The first time Stuart Stevens and his dad went to a Sugar Bowl it snowed. This was New Year's Day 1964. Stuart Stevens was 11 and a dyed-in-red-and-blue Ole Miss Rebel.
That Sugar Bowl matched the Rebels against Alabama. Bear Bryant coached Alabama. John Vaught coached Ole Miss. The Bear suspended star quarterback Joe Namath. But Bama, quarterbacked by future Ole Miss coach Steve Sloan, won anyway, 12-7, on four field goals and seemingly countless Ole Miss turnovers. The game was played outdoors, as football was meant to be played, at Tulane Stadium (heaven rest its soul, and it did have soul).
Young Stuart Stevens, cold and bitterly disappointed, cried. His dad, Jackson lawyer Phineas Stevens, comforted him. It is one of the really poignant scenes in Stuart's beautifully written book, The Last Season (Knopf, 2015).
|Phineas and Stuart Stevens|
That last season, which really wasn't, was the season of 2013. Stuart Stevens, then 60, was coming off another bitterly disappointing defeat, this one suffered by Mitt Romney to Barack Obama. Stevens had helped direct Romney's campaign.
He needed a timeout. He needed to heal. He needed to do something he loved with someone he loved. He went to North Carolina and found his 95-year-old father and posed the question: “What do you think about going to some Ole Miss football games this year?”
And so they did. The book tells the story of the 2013 season, as watched and eagerly devoured by a 60-year-old man and his 95-year-old father. But it tells much more than that.
It is a story about the shared love of father and son, a story of race, a story of the spell college football casts in the Deep South, a story of coming to grips with devastating defeat, and a story of growing up in Mississippi in the 1960s and all the conundrums inherent.
Stuart begins the book in 1962. Ole Miss is about to open the only perfect season in school history against the Kentucky in Jackson. There's a pre-game party at the Stevens' Belhaven home, replete with bootlegger whiskey. And, of course, there's a story there.
But the bigger story is from the game, which father and son left at halftime in the middle of Ross Barnett's infamous speech. Phineas Stevens could stomach no more.
Even a casual student of Mississippi history knows what followed: James Meredith, the riot at Ole Miss, the deaths, the 30,000 federal troops and the valiant Rebel football team — the one Vaught would call his favorite — winning every game in spite of it all.
Half a century later, Stuart Stevens documents the world of remarkable changes that have occurred in Mississippi in the lifetime of a father and his son.
When I caught up with Stuart Stevens this past weekend, he was in Laurel for a niece's wedding and his father's 98th birthday.
“Dad is doing wonderfully for 98,” Stuart said. “We had a great weekend.”
Father and son still share every Ole Miss game, mostly by cell phone and texting. Yes, they are excited about the upcoming Sugar Bowl, 52 years after the first one. They hope to attend.
“Dad wishes it was going to be played at Tulane Stadium; so do I,” Stuart Stevens said.
If Phineas Stevens sounds like an amazing man, he is. He is the only surviving founder of Butler, Snow, O'Mara, Stevens and Canada law firm, now Butler Snow. He was a freshman teammate of the great Bruiser Kinard, the only charter member of the College Football Hall of Fame, the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. Phineas Steven is the oldest surviving Ole Miss Alumni Hall of Famer, which he jokes he gets by default at his age.
He is also one prince of a dad, which you will learn when you read the book.
Rick Cleveland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.