Football fanaticism in SEC can go over the line

It’s a Wednesday in the Southeastern Conference, nothing all that out of the ordinary around here, but believe it: A convicted killer is sitting in the corridor of a hotel, screaming at a media personality and, really, just shredding the guy’s ego right in front of anyone who can’t help but look toward the booming voice in the center of the hall.

The middle-aged man in the red shirt goes by “Legend,” and, well, as legend has it, he once served a prison sentence for murder. Now he’s out, and he spends his afternoons not just listening to Paul Finebaum’s radio show but participating in it. He’s a Finebaum regular and an Alabama fan, and God help anyone who forgets that or questions the Crimson Tide’s greatness.

This day is the second session of SEC Media Days, the annual meeting of all teams in one sprawling hotel complex, and because it’s also a gathering of fanatics, “Legend” is here, too. He’s wearing a headset and microphone, bashing the Internet writer and radio host Clay Travis as Finebaum, a nationally syndicated host, shakes his head and smiles.

You’ve probably heard that the SEC is insane, but you can’t possibly know it until you live it. Even those who live it sometimes can’t believe what reality looks and sounds like.

In January 2011, a man called into Finebaum’s show. Al from Dadeville, he called himself. He was an Alabama resident who lived a half-hour’s drive from Auburn, Ala.

“When Bear Bryant died,” the man said, “I was living in Texas, and I really didn’t understand the Alabama-Auburn rivalry.”

He went on. Al was an Alabama fan. Auburn people had disrespected Bryant when he died in 1983, throwing toilet paper over the limbs of two Southern live oak trees on Toomer’s Corner in Auburn. That’s the way they celebrate in Auburn, whether it’s a regular old win or a national championship: papering the trees’ arms and dancing in the streets, at the intersection of Magnolia Avenue and College Street.

“Well, let me tell you what I did,” Al said to Finebaum and his listeners.

Finebaum chuckled at the man, thinking he was exaggerating, the same as people like “Legend.”

“I did not take him seriously,” Finebaum will say in July 2012. “There’s no way I could.”

Al’s reasoning was flawed, but his story was troubling. Al detailed how he had poisoned those two 130-year-old trees in Auburn, as payback for the fans’ insolence.

“They’re not dead yet,” the man said of the trees, “but they definitely will die.”

Finebaum’s laugh faded. Al wasn’t the man’s real name, but otherwise, his story was dead-on true. Finebaum asked whether he realized that poisoning trees was illegal.

“Do you think I care?” Al from Dadeville replied defiantly. “I really don’t. Roll damn Tide.”

A few months earlier in Baton Rouge, La., visitors watched as Mike VI stalked by, pacing, dipping his whiskers into the wading pool for a drink, then returning with a grunt. It was a weekday, and passersby and visitors to the LSU campus had stopped at Mike’s Habitat to see the Bengal tiger mascot that represents some — but clearly not all — of the fanaticism in the SEC.

Other schools have students in oversized, cartoonish costumes; they do push-ups after touchdowns or dance during timeouts. Arkansas added an inflatable hog a few years ago to rev the crowd during games.

But here, they not only have a tiger to admire in a $3 million pen, but also they coax Mike into a cage on game days and then park the cage next to the visitors’ locker room at Tiger Stadium, nicknamed “Death Valley.” In 1988, the stadium was so crowded and raucous that, according to legend, the rumbling after a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter qualified as an earthquake on a seismograph a few hundred yards away.

For all the intimidation tactics and urban legends, this is the lighter side of SEC mania. No one gets hurt or legitimately frightened; this is the roller coaster or Halloween house of sports. The thrill is real even if the threat is staged.

At least that’s true for fans. Coaches sometimes experience something different.

“Every game is sort of wild, to tell you the truth,” says Gene Stallings, who led Alabama to the 1992 national championship. “If you don’t think some of those little games are important, you just lose one — and you’ll see how important they are, too.”

The tiger is one of the SEC’s better traditions, and LSU takes its mascot seriously. So does Georgia and its ’s English bulldog, Uga, bred and selected by the same Savannah attorney, Sonny Seiler, since 1956. When each dog dies, he’s entombed in a mausoleum, complete with an epitaph.

“Damn Good Dog,” the plaque reads for the original Uga.

“The Dog Of The Decade,” is how Uga IV is remembered.

Georgia needs a new mascot, after the last two Ugas died not long after being moved to Athens. Uga VII had a heart problem, and Uga VIII contracted lymphoma. A bulldog, Russ, will roam Sanford Stadium’s sidelines this year, but he will not become college football royalty. Russ is only a placeholder, until Seiler chooses Uga IX. He is taking his time.

“You don’t always find a dog that will live up to what you think he’s going to do,” Seiler says.

He looks at each puppy’s ears, tail, skeletal structure and chests. He has to carry a certain weight, and he has to stand strong during those humid days and nights in Athens. If there’s a bad sign, then that candidate is eliminated. Already Seiler has crossed off two strong candidates this summer for reasons that just didn’t feel right. The chosen one will not be introduced until late in the 2012 season.

“We just know,” says Seiler, 77. “We know what we’re looking for.”

Outsiders have applied pressure since Uga VIII’s death, and Seiler has defended his dogs and their lineage. But he knows that this is something he must get right. It’s too important to too many people.

“They don’t see the dogs as some stuffy mascot that they’ve got to be very careful with what they do and say,” he says. “They see these dogs as family.”

Then again, fanaticism has a dark side. Finebaum learned that in January 2011, but that wasn’t the first time. The stories go on and on.

One time, he says, Alabama lost a game to Arkansas, and a man was so despondent over the loss and the fact that he couldn’t find his car keys that, well, he shot his son. Fights break out over situations much less serious than that, and even now, as Finebaum tells the stories, there’s a group of fans angling for position for an autograph or a glimpse of SEC coaches and players.

“This is Southeastern Conference football,” Stallings says.

After “Al from Dadeville” called Finebaum in early ’11, Auburn officials performed a soil sample. Sure enough, someone had infected the oak trees at Toomer’s Corner with a herbicide called Spike 80DF, which affects tree roots and, in some cases, can poison groundwater.

An investigation discovered that Al wasn’t Al; his name was Harvey Updyke, a 62-year-old former Texas state trooper who had been disappointed after attending Alabama’s loss in 2010 to Auburn. He didn’t like how Auburn fans responded and allegedly wanted revenge.

Updyke has, in a handful of ways, more or less confessed to the tree poisoning.

“Did I do it? Yes,” the Auburn student newspaper quoted Updyke as saying this summer.

He also has denied it, on the advice of his attorneys — and, because he has had trouble denying it or even simply keeping quiet about it, several lawyers have dropped him. His trial for criminal mischief and desecrating a venerable object — he has pleaded not guilty — has been delayed because of the media attention and is scheduled to begin Oct. 1.

Last September, a familiar caller was patched through on Finebaum’s show. It was Updyke, who abandoned his nickname — and his bravado — from months earlier.

“I’ve been advised by my attorneys,” he said, “not to call you anymore.”

He couldn’t help himself. In an unscheduled appearance that lasted more than seven minutes, Updyke never confessed specifically to poisoning the trees, but he didn’t deny it, either. He offered no reasons; only an apology for the wrongdoing that had cost him friends and relationships even among family members.

“I’m not asking for sympathy,” Updyke said. “All I’m asking is for forgiveness.”

He went on.

“I can give you a lot of reasons why all that happened — I mean, a lot of reasons. All I can do, and it’s from my heart, Paul — it is from my heart — all I can say is that I’m sorry. I can’t undo it,” he said.

Then he paused.

“Paul, I guess I’ve said enough. I guess I’ve done enough damage.”

Then he hung up.

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