Toomer's Corner rally draws thousands

AUBURN, Ala. -- A steady stream of people began to arrive early Saturday morning to mourn the poisoning of oak trees at Toomer's Corner, where Auburn fans have long celebrated wins.

The heartfelt demonstration continued well into the afternoon.

Fans took pictures and left gifts and tributes, including rolls of toilet paper that surrounded the two 130-year-old oaks located on the fringes of campus.

The rally reflected the depth of pain and frustration engulfing this small community.

"Toomer's Tree Hug" was about proud tradition; it was about college football -- two things residents in this state are rabidly, unapologetically passionate about.

And it was an Alabama fan -- Harvey Updyke Jr., 62 -- who apparently let his passion spiral out of control. Updyke has been charged with first-degree criminal mischief for allegedly using a tree-destroying herbicide to poison the oaks after Auburn beat the Crimson Tide in November. He was released from the Lee County Detention Facility on bond Friday night.

The heinous act has put the special rivalry in the national spotlight, even in the offseason.

In this state you're either an Alabama or Auburn fan -- and declarations of neutrality can draw a disbelieving sneer. Once a year everything nearly comes to a complete stop when Alabama and Auburn lock horns in the Iron Bowl. And after the game ends, people talk about it the rest of the year, oftentimes while sipping sweet tea and eating barbecue.

For generations of Auburn fans, Toomer's Corner has been the spot to revel in those games.

It's not a big place, basically a nondescript intersection of College and Magnolia streets separating campus and downtown a quick walk from Jordan-Hare Stadium. But the small strip of land with the stately trees is considered sacred ground.

Retired Auburn athletic director David Housel tried to put its significance in terms people outside Southeastern Conference country can understand.

"In New York, Times Square is considered the crossroads of the world," Housel said. "In our world, Toomer's Corner is the crossroads of Auburn."

Harming the oaks was a low blow for a rivalry marked by memorable clashes and perpetually nursed grudges. But it's not the first time the rivalry has turned violent.

A Mobile man was charged with stabbing three Auburn fraternity members after apparently triggering a fight by yelling "Roll Tide" before the 2005 Iron Bowl. A judge eventually declared a mistrial after a key witness refused to testify.

Longtime Auburn fan Bill Jones of Scottsboro, who drove down for the rally, remembers a Toomer's oak being set on fire after the 1993 Iron Bowl, when Auburn completed an 11-0 season with a win.

"I was just standing right there and the guy set it on fire," Jones said. "The fire trucks couldn't even get in here hardly because there were 10,000 people here. If you've never been here after a ball game, you can't imagine it. It's shoulder to shoulder.

"It's gotten so it's a hatred rivalry."

It's a bitter, state-encompassing affair -- one where a lack of professional sports and two schools dominating the sports landscape make it different than other storied sports rivalries like North Carolina-Duke, Ohio State-Michigan, Red Sox-Yankees or Lakers-Celtics.

"I grew up in North Carolina and I experienced the North Carolina-Duke basketball rivalry," Jones said. "It's nothing compared to this, and it's the best basketball rivalry. Nothing compared to the hatred that's in this state. It's a shame, too, really.

"In North Carolina, you do have four major universities, [including] Wake Forest and NC State. It's a heated rivalry but not a hated rivalry. The state up there is not divided down the middle. Here it's divided down the middle."

But this ugly act seems to have momentarily united the divided camps in Alabama.

One crimson-and-white group has started raising money for replacements for the oaks. Auburn coach Gene Chizik and Alabama's Nick Saban -- who have split the last two national football titles -- even issued a joint statement saying this was "an isolated incident by one individual that is not representative of what the greatest rivalry in college football is all about."

Alabama student Sean Phillips, wearing a jersey of Tide Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, said Saturday it is "a really sad day for Alabama as a whole." Phillips made the two-hour drive from home in Birmingham "to support a tradition that will soon be lost here."

"The guy that did this was crazy," Phillips said. "There might be animosity between the schools, but there's always that connection because we're all from Alabama. We're all in this together."

The Toomer's traditions -- including the famously sweet lemonade at Toomer's Drugs across the street -- are ingrained in the state's culture, like Alabama and Bear Bryant.

Auburn people have used Toomer's Corner as a meeting place since the school was established in 1856. Housel said it morphed into what it is today in 1972.

"They were No. 2 and [Auburn star] Terry Henley said we're going to go beat the No. 2 out of Alabama," Housel said. "Auburn won the game 17-16 and everybody went out to Toomer's Corner and rolled it in toilet paper."

Longtime Auburn fans are having a difficult time coping with the apparent demise of the trees.

F.O. Ferguson, of Sylacauga, Ala., came to his first Auburn game in 1934, said Toomer's Corner is a landmark that means a lot to Auburn people.

"I don't understand why anybody would just maliciously ... a tree that's not bothering anybody." Ferguson said, shaking his head. "I don't know. We've got some crazies in this world."

Joyce Parker, an 86-year-old Auburn alum and football season ticker holder, was not about to miss the rally, driving a few hours from her home in Gadsden.

"We love Auburn," Parker said. "We love the school and we love the town. And we love the trees."