jittery, one thought rolling through his head: "You know, it's sorry that damn n----- being up here with these white girls."

Stunning his teammate, the player jumps out in front of Meredith and hollers, "You black son of a bitch!" Then he rears back to hit Meredith, but a marshal grabs him. The player slugs the marshal and takes off running, through the dining area, bowling over a coed with an armful of books, heads for the back, swinging open the door, knocking back the soldier who'd been waiting for him. The guy runs for Miller Hall as troops search. Breathing hard, he tries to figure out what went haywire. He had never done anything like that before.

His teammate finds him back at the dorm. "Man, what the hell happened to you?"

"I don't know. That wasn't me. I went crazy."

He's far from the only one.

4. Oct. 20, 1962

A heavy, nasty rain is coming down, rolling off Vaught's coat, finally soaking through. The final whistle blows, the remaining fans rush to their cars, and Vaught starts the slow walk to the locker room, where he will shed layers of wet clothes. "Man, I'm glad that's over," he says of Ole Miss' 21-0 victory over Tulane on the sloppy field. Despite the one-sided whuppin', the Green Wave players are chatty after the game, talking about how the Rebels aren't as good as they were last year, how they aren't in the same league with Alabama and Texas.

Other observers seem to share those feelings. Ole Miss keeps winning, but the team continues its steady drop in the national polls, some voters citing weak opponents and lackluster performances. After the Tulane victory, the Associated Press poll lowers Ole Miss from fourth to seventh. After beating Vandy a week later, the team stays at seven, probably too far back to climb to No. 1. Mississippians wonder whether there aren't other reasons. An AP reporter was shot in Oxford, you know. Others believe -- hope? -- a victory over LSU will fix everything and put Ole Miss back into the thick of the national title hunt.

The LSU game is just a week away, and all the old anxiety is flooding back. LSU ruined three perfect seasons, in 1958, '59 and '60, and fans and players obsess over this pattern heading into Tiger Stadium. The '59 loss particularly haunts; many considered that year's Ole Miss squad one of the greatest college teams ever assembled. (Decades later, rankings guru Jeff Sagarin would call that group the third best team between 1956 and 1995.) The night of that game, a 10-year-old from Drew, Miss., named Archie Manning cried himself to sleep. Yes, the losses have taken a toll on the psyches of football-loving Mississippians.

The stress of the coming game affects everyone. Vaught locks down practices and begins working on secret plays. On Monday night, students slingshot cherry bombs at the servicemen protecting Baxter Hall. One cherry bomb lands in a military police jeep, scattering several soldiers. When the marshals and soldiers give chase, other students repel them with eggs and bottles. The AP interviews a student leader who blames the chaos on a "general restlessness typical at Ole Miss before its football team plays Louisiana State."

Tuesday is worse. Someone throws a Coke bottle through the back window of the car transporting Meredith, and the glass cuts the face of a marshal. More cherry bombs land near soldiers.

Then there's the flier, several hundred of which flutter to the ground from a dorm window near Baxter Hall:

    KENNEDY is out to destroy AMERICA, because he is a sick, sick communist. RED JACK KENNEDY intends to soon commit you to CUBA and Betray you there, just as TRUMAN betrayed the boys in KOREA. Red Jack Kennedy is the most DANGEROUS ENEMY AMERICA has ever had.

Finally sick of the abuse, the troops affix bayonets to their assault rifles and march through the dormitory halls. Two guns, a machete, a tear gas grenade and a cache of fireworks are found. School chancellor J.D. Williams issues a new edict: Any further antisocial behavior will result in immediate expulsions. A pep rally scheduled for that Tuesday evening is postponed.

Two nights later, the pep rally is held. When the rally is over, some 200 students sprint toward Miller Hall, two blocks away. As they approach Baxter Hall, where Meredith lives, all the soldiers snap alert. One adjusts his gas mask and gets the tear gas gun ready to go. But the students race past Baxter and stand outside Miller Hall for a half hour cheering the team, desperate for the No. 6 Rebels to beat No. 4 LSU. For the first time in what seems like forever, Vaught is happy; he thinks this is the healthiest thing he has seen on campus since before the riots.

U.S. troops
Lynn Pelham/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
After restoring order, U.S. troops affixed bayonets to their rifles and marched through Oxford.

4. Nov. 3, 1962

The Rebels gather at the tunnel. The concrete walls seem to amplify the noise of Tiger Stadium. Nearby, Mike the Tiger lounges in his cage and, without warming, lets out a hungry growl. Wilkins jumps. "It would scare the living s--- out of you," Billy Champion will say later.

Jitters pass from one Rebel to the next like the flu. A stiff wind blows across the field, 15 miles an hour, coming in off the river. LSU, tough to beat here, takes a 7-0 lead with a little more than two minutes left in the half. Despite the buildup, or maybe because of it, the Rebels look sluggish. Is it happening again? Another promising season lost in Death Valley?

Ole Miss starts a drive of its own, but still seems a bit sleepy. Then one of LSU's defensive tackles pops all-everything lineman Jim Dunaway in the face, bloodying his lip. The sight and taste of his own blood awakens Big Jim, who bulldozes his man the rest of the night, opening up big holes. With 23 seconds left in the half, Griffing has his team at the LSU 10. After a couple of incompletions, Griffing hits A.J. Holloway, who juggles the ball but secures it just as two LSU defenders grab him at about the 3-yard line. As the clock ticks to zero, he breaks free, crossing the goal line. A missed extra point leaves the Rebels down 7-6, but at least they have life.

Glynn Griffing
Courtesy of Ole Miss Athletics
Griffing ended the Death Valley jinx by rallying the Rebels to a rousing victory at LSU.

In the second half, with Ole Miss at the LSU 21, Vaught pulls out the trickery they'd been practicing all week. Chuck Morris swings to the right, faking a run, only to pull up short and toss the ball to Guy 18 yards downfield, the first completion of a halfback pass by the Rebels in four years. Two plays later, Griffing finds Guy again to put the Rebels up for good. (They wouldn't beat a top-five team on the road again for 46 years, until last season's upset at Florida.)

As time runs out, the players run off the field, yelling, "We're No. 1!" The locker room is a madhouse. Vaught stands calmly amid the chaos. What an effort, he thinks. Best I've ever seen. He'd sweated through his shirt out there. This is what they'd worked for, what he wanted. He can't wait for the new rankings to come out. In such a tumultuous year, his Ole Miss Rebels are the best team in the nation. He is sure of it. A reporter asks whether he has any doubt how the wire service polls should go.

"None at all," he says.

5. Nov. 4, 1962

The next day, the students awake tired, hung over but elated, ready to check out the polls. The news isn't good. The victory jumps the Rebels two spots to fourth, but undefeated Alabama and USC are still ahead of them. Both will have to lose for Ole Miss to have a shot at a national championship.

The team stays focused on the one thing it can control: winning. Among players walking to class or to practice or just sitting in front of their metal lockers, the refrain is always the same:

"We ain't getting beat."

6. Nov. 17, 1962

Two weeks later, a sliver of national title hope remains. Ole Miss is ranked third, with USC at No. 2 and Alabama No. 1. With All-Everything quarterback Joe Namath dominating opponents, the Tide look unbeatable. Today, the Rebels have an easy game against the Vols and Bama is taking on Georgia Tech.

Rain falls again before the game, hard, soaking the field. The Rebels are 10-point favorites but play not to lose instead of to win, clinging to a slim lead as the Vols are driving late in the third quarter. Nobody drives on the Rebels -- they have the best defense in the country -- but someone forgot to tell Tennessee.

Defensive back Guy lines up on the right side, worrying about yet another running play, when he notices the Tennessee receiver looking around. Guy thinks: What's he doing? He takes a few steps back, watches the end come out toward him, sees the ball coming and eases in front of it, intercepting the pass 3 yards deep in the end zone. Some 103 yards later, Guy, untouched, reaches the end zone at the other end of the field, securing the victory. When he gets to the sideline, Vaught finds him. "God bless you, son," he says.

Meanwhile, Alabama, everyone's favorite to win it all, improbably loses to Georgia Tech. USC slides up to No. 1, with Ole Miss at No. 2. But the Rebels' good luck doesn't hold. A week later, as they sit idly at home -- Vaught always caught flak for his weak scheduling -- No. 3 Wisconsin beats No. 5 Minnesota and jumps the Rebels in the poll. A national championship seems impossible now. USC needs to lose to a weak Notre Dame team and the Rebels need to beat Mississippi State to a pulp in their season-ending rivalry game to have any chance of sufficiently impressing skeptical AP voters.

7. Dec. 1, 1962

Jim Weatherly
Courtesy of Ole Miss Athletics
Thanks to a botched handoff, Jim Weatherly turned in the play that turned back rival Mississippi State.

With time running out in the fourth quarter, Ole Miss has the ball just past midfield and is holding a narrow 7-6 lead against Mississippi State. On first down, Vaught sends in Weatherly, who is supposed to run a familiar play, with the back following a pulling guard. But Weatherly forgets they've changed a few details of the play -- the tackle is supposed to pull instead of the guard -- so he's out of position and misses the handoff to Dave Jennings, who hits the line without the ball. Everyone on the field is thinking fumble. But Weatherly still has the ball, safely tucked away, and as he sees State's defensive end crashing toward Jennings, Weatherly turns upfield. Ahead is an expanse of green, 43 yards worth, and it's empty of defenders.

Weatherly runs down the sideline and it's one of the weirdest moments of his life because nobody in the stands catches on for a few seconds and he's running in silence. Finally, the crowd realizes he still has the ball and goes nuts. Weatherly scores and, when he comes back to the sideline, he's laughing. He can't believe what just happened. The first person to reach him is team trainer Doc Knight.

"Doc," Weatherly says, still laughing, "I missed the handoff."

"Don't tell anybody," Knight blurts. "Don't tell anybody."

Ole Miss closes out the game, another one way too close, 13-6. Sam Owen stands on the field as the clock counts down to zero, and their accomplishment hits him. They've gone through an entire season unbeaten and untied, something no Ole Miss team had done before. Louis Guy runs off the field toward the locker room, and, on the way, a 14-year-old named Ray Mabus asks him for his chinstrap. Guy hands it to him, and Mabus takes it home, a treasured possession.

The locker room is quiet. A few hours later, they get the news. No national title. USC beat Notre Dame. The Trojans are 10-0, and they will face No. 2 Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. The winner will be the national champion.

The Rebels' final game would be played for pride.

8. Dec. 7, 1962

A cold wind blows through campus. Students wearing sweaters and overcoats carry books pass Meredith. They look away. Confederate flags hang from the windows, but no one screams at him. He isn't welcome -- if he tried to hold the door open, most students would stand in place until he gave up -- but the threats of violence have slowed to a trickle. A forced tolerance has settled over the campus.

At Baxter Hall, the living room in his suite is a marshal's command post, filled with smoke. His bedroom has bunk beds, one neatly made up in Air Force blankets, the other used for storing books and school supplies. There are two chairs and a set of drawers. He has three pairs of shoes and one pair of slippers under the bed. On his dresser is a nameplate with his name and rank engraved in both English and Japanese. Outside, the trees are bare and a fresh coat of white paint covers the Lyceum, hiding the bullet holes.

A few blocks away, at Miller Hall, the football team winds down, too, finishing the semester, waiting on the Sugar Bowl. Vaught sits in his office and worries about his team. A loss and this group of amazing young men will fade from memory, just another Ole Miss team to almost go undefeated. They are so close to perfection yet seem lethargic in practice, worn out. Sports Illustrated predicts the Rebels will lose to Arkansas.

Griffing heads to New York to be on the Johnny Carson show and attend a media function in the Empire Room of the Lexington Hotel, where the great DiMaggio lives in the penthouse suite. Shooting the breeze with a bunch of sports writers, Griffing gets a little taste of how the rest of the world views Mississippi. Indeed, when he and Guy come to the Giants' training camp in the fall, all anyone wants to talk about is Meredith -- in the locker room, at cocktail parties, everywhere. Already the two narratives are becoming connected. Few will ever again talk about their 1962 season without also mentioning the riot.

9. Dec. 31, 1962

Five ... four ...

Buck Randall
Courtesy of Ole Miss Athletics
Randall made a few mistakes in the 1963 Sugar Bowl, but he made sure Ole Miss finished the season unbeaten.

Bourbon Street's packed, the Ole Miss coaches and fans spilling out of the pregame media party at Antoine's on St. Louis Street to see the last seconds of 1962 tick away. The future is uncertain. How will Mississippi react to the changes that are coming? Will it embrace the future or become more isolated, open hatred turning to silent resentment, burrowing beneath the surface, unnamed? That storm is for tomorrow. Tonight, the brulot, strong French coffee laced with brandy, keeps them warm.

Three ... two ... one ...

It's pandemonium, with horns blowing, and bells ringing, screams, kisses, laughs and, yes, tears.

The next day the Rebels do not get upset. They win 17-13, and it's the Buck Randall show. He'll remember this game years later as one he almost lost. He fumbles a ball and gets beat on a pass play. Others will remember him as the hero. Randall hits the Arkansas quarterback harder than he has ever been hit before. In the third quarter, Randall knocks the guy out of the game for good. The Rebels have done it. They've put together a perfect season.

A few hours later, at the Sugar Bowl banquet, the team gathers in the Roosevelt Hotel, one of the oldest places in town, long a headquarters for Huey Long, and there's no expense spared. The players stare at ice sculptures on the tables. They're given Omega watches. A table is filled with glasses of bourbon. Piles of shrimp are everywhere. And more oysters than they've ever seen. The Rebels line up two and three deep around the oysters, knocking back dozens. They don't want this night to end, so many of the players spread out through the French Quarter, most landing at Pat O'Brien's.

The drinks keep coming, tall glasses filled with booze you can't taste, a dangerous combo, and some people will later remember the police bringing a horse inside to calm things down, but it's all so blurry, so who really knows. A few Rebels end up in the fountain, and Wes Sullivan loses his shoe. Finally, Sullivan and Billy Champion limp back to the hotel just off the French Quarter. The elevator door opens and there's one person inside: Vaught. He looks at his ragged and wet players, Wes missing a shoe. "Where you been?" he asks. "Swimming?"

As soon as they can, Sullivan and Champ get off that damn elevator. The doors shut behind them, leaving Vaught alone. An early-morning flight back to Oxford lies ahead, he's certain, as do more championships, more big wins, more bowls. He rides the elevator up through the hotel, not knowing all of this will soon disappear, fading to a whisper, a distant memory of a different time.