OXFORD, Miss. — There is a right way and a wrong way. And then there is the Manning Way. And when you’re in Oxford, a college town where tradition permeates the muggy air like the smell of deep fried chicken and deviled eggs, the Manning Way is the only way.
The sacred road is named after legendary Rebels quarterback Archie Manning. It is an 18-mphstreet, in honor of Manning’s retired jersey number, that runs parallel to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium and leads you directly to The Grove – the mecca of tailgating in American sports.
The 10-acre Grove is located on a plot of land surrounded by towering oak trees, but from a bird’s eye view, you’d swear you were looking at a patchwork quilt as hundreds of squared crimson-and-navy blue tents cover the muddied grass below.
It is mid-afternoon and the bright sun pierces through the dark clouds that produced light showers only hours before. The humidity is overwhelming. But that hasn’t deterred the thousands of Ole Miss students who are dressed in their Sunday finest.
There is an unwritten dress code at The Grove. Gentlemen sport Oxford button-down shirts with khaki pants and loafers, while the ladies wear brightly colored sundresses and high heels.
Two pretty-eyed sorority girls converse near the Walk of Champions, a red-bricked walkway that runs the length of The Grove. Lauren White, 21, wears a pink dress with martini glass print. Christina Psillas, 22, wears a floral-patterned dress with splashes of green, pink and tan. It took them nearly two hours to get ready for the tailgate.
“I’ve been coming here since freshman year, and I always make sure to look my best,” White says as she fans herself with a plastic plate. “I might take a long time to get ready, but it’s worth it.”
The men take notice at the women’s hard work. Mark Freeman, 21, comes to The Grove to eat, drink and mingle with the ladies.
“The girls here are the best,” he said. “They’re smart, pretty, high-class girls. They have everything you’d want in a woman. And this place is full of them.”
The Grove is also full of traditional Southern food: fried chicken, pork, homemade dressings and mashed potatoes. A pair of MU fans roast a pig over an open grill. Mary Thompson, who has been coming to Ole Miss tailgates for decades, began cooking her tailgate dishes on Monday. The final spread includes fried chicken, chips, salsa, cheese sandwiches, strawberries and her signature stuffed eggs.
The heat is now unbearable, but the party rages on. Cheerleaders perform routines at a small amphitheater located in the middle of The Grove. Kids wearing their favorite players’ jerseys throw footballs that are too big for their hands. Suddenly, a loud voice breaks the hum of the crowd.
“Are you ready?” a young man screams to the masses.
“Hell yes! Damn right!” they reply, as if on cue.
Then, in unison, they begin to sing the Hotty Toddy fight song:
Hotty Toddy, Gosh almighty
Who in the hell are we - Hey
Flim Flam, Bim Bam
Ole Miss By Damn!
It is a fight song that is as much a part of the state as the Muddy Mississippi. The bathrooms are even located in a trailer called the Hotty Toddy Potty. The song is a prelude of what’s to come.
Feet start the shuffle at around 3:15 p.m. Fans migrate toward the edge of the Walk of Champions, pulling out their cameras and cell phones. The team is about to begin its march to the stadium.
Omer and Priscilla Berry have a front-row view. They graduated in 1972 and ’71, respectively, and have been season-ticket holders for over 25 years. They’ve been to tailgates at almost all of the Southeastern Conference schools. But nothing, they say, compares to The Grove.
“We get up at 6 a.m. and stay here all day,” Priscilla Berry says. “We’ll come with our best friends and eat breakfast, lunch and dinner here.”
Just as she finishes speaking, the team marches through the heart of The Grove. Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron leads the way, jogging in his dark suit and slapping high-fives as he screams, “Let’s go Rebels!”
As the players pass through, a stuffed Truman the Tiger doll stands above the crowd cramming the sidewalk. Ken Aston, who graduated from MU in 1981, clutches the stuffed animal in quiet protest.
“I’m scaring them to death,” he says.
The last of the Ole Miss players passes, and the fans converge upon the Walk of Champions. A frat boy in a white button-down and sunglasses yells,
“Are you ready?” Everyone sings the anthem in unison. And the tailgate continues.