It was early in the fourth quarter and our quarterback had just thrown a duck directly into the hands of a large man wearing maroon. And the cows were being called home.
My 6-year-old son, Joe, patted me on the shoulder. "I'm ready to go now," he yelled over the clanging of cowbells.
I'd brought my two other sons with me, too. It was a nice trip. At home in Georgia, I'd smoked a Boston butt through the night Friday. Then early Saturday we piled in the truck and headed to Starkville.
Mapquest had us going up to Birmingham and down to Tuscaloosa and over to Starkville, but we decided to take interstate to Montgomery and then two-lane highway to Tuscaloosa.
Nobody was on the road. We listened to the play-by-play man Alabama fired in favor of Eli Gold. Doug Something. He's got a Saturday morning show now, and a bunch of old guys call in and talk sports. Old guys like Wimp Sanderson and Brother Oliver. So we listened to these old guys who've forgotten more about football than we'll ever know, and we watched pastures and creeks and dogs and tractors go by.
We got to Starkville about three hours before kickoff and found a sweet tailgating space. We'd planned to set up at the technology park and then take a shuttle over to the stadium, but nobody was there yet and we hadn't realized the technology park was off campus. So we drove onto campus and checked out the stadium but all the lots were reserved. We took the ramp onto the parkway that would take us back to the technology park, but then we noticed that a parking zone had been painted in the grass on either side of the on-ramp.
So we parked on the bypass on-ramp and unloaded a bunch of chairs in the median and set up a little kettle grill and warmed up the butt and grilled some hot sausages and tossed around the football and then ate a big lunch and then played a semi-organized game that ended with the two oldest boys wrestling in the grass.
Then we walked the quarter-mile to the stadium. We were looking for the university cheese store but we weren't looking that hard. You know the deal. Everywhere there were tents and smoke and people shouting out to each other. We were just walking around looking at the tailgaters and soaking in the atmosphere like you do before any football game.
At the bookstore, we noticed that Oklahoma was beating Texas 21-10. Of course, that would change.
Over by the stadium, we asked a large woman dressed in maroon for directions to the cheese shop. "Oh, our cheese is yummy!" she said. Then she pointed down the street.
We headed that way and then started talking to an elderly Vanderbilt fan who wanted to know why Joe was wearing a Georgia Tech hat. All of us had a Vanderbilt hat except for Joe, and the night before I'd suggested Joe wear the Yellowjacket hat because Tech had beaten Miss State like a dog earlier in the season. One of the other boys explained this reasoning to the man, who looked at me like I was a bad parent. What a mean thing to do! How unsportsmanlike!
Then we realized we wouldn't have time before the game started to buy a big wheel of Bulldog Edam and then take it back to the cooler. So we made a point to get our cheese after the game, and we went into the stadium. Our seats were good. In the top section, but in the second row about the 40 yard line.
It was a long, long haul up there. The stadium looks old and has a massive series of gentle ramps you have to navigate. In modern stadiums, you take a couple of steep ramps and you're there. But at Davis Wade Stadium, we walked back and forth on about a thousand ramps. It felt like we were on a treadmill.
From our seats, there were no other Vanderbilt fans in sight. One of the boys loudly exclaimed that Vanderbilt was going to kill Mississippi State and the man in front of us turned around and clamped him on the shoulder and said warmly, "Say it ain't so."
I tell you, Mississippi State fans are great. They are gracious and friendly. They tell interesting stories. They are tolerant of small children. And then the game begins and they start shaking those damned cowbells.
Thankfully, their punter shanked a couple of kicks just before halftime and the Commodores scored a touchdown to take the lead — though it took seven plays to go just 17 yards — and then the steady blast of cowbells diminished to something like a tinkling.
But then it was the fourth quarter and Chris Nickson threw the interception and my son Joe announced we were leaving and I explained that we were staying until the end of the game, or until Mississippi State was taking a knee to run out the clock. And then State scored to take a 17-7 lead and the noise was deafening.
We had a break from the clanging when Jeff Jennings scored to make it 17-14. But it was over soon enough and the State quarterback was taking a knee and we were heading back down the thousand gentle ramps.
On all sides we were surrounded by concrete. And bouncing off every inch of concrete was — you got it — the sound of cowbells.
Evil little elves with cowbells in each hand were climbing into our ears. It's what I imagine hell is like.
"Dad!" my oldest son yelled.
"What?" I yelled back.
"I'm never coming back to Starkville again," he yelled.
None of us dared mentioned the cheese shop. The only yellow thing on our mind was the dashed line running out of town.
The truck was parked a quarter-mile away, already halfway up the on-ramp. We were out of Starkville in five minutes.