A trip to visit Old Man River
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist

LAKE ITASCA, Minn. -- I waded into the clear cooling waters of what seemed little more than a creek, cracked open my book and turned to the opening sentence. "The Mississippi is well worth reading about."

That was fortunate news given that this initial sentence is followed by 400 pages in Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi," that there are another 726 pages beyond that in my Library of America copy of Twain's collected "Mississippi Writings" and that I will spend the next two weeks driving the river's length and writing about sports along the way.

Mississippi River
Our travel guide gets his feet wet at the start of his trip -- and at the start of the Mississippi, where the mighty river is little more than a creek.

The largest river in North America, the Mississippi is so long that some sources don't quite agree on its length. Not even the information boards in the visitors center at the Lake Itasca headwaters agreed, declaring the river was both 2,348 miles and 2,552 miles long, and both the third- and fourth-largest river in the world. Twain stretched its length to 4,300 miles by counting its Missouri tributary, which is a little like saying the Red Sox and the Yankees have combined to win 31 World Series.

Whatever. It's one damn long river. It is our country's main artery and there is no better way to measure the nation's sporting pulse than by tracing our finger along its length.

The Mississippi both unites the country (it touches nine states and drains water from 31) and divides it (radio stations broadcasting games to the east begin with the letter W and stations to the west begin with K). It has more nicknames than Chris Berman could imagine. Native Americans referred to the river as the "Father of Waters." Twain noted that it had been called "The Body of the Nation" and "The Great Sewer." T.S. Eliot called it the "strong brown god." And, of course, Chevy Chase called it "the Mighty Mississipp, the Ole Miss, the Old Man ..." when the Griswolds crossed it en route to Wally World.

Wally World may not lie at the end of the Mississippi but a wide and wonderful world of sports lies along its length this month.

September is the best page on the sports calendar, the month when baseball fans begin devouring cuticles and football fans fire up the grills, when shadows creep across infields and high school football players glow under Friday Night Lights and when backyards everywhere are filled with the sounds of kids counting, "One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi ..." before rushing the quarterback.

I will see pennant-race baseball and early season NFL on the Mississippi. I will sit in the stands for big-time college football and small-town high school football. I will devour brats with face-painted tailgaters and play cards with poker-faced riverboat gamblers. I will visit historic stadiums and romantic diamonds and listen to demands for new ones with more luxury suites. I will see the richest athletes in sports and the poorest. I will write about players and fans alike. I will make several new friends.

Beyond that I make no promises, other than to stick as close to the river as possible and to write fewer words than Twain. The best part of any trip is arriving somewhere you never planned.

* * * * *

    "You don't know about me, without you have read a book by the name of 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth."
    -- opening lines to "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"

I'm not sure about these things, but I think the Mississippi headwaters at Lake Itasca was the inspiration for the classic old Twins logo of the goofy-grinned players from St. Paul and Minneapolis bridging the river with a firm handshake. I can't quite each across the Misssissippi at Itasca, but the river is so narrow here that I can picture the Michael Jordan jump man logo easily leaping from one bank to the other.

Mississippi River map
Jim's trip will take him from Minnesota to New Orleans, and alongside 10 states.

From these humble beginnings, the river meanders on a 2,300-mile (or 2,500-mile) journey to the Gulf of New Mexico, by which time it is so wide that not even Evel Knievel would try leaping it.

After initially flowing north, the Mississippi curls south and then flows a few miles from the perfectly named town of Collegeville, Minn., home to St. John's University. John Gagliardi has been coaching football here for half a century with his system of No's: No scholarships, no spring football, no mandatory weightlifting, no tackling during practices, no whistles, no calling him "coach." Like a man paddling upstream, all that goes entirely against the football coaching current but then again, Gagliardi says, "I look at things differently, I guess."

It's certainly worked for him. Gagliardi won his 400th game last season and is expected to win No. 409 and break Eddie Robinson's collegiate record this November.

An hour or so south of Collegeville, the river flows between the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis where the Twins are in a pennant race and the Vikings are just beginning their season. The Twins and Vikings used to play at old Met Stadium in Bloomington but the two moved indoors to the Metrodome two decades ago and their former home is now the site of the Mall of America, far and away the state's most famous attraction. I can't say for certain but I think the Twins' old clubhouse is now a Victoria's Secret. A few stores away is a shop called "Field of Dreams" where Carlos Baerga once paid $85 for an autographed photo of himself.

The real Field of Dreams -- or since we're talking about the setting for a movie, the real fake Field of Dreams -- is about five hours farther down the Mississippi (and 15 or so miles to the west) in Dyersville, Iowa. That's where Shoeless Joe Jackson, who helped throw the 1919 World Series, appeared from the cornfields. The fictional Shoeless Joe Hardy, who helped the old hapless Washington Senators beat the Yankees and reach the World Series, allegedly hailed from farther south along the river in Hannibal, Missouri, Twain's hometown.

This is the Mississippi region of the imagination, the Mississippi of Tom Sawyer whitewashing picket fences, of Huck and Jim rafting on the waters while riverboats steam past.

The river rolls along, growing in volume and strength. Look, there is St. Louis, where Mark McGwire went yard and lifted an entire nation on his shoulders, and where a sea of Cardinals fans frets through a pennant race. There is Memphis, where Jerry West and the Grizzlies relocated and where Elvis most truly left the building. There is Arkansas and there is Mississippi, where the Confederacy's fate was effectively sealed at Vicksburg and where Colonel Reb is still the mascot at Ole Miss.

There is Louisiana, where LSU plays on the bayou, and finally, way down here at the bottom of our Mapquest itinerary, there is New Orleans, where the Mississippi meets the Gulf of Mexico. This is where last season's NCAA basketball championship was decided and where this season's college football championship will be won. And where Twain attended a cockfight but could not stomach it to the end.

Calling Hannibal, Mo.!
We're sending Jim Caple down the river, but we have no idea what he can do in historic Hannibal, Missouri. Got a suggestion? Send it here!

"I forced myself to endure it as long as I could, but it was too pitiful a sight," he wrote, which is similar to most descriptions of a typical New Orleans Saints season.

As the teams who played in last March's Final Four or attempting to reach the Sugar Bowl can tell you, the road to New Orleans is a long one, however many miles you call it.

But I'm ready. My rental car is filled with gasoline and covered by insurance, Twain's "Life on the Mississippi" sits on the passenger seat and Rand McNally's road atlas sits on the dashboard. Garrison Keillor is reading "Huckleberry Finn" on the tape deck and the ice chest is fully loaded with diet Pepsi.

So join me as we go down Old Man River, the Ole Miss, the Mighty Mississipp, the Father of Waters, for the next two weeks. There may be some stretchers, but it will be the truth, mainly.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.



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