We are fortunate to have Lyn Scarbrough, the marketing director of Lindy’s Sports Publications, as a friend of Track’em Tigers. He recently wrote a piece on the Toomer’s Corner incident for Lindy’s and was kind enough to let us reprint it here. An Auburn graduate, Scarbrough gives us his take on the tragedy. Without question, it’s spot on…
By Lyn Scarbrough, Lindy’s Sports
“God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.” - naturalist John Muir
My daddy played football for coach Ralph Jordan at Auburn in 1934. Jordan, who would later become Auburn’s all-time winningest coach, was the head freshman coach then.
In 1997, my daddy died at the age of 82. He always cherished Toomer’s Corner. He took me there for the first time as a youngster in grade school, before the tradition of throwing toilet paper into the big oak trees at the junction of College St. and Magnolia Ave. after Auburn athletic victories had even started.
When daddy played football for Auburn, way back then, those oak trees were already over 50 years old.
I have two granddaughters now, the oldest just turned three. It would have been so special to walk with them between those oaks like I did with my daddy. It’s something that I had already thought about. But, unless there is a miracle, a demented coward, obsessed with jealousy and spite, has taken that dream away.
If you’re a college football fan anywhere in the country, you probably know the story by now. A 62-year old man, an admitted fan of the University of Alabama, a retired Texas State Trooper with children reportedly named Bear Bryant and Crimson Tide (that’s not a joke), poisoned the famous oak trees. He was charged on Thursday with one count of criminal mischief, a class C felony, for applying the lethal herbicide Spike 80DF to the soil around the trees, in doses up to 65 times the amount needed to kill them. Bond was set at $50,000 for the crime which could earn up to 10 years in prison for the current charge. Other charges, including some more serious from federal authorities, could be forthcoming.
How do we know that this man, Harvey Almorn Updyke, Jr., committed this crime?
Because he told us so. He didn’t really just tell us. He told the entire country, anybody that was listening to a nationally syndicated live radio sports talk show. He called to talk about … no, make that brag about … poisoning the trees, going so far as to describe the type of poison that he used. When asked if he cared that his act was illegal, he answered, “I really don’t.”
As he sits today in a jail in Lee County, Alabama, the brunt of national ridicule, the target of anger from Auburn fans, the source of embarrassment and humiliation for Alabama fans, and probably looking at many of his remaining years being spent in prison, you have to wonder if he cares about that now.
There are so many different ways to think about this horrendous act.
From a national perspective, this has immediately become the most vivid example of what has gone wrong with college athletics. Fans who live vicariously through their athletic teams, acting out their hatred against other people who have the audacity to support a rival. Bloggers and so-called journalists who hide behind anonymous sources in their selfish attempt to destroy young athletes. Adults who hang on every rumor about where some high school senior might sign to play football or basketball.
What happened to those times when rivalries could be fun, competition could be good-spirited, players could make their decisions about their own futures without outside pressure, and truth and fairness mattered to sports journalists?
From an individual perspective, you can understand anger against the person who committed this crime. You can understand frustration, disappointment and sorrow. It is a dark and demented person who would even consider such a despicable deed, much less carry it out, much less publicly brag about it … then pathetically attempt to deny it.
“Al from Dadeville,” as the alleged criminal was known on the radio call-in show, apparently didn’t understand much about voice recognition when he called the live broadcast or when he called the Auburn University professor of turfgrass management and weed science to inquire about the poison.
More than anything, you have to feel pity for anybody that pathetic. From the Auburn-Alabama rivalry perspective, it represents an all-time low.
The State of Alabama is unique in having two football programs that have been among the greatest all-time in the history of the sport. Since 1950 (when those oak trees were only about 70 years old), Alabama has been the ninth winningest team in college football, while Auburn ranks 13th. In those 60 years, considered as the modern era of the sport, no other state has two teams ranked as high. Not California or Texas or Florida … only in Alabama. Over those six decades, only 19 total victories separate the two teams. Alabama has won just over 69 percent of its games, Auburn just over 67 percent.
In most states, that would be the source for great pride and celebration … only, not in Alabama. Or at least, not for many in the state.
For sure, the Auburn-Alabama rivalry is among the most competitive and intense in the country. That happens when two programs are consistently outstanding, virtually equal over six decades, almost always nationally ranked, competing for the best players and for championships. It’s no surprise that this type of situation would create good-natured ribbing, and even some things that might not represent the best of sportsmanship.
It’s one thing to spray paint the score of the most recent game on a building or plant rye grass in the shape of the score outside the stadium. That’s unsightly and a nuisance, but can be removed.
It’s one thing to play questionable music over the stadium public address system when the opposing team comes onto the field. That shows lack of class and bad judgment, but only serves to hurt feelings.
But, it’s another thing to do what was done at Toomer’s Corner. Most everybody in the state, regardless of their team loyalty, has condemned the crime.
“It’s an awful act, a terrible thing to do,” said Alabama athletic director Mal Moore. “A lot of what makes our two programs so special is our many unique traditions. So, hearing this about Toomer’s Corner is upsetting to me in several ways. I certainly hope that whomever is responsible is held accountable.”
The overwhelming majority of comments from Alabama graduates and fans have echoed Moore’s sentiments.
“It is understandable to feel outrage in reaction to a malicious act of vandalism,” said Auburn University president Jay Gogue. “However, we should live up to the example we set in becoming national champions and the beliefs expressed in the Auburn Creed.”
Again, the overwhelming majority of Auburn alumni and fans have expressed agreement with Gogue, and it will be surprising if there is much evidence of retaliation attempts. Most realize that only a small percentage of sports fans would agree with the actions of a renegade individual.
But you can’t avoid the likely tragedy at Toomer’s Corner.
Those oak trees withstood the 100-plus mile per hour winds of Hurricane Opal in the mid-1990s when several giant trees in the block in front of historic Samford Hall were uprooted. They outlived two world wars, and thrived through the terms of 25 U. S. Presidents. But, they will not likely be able to withstand the indefensible actions of one deranged coward.
The most rewarding aspect of this sad situation is that the criminal’s objectives have backfired. Auburn fans have likely never been more united. Alabama fans probably have never shown such support for their cross-state rival. Auburn has received overwhelming positive visibility and support in the national media. And, whether or not the oaks survive, whether they are replaced by seedlings or by full-grown oaks or not replaced at all, celebrations at Toomer’s Corner will continue.
In probably the most fitting irony, in the future there will be countless more Auburn victory celebrations there, with even more emotion, excitement and solidarity than in the past due to this criminal action. Hopefully, l can be at one of those, holding my granddaughters’ hands.
While those celebrations are going on, the criminal will likely be behind bars, wearing his bright orange jumpsuit.
You have to wonder how much he will care about it then.