Editor's note: This is part of the Missourian's "SEC Road Trip" special section.
STARKVILLE, Miss. — Sam Jones pulls his shoulder-length blond hair back into a ponytail and leans forward in the leather driver's seat. The zombie target stands at the end of the gravel road. Jones points his .30-06 rifle out the window of his black sedan. He aims at the zombie's head.
"You can't be afraid of it," he says to the newcomer about the gun's kickback. "You just have to be like, 'I'm going to shoot a big bullet at a zombie. It's the end of the world.'"
Starkville, Miss., just got a lot more interesting.
• • •
Things had not started out this well.
The drive from Columbia to the hometown of Mississippi State University was a long one that went through a crowded mess of cars on Interstate 70 before turning southbound on Interstate 55, a drive so lonely some traffic would have been a pleasant sight.
The exit sign for Starkville (people there say the "k" like a "t") had been unremarkable enough that it was nearly missed. The car screeched sideways through the first turn of what felt like a 720-degree exit ramp before sanity and proper speed were restored.
Five hundred seventy-five miles, nine hours and one near-death experience.
And for what?
To see if what everyone said was true.
To see if, out of the 14 U.S. cities that have Southeastern Conference Schools, this town really was the most boring.
The woman behind the desk at Starkville's Days Inn and Suites didn't offer much to dispel the rumor.
She answered a question about the town's attractions by first saying what wasn't available.
"There's no mall," she said. "There's a movie theater and a bowling alley. There's the club scene. If you're not into that there's really not a lot to do."
One thing she could offer was a breakfast recommendation for the morning.
"There's a diner where a lot of people go …"
• • •
The Starkville Cafe was busy at 8 a.m.
The biggest commotion was when a group of old, stiff men got up from a table and shuffled toward the register in a race to pay the bill.
"Get the hell out of here or there's gonna be a fight," the winner said. No one believed him, but he got to pay anyway. It will be someone else's turn next time.
"Most of the people in here, they're sitting in the same place they do every day," said John Peeples, the friendly man behind the counter.
Peeples is the owner of the Starkville Cafe. But he prefers to be called the caretaker. The restaurant has been here since 1945. After leaving his job as a Ducks Unlimited regional director, he has only been in charge of the cafe for three years.
"The town owns this restaurant more than I do," Peeples said.
And the town was well represented on this Friday morning. There were policemen and farmers and even two Mississippi State football players. Every single person was friendly. But advice on things to do in Starkville was few and far between.
Someone recommended going to the Mississippi State baseball game. And that was about it.
"You'll have to ask someone younger than me about the nightlife," a short, stocky man said before tucking a post-breakfast pinch of tobacco into his lip.
That person was supposed to be Sam Jones. The Mississippi State junior is a friend of a friend's cousin who had agreed to show a visitor around. But he hadn't called.
The university's campus would have to be explored alone.
• • •
Mississippi State's campus is beautiful. Its buildings are big and made of traditional red brick that will never go out of style. The school's white buses drive quietly as if not to disturb the chirping birds. Statues of the school mascot, a bulldog named Bully, seem to be waiting around every corner.
At Drill Field, the rectangular patch of grass at the heart of campus, members of the Air Force ROTC program marched under the careful supervision of their commander, Lt. Col. Robert Reed.
"This dates back to the history of this institution and our military tradition on campus," Reed said when cadets in navy uniforms started leaving the field in all directions.
Mississippi State started as The Agricultural and Mechanical College of the State of Mississippi in 1878. It has since been through two name changes (Mississippi State College in 1932 and the current name in 1958). According to the Mississippi State Legislature, the land-grant university should offer training in "agriculture, horticulture and the mechanical arts … without excluding other scientific and classical studies, including military tactics."
The school's first president, Stephen D. Lee, was a West Point graduate who served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. His 20-year tenure as the school's top man ended in 1899, but remnants of the military-based atmosphere he created remained. The ROTC programs at the school remain popular, along with other staples of the school: science, math and agriculture.
This latter is why some people call Starkville a "cow town." Mississippi State has embraced the label. At athletic events, fans ring cowbells in the stands.
Legend says the tradition came from an incident during a football game decades ago. Mississippi State was playing hated rival Ole Miss when a cow interrupted the game. Mississippi State won after the cow was removed. The bells stuck around.
During the years, opponents have tried to get the cowbells banned. Their reasoning is understandable. Imagine the intimidating sound a crowd of rowdy Bulldog fans could make rattling their cowbells all at once.
• • •
Knowing where to go after touring campus is when things can get tough. Luckily, the arrival of a black sedan at a barbecue shack called Petty's erased the problem.
A tall young man with long, blond hair and Ray-Ban Sunglasses stepped out.
Sam Jones was sorry he couldn't meet up sooner. He'd slept in.
But he could give his tour of Starkville now.
As he drove, he pointed out buildings that went unrecognized before. There were the popular bars (Mugshots and Zorba's) and a good place to hear live music (Dark Horse Tavern).
While he steered, he explained his love-hate relationship with the South.
Part of him is tired of this place. He doesn't like the way people here look at his hair. He doesn't like the way they judge his music (not country). He has an internship at a music magazine in New York this summer. He can't wait.
But he knows he will miss it here. He likes his fraternity brothers and being close to the outdoors. He loves to hunt deer, turkeys and ducks.
Sometimes, when he wants to practice his shot, he gets on the highway and drives out past the shallow ponds used to breed catfish. He pulls onto a gravel road that leads to an empty field his brother owns. There's a dirt mound there that will hold paper targets up. He shoots them from his car.
He just got some new targets. They show a cartoon zombie woman holding a cartoon zombie dog.
They're hilarious. They're awesome.
"Have you ever shot a gun?" he asked.
He didn't wait for an answer.
"Do you want to?"
• • •
The paper zombie, riddled with holes, rests on the floorboard as the black sedan drives back toward Starkville city limits.
Jones stops briefly at the off-campus house he shares with a few of his fraternity brothers. He puts away his gun and pulls a pound of deer meat from the freezer. One quick microwave defrost cycle and it is time to go to the baseball game.
• • •
It's not just any ordinary game taking place under the lights of Dudy Noble Field this Friday night. It's the first of a three-game series against Ole Miss, the Bulldogs' most-hated rival and in-state competitor.
Starkville is just less than 100 miles south of Oxford, Miss., the hometown of Ole Miss.
Boil down the schools' differences and the feud becomes easy to understand. Mississippi State and Ole Miss have different priorities.
"They want to be Ivy League and we're farmers," one State student said.
Bulldog fans' distaste for the Rebels is so strong most won't even say "Ole Miss." Instead tonight's game is against "that school up North." And it's a good game, because the Bulldogs are winning and fans have plenty of chances to rattle their cowbells.
Jones puts his deer burgers on a grill in the tailgating area known as the Left Field Lounge. Here, just outside the fence of the stadium, elaborate decks and bleachers have been built on the backs of rusted-out trucks and trailers. The contraptions are called ball wagons. A series of introductions later and a dairy farmer who lost his right arm in a machinery accident will explain how it all came to be.
"You want to know about the history of this?" Jon David Naugher said after making his way out from behind the bar of his own ball wagon. "I'll tell ya."
Naugher used to come to Mississippi State baseball games when he was in high school. It was early in the '70s and the baseball stadium was much smaller. The field behind the left-field fence was just a cow pasture then. He and his friends would park their trucks close to the fence so they could drink their beer and watch baseball for free. Eventually, people caught on and more trucks started showing up.
To get a better view, fans started making modifications. Naugher said he was the second person in the Left Field Lounge to add bleacher seats to the flatbed trailer he's had since 1984. Other newer ball wagons have been built onto broken-down farm trucks that have to be hauled out after every season.
Eventually, the university started charging an annual fee to rent a spot for a ball wagon. For Naugher, it's worth it.
"I'm pretty old," he said. "I've been out here a long time. But I hope to keep coming back for a long time."
He gestures toward a young brunette sitting on his ball wagon.
"I've got my daughter, my baby, right here," he said. "She's going to be coming to Mississippi State next fall."
When the 4-0 Mississippi State victory is final, a 10-minute fireworks display lights up the sky above the stadium.
Naugher's tailgate shows no sign of stopping, but Jones is packing up his grilling utensils and preparing to walk to his car.
The after-party is at his house.