Thursday, December 24, 2015

Rick Cleveland: The last season

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
 Those who know me and/or have read my columns over the years, know I am the all-time sucker for good father/son stories, and Stevens' is one of the best.

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 ( is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.


Leigh Herrin said...

I just cried in starbucks. Thank you for this though.

Anonymous said...

Ole Miss leads the country in nostalgic stories, books etc.

Anonymous said...

This MSU alum teared up too. I hope they get to attend the Sugar Bowl and have a wonderful time.

Unknown said...

I was there too - my first Sugar Bowl.

Anonymous said...

Ole Myth is tied nationally for third place in annual arrests of players for the seventh year in a row. Go Team - Rah Rah!

Anonymous said...

Are the 2 MSU linebackers just arrested a few days ago going to be playing in the Belt Bowl next week?

Anonymous said...

To: 5:35

Some people can't even be decent during the Christmas season. Jealous much? Maybe Santa will bring you a better attitude.

Anonymous said...

Agree that Tulane Stadium was something special.

I'd rather a game there on natural grass and the elements rather than a sterile, domed stadium any day of the week.

Anonymous said...

Another vote that domes have ruined all outdoor sports played in them. Between all the foofoo foods and drinks they sell at ridiculous prices and the rap crap you have to listen to at halftime, there isn't much good to say about modern sports.

Burke said...

A friend and I went to Super Bowl IX in Jan. 1975, at Tulane Stadium. Steelers (Bradshaw, Franco Harris and the Steel Curtain) v. the Vikings (Tarkenton and the Purple People Eaters). Tickets were going for half-price on the street, or less. Cool and wet. The most boring event I have ever attended, mostly because of the looong timeouts for TV. This was to be the inaugural football game in the Dome, but it was not ready on time. The City That Care Forgot. That's not an indictment. I was glad to be outdoors. We stuck it out, then went to Casamentos and hit the raw bar. The memory of bad football games dwindles away quickly when you're dipping fat ones in ketchup, horseradish and Crystal. More saltines, please!

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There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

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