OXFORD, Miss. — The Grove is restless.
It’s 8:45 p.m. on Friday night. In 15 minutes, the line of cars stretching toward the edge of the Ole Miss’ campus will be allowed to enter the historic tailgating sight and unload tents and other equipment.
Minutes after the clock strikes nine o’clock, the Grove, which is covered in a combination of mud and straw on the ground level and shaded by trees in most areas, will be covered in tents in preparation for the daylong tailgate party to take place leading up to the game on Saturday between Ole Miss and Missouri.
People stand about thirty feet apart from one another, looking around in every direction. Nobody wants to lose his or her spot, especially since most have been sitting in the rain since morning to save a slice of land on the grove for their tent.
It’s 8:52 p.m., and a pair of Ole Miss students have already been ejected from the Grove after violating the most important rule: No tents until nine o’clock.
“If I see you back in here with tents before nine o’clock, I’ll throw you in jail,” a police officer instructs the students who have begun to lug their tents to the edge of campus.
The moment is almost here. A Hotty Toddy chant erupts from the crowd.
Just after the Friday lunch hour, the Grove is a peculiar sight.
A soft rain patters against one thousand garbage barrels. Blue and red containers dot the premises, and scores of people are simply standing around getting wet. It’s a graveyard scene, but none of them are here to pay respects.
They are holding spots.
Elijah Price is a holder. The 26-year-old is usually an independent welder, but Fridays before Ole Miss games provide him a different gig. He’s one of many people paid to simply claim a spot in the Grove and stand there all day.
A man from St. Louis is paying him $10 an hour to wait, and Price has been doing his duty since 7 a.m.
Next to him is Anthony Rakestraw, a 29-year old cook at the local IHOP. He has the same “boss man,” and he is equally excited about the prospect of extra cash.
Both know the rules.
“You don’t pull up a tent,” Price says, “you don’t get paid.”
Tents and other equipment aren’t allowed until the 9 p.m. deadline. Price and Rakestraw must hold down their respective areas until the police open up vehicular barricades near the Grove and a sea of tents descends upon the mud.
Price is big man, the type that people don’t want to mess with. The perfect holder.
“This is the sure thing to pay my bills at the end of the month,” he says.
The two men stand near the Walk of Champions, a stretch of bricks running through the Grove that’s punctuated by a small arch. Across the bricks sits Rakestraw’s 55-year-old father, Tony.
“Tolerate him a little bit,” Rakestraw says of his father. “He doesn’t have his teeth in.”
Tony Rakestraw lost his right leg 26 years ago.
He was riding his motorcycle to work when a car backed out of its driveway and hit him.
“He didn’t even look to see if anybody was coming,” he says.
Given his condition, holding is a pretty good job. He doesn’t have to move around much — he has a pair of crutches if needed — and he can socialize with passerbys as he pleases.
His white beard and kind face make him look a bit like Santa Claus, and a Coca-Cola bottle filled with liquor has softened his eyes for the afternoon.
“I have a problem with drinking,” he says. “If I go all day without drinking… I’ve had two alcohol seizures, and I don’t want another one.”
There are few other options when one is waiting in the Grove. One co-ed does homework while holding. Another woman creates a fort of barrels to sleep beneath.
“About 9 o’clock, people are going to come over and try to steal your spot,” Tony says. “There will be a lot of people getting in fights. I mean bloody fights. I ain’t going to put up with nobody stealing my spot either.
“I’ll take your tent, wad it up and throw it in the garbage can.”
Tony Rakestraw became an Ole Miss football fan eight years ago. That’s when he was employed to hold for the first time. He’s not terribly interested in the Missouri game on Saturday — he’d never even heard of Columbia, Mo.
He knows St. Louis, though.
“They have that big ol’ round thing,” he notes. “And the beer distributor.”
In the Grove, trash barrels serve as the boundary for spots. Straw marks the emergency lanes, which are to be kept clear at all times.
“We’re like dogs man,” Price says. “You mark your territory. You stay off the territory. Simple as that.”
Each spot has a different story. Every holder has a motive. Some are making money. Others, like Warren Barr, are doing a favor for a friend. In exchange, Barr just wants his friend to show up to his birthday party on Saturday.
Along the edge of the Grove, fraternity pledges sit on bales of hay, eating Subway sandwiches and try to pass the time. They insist the shifts they take to hold their fraternity’s spot are voluntary to avoid hazing accusations.
Mixed into the crowd is Austin Williams. He stands with his hands in the pockets of his camouflage cargo pants, his chest puffed out trying desperately to make himself bigger than his four-foot-something frame. As a 12-year-old,, he’s the youngest holder of the bunch. Friday is his first time holding a spot on his own.
He wanders back and forth around is spot. He’s taking his responsibility seriously. He’ll get paid $100 for his 12-hour workday. He’s saving up for the new PlayStation. If he does well, he may get more work in the future.
Boredom quickly sets in.
“I wish I would have brought a note pad or something,” Williams admits. “Or a camera. That would have helped me. I could have just taken pictures.”
Someone has already taken his spot once. Most of the other holders tower over him and are twice his age. Williams has only his blue-belt taekwondo background to help him fend off others looking for spots.
He’s made friends, though. The older holders working for similar companies know he’s over there and keep a watchful eye on him. There are unwritten rules in the Grove, but not everyone follows them. A young holder like Williams is a prime target for someone trying to steal a spot without doing the work.
The sun sets, and Williams needs a nap. He sets his cooler up against the tree, using the tree as his seat back. He rests his head against the bark, folds his hands in front of him and closes his eyes.
“I’m a light sleeper,” he insists.
Williams is awoken by the sound of people running by and opening tents. It’s nine o’clock, the rush has begun, and he has to get to work. He snaps up and stands over his spot.
The minutes tick by, and tents are popping up all around him. He scrambles to make sure nobody is setting up in his spot. His nerves heighten with each minute that passes. The only sounds heard are the clanging of tent poles and the crunch of straw beneath feet. Finally, the person bringing Williams’ tent arrives.
“It’s here!” he shouts. “Move it over,” he instructs. “We have all this space. If it’s open, we’re going to sneak over.”
Williams can’t stop laughing. He did it. He stood for 12 hours and held a spot in the Grove. He’s never even been to an Ole Miss game, but he’s already started to become a part of the tradition. The banks are closed, but in the morning, he’ll cash his check.
“You know what?” Williams says looking off into the night sky. “My mom’s catch phrase is ‘It builds character.’”
Sixty-two thousand fans will fill Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in six hours. Fans will stream through the entrances an hour early to cheer the seniors on Senior Day. A large number of Missouri supporters who have swallowed up sections of the tailgate will shout "M-I-Z" after every score.
But right now, the Grove is bumping.
Tents dominate the real estate formerly occupied by mud and straw. People stomp down the Walk of Champions looking for friends and shouting hellos in every direction.
The Clote tents are in a familiar spot just across the Walk of Champions. It’s the former patch of mud where Price and Rakestraw made their money on Friday.
Now, the mud is hidden beneath green carpet laid down by other manual laborers. A series of connected tents encase nearly 100 people. Food and alcohol is plentiful, and a shimmering ice sculpture with the Ole Miss and MU logos sits in the back.
The benefactor — or, as Price called him, “boss man” — is Michael Clote. He and his wife, Susie, live in Kirkwood, Mo. Their daughter attended Ole Miss, and they were so taken by the tailgating culture that they make the trip at least twice every year.
“The Mizzou tailgate is kind of spread out,” Clote said. “You couldn’t capture the energy. Here, that’s what this does: it captures the energy. Right here is the mainstream.”
The Clote tent is filled with friends from Missouri as well as the ones they’ve made in their years coming to games in Oxford. They are in their preferred spot: the first tree on the right after stepping through the arch for the Walk of Champions.
The economy is strange but effective. People such as Clote can pay for the best spots and keep people such as Price and the Rakestraws afloat with simple labor. When the Ole Miss football team walks right past the Clote tent two hours before the game, every hour of holding pays off.
“You see all the action here,” Clote says. “From our standpoint, you couldn’t have a better window.”