story by David Rice
Editor’s note: Welcome to the fourth season of Tusk to Tail – the sport of tailgating as organized, performed and perfected by a group of Hog fans who have been tailgating together sober and otherwise for more than a decade. Members of the Tusk to Tail Team are Sean Casey, Jack Clark, Dale Cullins, Greg Houser, Craig May, David Rice and Mark Wagner. Tusk to Tail is managed by The City Wire. Legal representation is iffy at best and professional psychological help is typically ignored, if not mocked.
The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter — @TuskToTail
Tusk to Tail has never been known for our sanity, but this week required an extra large helping of lunacy. Why would anyone in their right mind consider going to this game?
The 4-4 Razorbacks had struggled against efficient passing offenses all season, most recently conceding more than 500 yards of offense to the Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks of the FCS. It was widely believed that 18th ranked Ole Miss could name their own score. We have made game predictions in this space for the past four seasons, and this was the first time I can remember the gang unanimously picking against the Hogs.
Oxford is about three and a half hours away from Little Rock. Although that makes Ole Miss our closest opponent, going there for a game requires an overnight stay or a full day of travel. Plus, the forecast called for rain. Simply put, this trip was literally designed against the fair weather fan.
Further complicating matters was the Godfather’s health. Craig May earned his position as the head of our tailgating family by missing only one game since 1999, catching 208 of the past 209. Last Friday, however, he began showing signs of passing a kidney stone. May would have been excused had he chosen to sit this one out to lick his wounds. Nothing doing. Craig kept the streak alive, taking his normal seat behind the wheel of his Tahoe to lead us into temptation.
“I need three sausage and cheese plates, a full rack of ribs, and another pitcher of beer,” said the Godfather, as we were seated at the Rendezvous in Memphis.
Jack Clark and I joked that Craig should be made an honorary captain of the team, wheeling an IV drip behind him as he hobbled to midfield with fellow crippled running back Jonathan Williams. Indeed, the road goes on forever and the party never ends.
At stake was more than just a game, or even a basic party. At the heart of the Ole Miss campus, the Grove is tailgating mecca. Nearly every square inch of the grounds is covered by pop-up canopies, and each of those tents is filled with the beautiful people eating, drinking, and carrying on like it’s their job. The unofficial motto of Rebels fans is, “We may not win every game, but we never lose the party.”
Several of the tents are illuminated by chandeliers or sterling silver candelabra. Most tables are adorned with ornate centerpieces and several hundred dollars worth of flowers. Food options range from standard trays of barbeque pork to lavish charcuterie and artisan cheese platters.
The revelers drank from cups printed with the Ole Miss logo or their famous Hotty Toddy cheer. I noticed the usual assortment of beers, Bloody Marys, and other cocktails, but fancy bottles of wine were far more prevalent than any other tailgate I’ve ever attended. You couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a host in mid-turn of a corkscrew.
Another key difference from our soirees back home was the number of people I saw smoking. The University of Arkansas is a smoke-free campus, and I have heard that security will ticket those found in violation. In Oxford, however, smoking appears to not only to be permitted, but recommended. Rare was the tent that I did not see someone firing up a heater. Nicotine and gravy provided the breakfast of tailgating champions.
The fete we attended was graciously hosted by Keith and Alicia Hughes of Little Rock. Alicia is an Ole Miss alumnus, and rented a tent to entertain her friends and family. Were it not for their generous hospitality, Tusk to Tail would have been outside the Grove looking in, wanton nomads in search of a party. You’ve got to have a home base, or at least a place to safely leave your cooler, and we remain forever indebted to the Hughes for the food, fellowship, and literal shelter from the storm they provided.
The rain certainly threw a kink in things across the hallowed party grounds. As our tent back on The Hill fills up, many of us move outside, spilling into the adjacent lawn. In The Grove, however, there is no extra space. Thousands of canopies are daisy chained together, a sprawling web of pregame exuberance.
Craig’s son Lawson and my boy Jackson looked for enough green space to throw their football, only to become resigned that watching the grown ups get turned up would be the afternoon’s sport of choice. Dale and Kara Cullins daughter Spencer, as well as Clark’s daughter Grace and her friend Maggie had spent the morning getting dolled up, and needed a roof or umbrella over their head. Luckily a neighboring tent remained empty during most of the storm, only to be overtaken by our group of squatters until the hosts finally arrived.
Saturday’s kickoff was at 2:30 p.m., serving as the undercard to the main event of LSU at Alabama. Fittingly, the game played out like a boxing match. When Arkansas scored on a first quarter post route to Drew Morgan, the Rebels countered with a short touchdown run by Jaylen Walton. Dominique Reed broke free to catch a TD in the next quarter, only to be matched by Ole Miss quarterback Chad “Swag” Kelly’s scoring run. The kickers traded three-point jabs to end the half, and the score remained tied at the end of each quarter throughout the game. It seemed clear that whoever had the ball last would win.
Fast forward to overtime, when Kelly dashed in for his third rushing touchdown. Could the Razorbacks answer? Things looked incredibly bleak as Arkansas faced 4th & 25. Brandon Allen had played a fantastic game to this point, but even the greatest quarterbacks struggle with that down and distance. Despite Allen’s clutch performance in overtime against Auburn, converting here would require nothing short of a miracle. And even if we were able to get a first down, we still had to score just to stay in the game.
You know what happened next.
Everyone knows what happened next.
The play was ESPN SportsCenter’s top play of the day, and has been discussed in every nook and cranny of the Natural State since it happened. Allen threw it about 15 yards to tight end Hunter Henry, whose ankles were seized by an Ole Miss defender nearly 10 yards away from the first down. Henry had the wherewithal, and equally importantly, the remaining strength to lateral the ball over his head, where it skipped perfectly to our fastest guy on the field, stud running back Alex Collins.
Collins raced for the first down and right into Razorbacks legend status. Collins fumbled the ball in another failed lateral attempt, but Reed was right there to fall on it. The play has already gained a few nicknames, including “Oh, Henry!” and my personal favorite, the “Hog and ladder.” There is zero chance it will be forgotten by anyone in attendance.
But the Hogs still trailed by seven. Queue up another crucial score by Drew Morgan, who can now stop being called a great white receiver. Race has nothing to do with that dude’s strength and tenacity. He is simply an excellent receiver.
All we needed now was an extra point to tie. Head Hog Bret Bielema was having none of that. Maybe he sensed that we lacked the energy to continue trading blows with the Rebels. Perhaps he wanted to show his team that he believed they were strong enough to shock the world. Or maybe, like Bob Dylan says, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”
Bielema put the ball in Allen’s hand and said let’s end it here. The plan seemed to backfire as Allen was sacked by Marquis Haynes. But in yet another shocking development that typically never seems to benefit Arkansas, Haynes was flagged for a facemask. The personal foul moved the Razorbacks to the one yard line. The rest, as they say, is history. Allen fell into the endzone for the winning two-point conversion.
While the team hoisted Allen on their shoulders, strangers hugged strangers throughout the rickety endzone bleachers reserved for visiting fans. The Godfather turned to Clark, and quietly put his finger in his chest.
“It’s moments just like that,” May said, pointing now to the field. “That is why you’re glad you go to all the games. Moments like that.”
We may not be in our right minds, but at least we know why we do the things we do.
Get well soon, Godfather.