|August 15, 2011
Something Went Very Wrong At Toomer's Corner
A die-hard Alabama fan is about to be tried for allegedly poisoning Auburn's beloved oak trees. To understand why someone would do this, you have to look at the fan's roots
On a February afternoon, they found out it was true. So many times they had filled up the place because the place filled them up. But now they went for a different reason.
Toni Rich raises money for scholarships through Auburn University's alumni office. She got the phone call on the way back from an Auburn Club meeting in north Georgia. She drove into town and picked up her five-year-old son, Gabriel, from day care. They went straight to Toomer's Corner.
Along the way she told the boy what had happened. There was this bad man who came. He poured some poison on the ground. It got in the trees. We might not be able to stop it.
They were among the first ones to arrive. But then Toni Rich saw the people coming from every direction, across the lawns of the campus, up Magnolia Avenue and down College Street, to the spot where the two 30-foot-tall oak trees have framed Auburn's main entrance for 130 years. Sheldon Toomer, a halfback on the Tigers' first football team, in 1892, built a drugstore diagonally across the street in 1896. Because of Toomer's Drugs the intersection is Toomer's Corner, and because of that, the trees are Toomer's Oaks.
About five weeks before, when Auburn beat Oregon 22--19 for the national championship, thousands of people came to cry and holler and whoop War Eagle. Fans have crowded Toomer's Corner after big Auburn wins for more than 50 years. At some point they started to bring rolls of toilet paper. One story traces it to 1972 when Auburn running back Terry Henley promised to "beat the Number 2" out of second-ranked Alabama, and the Tigers ran back two blocked punts for touchdowns in the last six minutes to win 17--16. Fans used to drape toilet paper over the power lines. After the city buried the lines, fans flung the TP into the trees. And on that championship night, Jan. 10, they rolled Toomer's Oaks until the trees streamed white.
But on this February day, people laid offerings at the roots. A roll of toilet paper with get well drawn in Sharpie. A memo to God on a diner receipt. A hand-drawn card with a painting of a tree and a quote from Alabama native Helen Keller: "What we have once enjoyed, we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us."
That quote is both truth and a lie.
Toomer's Oaks stand for Auburn, and they will live as long as memory. But they are also trees, and they can be killed. The dying had begun.
Toni Rich and her boy lingered in the crowd for three hours, staring at the poisoned oaks. Gabriel had many questions, but this one most of all:
Why would somebody do that?
Harvey Updyke wears Alabama colors every day. Last year he had a favorite T-shirt for game days. On the front, Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes pees on the Auburn logo. On the back it says, IF YOU SEE ME IN A TURBAN & SANDALS AU IS PLAYING IRAQ!!
"I saw that on a bumper sticker and told him about it," says Wayne Barnes, an old high school friend of Updyke's. "He went on the Internet and found somebody to make it into a shirt. I think he bought two."
Harvey Updyke didn't always hate Auburn, but for half a century he has loved Alabama. He was born in 1948 and grew up in Milton, Fla., in the panhandle near Pensacola. A drunk driver killed his dad when Harvey was three. When he was 10, he was watching a TV station out of Mobile one Sunday afternoon when The Bear Bryant Show came on. Bryant had arrived in Tuscaloosa from Texas A&M. Here was a strong man with a deep voice who announced to the world, "I ain't nothing but a winner." Harvey latched on.
He played offensive line at Milton High. One year he went to watch the Senior Bowl in Mobile, and the story he later told friends was that he walked right up to the Bear and declared, "I'm going to play for you." The coach supposedly replied, "I hope so, son." But Updyke didn't. After graduating from Milton in 1967, he went to junior college, then headed for Texas believing there were better job opportunities for him there. He went to his first Crimson Tide game in 1970, when Alabama played Oklahoma in the Astro-Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston. He ran onto the field in the third quarter, carrying two rolls of toilet paper on a broom handle and a box of Tide detergent. Roll Tide.
In 1976 he got a job as a Texas state trooper. He got married and had a daughter he named Crimson Tyde. He remarried and had two more children; he named his son Bear Bryant. (His second daughter is named Jennifer Lynn.) He married a third time, to his current wife, Elva. He pushed to call their daughter Ally Bama. His wife pushed back. They named her Megan instead.
Updyke hurt his neck in a crash that occurred as he was rushing to help another officer, and things got tough after that. He retired in 1988 on disability. In 1996 he was arrested in Texas and charged with criminal mischief. (Updyke says it was a family quarrel; he spent three days in jail, and the case was eventually dismissed.) He was also charged twice for theft, in 2003 and '06, for passing hot checks. (Both charges were dismissed after he paid the money back.) He had two bulging disks in his neck as a result of the crash and money problems. He and Wayne Barnes had drifted apart after high school but renewed their friendship after a high school class reunion in 1997. Updyke knew Barnes had a house in Alabama, a little cinder-block place on Lake Martin near Dadeville. Barnes offered to rent it to him for $300 a month. Harvey and Elva moved into the lake house in the winter of 2009. He lived just 130 miles from Tuscaloosa and the Alabama campus. He also lived just 30 miles from Auburn.
To understand the Alabama-Auburn rivalry, think of those Russian nesting dolls. College football has the most intense fans of any American sport. The SEC has the most intense fans in college football. The Auburn-Alabama rivalry has the most intense fans in the SEC. And the teams' annual game—the Iron Bowl—is the most intense three hours of the sports calendar. It's the hard, hot ember of a feud that burns all year long.
Michigan--Ohio State, Oklahoma-Texas: Those fans live across borders. Alabama people and Auburn people grow up together, go to church together, shop at the same malls, eat at the same catfish joints. They share one state with no pro teams and not a square foot of neutral ground.
The rivalry flows deep into the class divide among Southern whites. Alabama used to be where the children of doctors and lawyers went to school. Auburn was for the sons and daughters of farmers and factory workers. Auburn people saw Alabama people as phonies. Bryant himself dismissed Auburn as a "cow college." As the state modernized and the campuses integrated, the differences leveled off. But troll an Alabama or Auburn message board and it won't take long to find somebody calling a Tigers fan Jethro, or somebody referring to a Tide fan as Forrest Gump. The old resentments itch like a phantom limb.
"Everybody searches for some kind of group identity," says Wayne Flynt, a professor emeritus in history at Auburn. "In a [state] like Alabama, which was so poor and so looked down upon for so long ... all year long you can put on the jersey and belong to something. And part of that identity is who you are not."
Going into last year's Iron Bowl, the rivalry was just about even. Alabama led 40-33-1, and Auburn had won seven of the previous 10. But while Auburn had won plenty of games, Alabama had won trophies. The Crimson Tide claimed 13 national titles, including several from the days when four or five polls might've picked different champions. Auburn owned one outright title, from 1957, and listed two more from the undefeated seasons in '93 and '04. That's how things stood, with an 11--0 and No. 2--ranked Auburn team led by star quarterback Cam Newton coming to Tuscaloosa.
While both programs have been in trouble with the NCAA over the years, the 2010 season was largely dominated by allegations that Newton's father, Cecil, tried to sell his son's services when Cam was coming out of junior college. The NCAA cleared Newton, but legions of Alabama fans believe that one day Auburn will have to give back the 2010 national title.
Harvey Updyke and Wayne Barnes had tickets to the Iron Bowl. Before the game they went by the Bear Bryant statue outside Bryant-Denny Stadium. Someone had put a Newton jersey on it.
Alabama still had most of its best players from the '09 title team, and the game started like a 'Bama fan's wildest wish. It was 21--0 Tide after the first quarter, 24--0 halfway through the second. What's better: winning your own title, or denying your worst enemy theirs?
Then Tide running back Mark Ingram broke loose on a 41-yard reception down the right sideline, headed for another six—but Auburn defensive end Antoine Carter caught him from behind and punched the ball out. If it had gone out-of-bounds, Alabama ball. If it had kicked to the left, there'd have been a scramble. But it tightroped the sideline, rolled into the end zone, and Auburn fell on it for a touchback.
And right there, everything tilted—the game, the season, all those nesting worlds pressure-sealed into four quarters played once a year. Alabama led 24--7 at the half, but you could feel the Tigers coming, and it was almost no surprise early in the fourth when Auburn went up for good 28--27. Newton threw for three touchdowns and ran for another. Updyke and Barnes had booked a room for the night but drove back instead. They didn't say 10 words all the way to Dadeville. Barnes let Updyke out at the lake house and went on home to Florida.
The Iron Bowl took place on the day after Thanksgiving. Two months later, on the afternoon of Jan. 27, Updyke called the Paul Finebaum sports-talk radio show out of Birmingham.
The Finebaum show gets monster ratings in Alabama, mainly because it keeps Auburn-Alabama boiling four hours a day, five days a week, all year long. Auburn fans had owned the show since the Iron Bowl. It had taken the Tigers just one year to unseat Alabama as the best in the nation—and, more important, the best in the state. Auburn fans called every day to crow. Updyke listened until he could no longer stand it. He called in and identified himself as Al from Dadeville. (His middle name is Almorn.) Finebaum put him on.
"Al" talked about seeing the Newton jersey on the Bryant statue. He added that a friend had sent him a newspaper clipping that said Auburn students rolled Toomer's Corner after Bryant died in 1983. Finebaum disputed this, and he was right. It didn't happen.
This is what followed:
Al: Let me tell you what I did. The weekend after the Iron Bowl, I went to Auburn, Alabama, 'cause I live 30 miles away, and I poisoned the two Toomer's trees.
Finebaum (nervous laugh): O.K., well, that's fair.
Al: I put Spike 80DF in 'em.
Finebaum: Did they die?
Al: Do what?
Finebaum: Did. They. Die?
Al: They're not dead yet, but they definitely will die.
Finebaum: Is that against the law, to poison a tree?
Al: Well, do you think I care?
In April, Gary Keever, a horticulture professor at Auburn, stopped by Toomer's Corner on his bike to check on the trees. Normally, in spring, Southern live oaks are budding. Instead, Toomer's Oaks were shedding. Keever called a guy from landscaping, and together they scooped leaves into a five-gallon bucket. Keever wanted a few to analyze at the lab. But even more, he didn't want the leaves to blow down the street because they could potentially damage other plants.
Spike 80DF blocks photosynthesis. When it gets into the leaves of a tree, the chlorophyll can't absorb the energy already in the leaves. The loose energy then destroys the leaves from the inside. They yellow around the edges and eventually fall off. The tree goes into survival mode. It puts out another set of leaves, then another—every three to five weeks—until the tree runs out of stored energy. Most times, once the poison is in deep, there's not much anyone can do. Eventually the tree gives up.
Spike 80DF has little or no effect on people and animals. It is manufactured to murder plants. Ranchers use it to clear fence lines; road crews use it to clear highway shoulders. A four-pound bag can kill an acre of brush. Keever thinks Updyke dumped a whole bag into the soil around Toomer's Oaks. When the initial lab tests came back on Feb. 9, the level of Spike in one soil sample was 500 times what it takes to kill a tree.
Auburn's schools of agriculture and forestry are full of authorities on trees and soil and herbicides. Almost immediately after the poison was discovered, a group of more than a dozen professors, plus some outside experts, decided to soak the ground with liquid charcoal, hoping it would bind to the poison. Then they put down tarps to keep the roots from taking in Spike with rainwater. Next they decided to change out the soil. Crews dug as deep as four feet down, washed the roots as clean as they could and sucked up the slurry. They repacked the holes with fresh soil. Not long after, the tree on the College Street side started turning yellow.
Toomer's Oaks weren't in great shape to begin with, because fans have just about loved them to death. Over the years, fans have expanded the Toomer's Corner party from big road victories to any football win, plus big wins in other sports. The toilet paper has to be pressure-washed out of the trees. The branches still bear marks from a couple of times when the TP caught fire. By the standards of live oaks—the most majestic trees of the South—Toomer's Oaks are gap-toothed and scraggly.
"If they were in my yard, I'd be hard-pressed to keep them," Keever said in April. "But these aren't trees; these are symbols. People cherish that."
As he talked, a tour group came through. A student was showing off the campus to some prospective Auburn students and parents. They stopped under the trees, at the edge of the shade where the boughs touch overhead.
The tour guide talked about Toomer's Corner, rolling the oaks and the poison in the trees. "The trees are doing O.K., but we don't know if they're going to make it," she said. "Even if they don't, we'll continue the tradition."
"I'm not sure how."
Updyke showed up for a preliminary hearing in April wearing a crimson tie. Glennon Threatt, who is taking the case pro bono, is Updyke's fourth lawyer. The first three quit; two of them cited Auburn connections. The Alabama state seal behind the judge's desk in Opelika is painted orange and blue. Auburn colors.
Police haven't said how they figured out Al from Dadeville was Updyke. But Updyke has admitted to making the call, and they arrested him, and now he's charged with four felonies—he could get up to 10 years in prison for each—and two misdemeanors. A special agent from the Environmental Protection Agency also came to the hearing. The EPA is considering federal charges.
The court session was quick. Threatt waived the preliminary hearing and got permission for Updyke to relocate to Louisiana until the trial, now set to begin in late October. Threatt did all the talking at the news conference outside the courthouse.
About an hour later, Updyke ended up in the emergency room.
He said somebody whacked him in the face outside a convenience store when he stopped to buy a bottle of green tea. No one stepped forward as a witness. The staff said they didn't know anything had happened until the Opelika police showed up.
The next day Updyke went back on the Finebaum show, this time under his own name. Threatt was on the air with him. At one point Updyke walked right up to the edge of admitting that he poisoned the trees. Threatt interrupted him. "Let me make clear to listeners that you are not confessing on the Paul Finebaum show," he said. So all Updyke copped to is making the call. He called himself a "crap stirrer." He wished his friend Barnes a happy birthday, talked about his 40 Alabama hats, apologized to his old high school coach.
Finebaum started taking callers, and the callers ripped Threatt for letting Updyke on the air.
"I don't know what you do for a living," Threatt answered one caller. "I doubt I'd get on the radio and criticize your work. But I can say that my intention was for Harvey to be humanized."
A few weeks later, Threatt filed a plea for Updyke: not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.
Let me tell you the true story," Harvey Updyke says.
He was sitting there at the Iron Bowl, he says, watching Auburn rapidly fill in that 24--0 hole, when he started talking to a stranger next to him. "A kid, 30 years old at the oldest." The stranger said he was going to poison Toomer's Oaks with Spike. Harvey says he had never heard of Spike and had barely heard of the oaks.
"I swear on a Bible, all that is true," he says.
This is how, Updyke explains, he knew enough to call the Finebaum show and describe exactly what happened to the trees. Barnes, who was sitting on the other side of Updyke, says he never saw or heard that conversation. But, he says, he and Updyke didn't pay much attention to each other. They both had headphones on so they could follow the game on the radio.
Updyke is not thrilled with the mental defect plea. He says Threatt and his other lawyer believe it's the best chance at keeping him out of prison. He's 62 years old, and his neurosurgeon says he needs neck surgery to fix his bulging disks and lower-back problems. He's worried that prison would kill him.
"But if we stay [for the trial] in Lee County [Ala.], I would bet the farm that they're gonna put me in jail," he says.
"Auburn wants me to pay for it."
He has lost 24 pounds and now weighs 209. He grew a beard, shaved it off and then grew a mustache. But people still recognize him. On June 10, driving back through Alabama after another pretrial hearing, he stopped at a sporting goods store to get one more Alabama decal for his car. A Crimson Tide fan pestered him until Updyke agreed to let him take a picture. He told the guy not to post it on the Internet. He expects to see it there any day now.
His lawyer got the judge to approve his move to Louisiana so he could be close to his youngest daughter and her six-month-old girl, Updyke's 18th grandchild.
He loves Alabama football as much as ever. The only thing different is that he knows he can't go back for home games; he'd be too much of a distraction. But the Tide plays at Ole Miss on Oct. 15. That game's not too far from his house in Louisiana. Updyke plans to be there. He wants the court date to hurry up and arrive. He hates what he has brought upon his family. Crimson, he says, is a wreck. Everybody else is worried too. He talks on the phone with Bear a lot. After all these months, Bear still doesn't understand why his father might go to prison over this.
"He keeps telling me, 'These people are acting like this is a tragedy,'" Updyke says. "And I just say, Well, yeah, it is."
Bear Bryant Updyke says other kids never made fun of his name. He grew up in Texas, and just went by Bear Updyke, and nobody made the connection. Sometimes a kid would growl at him, but that was about it.
Bear's 30 now and just got out of the Air Force. He tries to explain his dad. Harvey loves to talk trash, but he gets annoyed if you trash-talk him. He plays a lot of cards and haunts the Tider Insider message board. He once let a woman and her daughter stay at their house in Texas one night because the woman was driving drunk. He gave his son a clock inscribed with a Bear Bryant quote, and Bear can recite it from memory: IF YOU BELIEVE IN YOURSELF AND HAVE DEDICATION AND PRIDE—AND NEVER QUIT, YOU'LL BE A WINNER. THE PRICE OF VICTORY IS HIGH BUT SO ARE THE REWARDS.
Bear reads all the stories, absorbs all the Facebook comments, tangles online with an Auburn fan who wishes the whole Updyke family would die. He understands the meaning of Toomer's Oaks. He respects tradition. But still.
"I've been in the military," Bear says. "I've seen people die. If the trees die, I will feel bad, yes, but I'm gonna get sleep. If he is rightly convicted in a court of law ... punishment fits the crime, that's all I'm asking for."
Greg Britt was a first-grader at the tail end of the 1960s. His dad was getting his Ph.D. at Auburn, and his grandmother was the house mom for a fraternity. It was safer to leave kids alone back then. The oaks were Greg's playground. He romped around on the trees while his dad studied and his grandmother worked. Britt lives in Mexico City now. On football Saturdays he put the Auburn game on the TV and a Toomer's Corner webcam on his computer, and when the Tigers won, he watched fans roll the oaks from 1,200 miles away.
Kristi and Dennis Barker stopped by Toomer's Corner after their wedding in 1994. They hadn't planned the visit, but the oaks were on the way to the reception, and a friend had left them a spare roll of TP after decorating their car. So the Auburn grads rolled the oaks on their wedding day.
In 2002 Auburn's forestry department started culling acorns from the oaks and growing them as seedlings. Now children of the oaks grow all over the country. In May, Dennis Ross, an Auburn grad who's now a Florida congressman, planted a sapling on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. By the next day, somebody had rolled it.
The trees won't die: They live in their descendants and in the stories.
The trees will die: Spike 80DF has nearly made its cruel climb into the last of the leaves.
We should be used to this dual existence. Sports, so often, make two out of one.
Put a broken-down trooper far from his childhood and he's harmless. Set him near the team he's always loved—and even nearer to the team he hates—and he becomes a villain.
What hurts Updyke most is that Alabama turned on him. Tide coach Nick Saban said whoever poisoned the trees "does not represent our institution, our program, or our fans in any way." Alabama fans raised $50,000 to help save the oaks. Auburn fans later raised money for April's tornado victims in Tuscaloosa. The feuding families have found a bit of common ground.
Then again, football season hasn't started yet.
Trees die slowly. Auburn will allow people to roll the oaks this fall, but the TP will be removed by hand. The trees are surrounded by guardrails. You can't touch them.
Right now, in the midst of a green Southern summer, the trees are nearly as brown as November. The Magnolia Avenue tree leans to one side. The College Street tree bears an old wound from a drunk driver. The oaks look as if you could just about pull them out with your hands.
But it's a hard thing to take 130 years, and all that comes with it, and rip it from the ground.
The roots go down so deep.