The Oak Tree Massacre: Sports Rivalries Then and Now

by by David Adler & Edward Friedman

illustration by by Annika Finne

On the evening of January 27, a man’s gruff voice came over the AM radio to football fans across the state of Alabama. “Al from Dadeville,” as he was called, had pronounced himself the proudest Alabama University fan in the nation; as proof of his devotion, he had driven down to Auburn University to destroy the 130-year-old symbol of Auburn pride that has haunted Alabama fans for years: the beloved Toomer oak trees. Every year, after major Auburn football victories, fans gather at Toomer’s corner— named for State Senator Sheldon Toomer, who brought Auburn to prominence when he founded the Bank of Auburn— where they drape toilet paper over the oak trees at the corner to celebrate the Auburn Tigers’ glory. The origin of the TP ornamentation is unclear, but gathering at Toomer’s corner is Auburn’s most storied tradition. Al from Dadeville boasted of taking an herbicide commonly known as Spike 80DF to the oaks, assuring listeners that there was no chance of survival. Signing off like any good Alabama fan, the Dadevill-ain solidified a new chapter in the Auburn-Alabama rivalry: “Roll Damn Tide!”
That Damn Tide (Alabama’s slogan is drawn from its mascot, the Crimson Tide) has crashed waves against the Auburn Tigers for over a century. The cornerstone of the rivalry is the Iron Bowl, the annual match between the two schools renowned for its unrestrained hostility. The Iron Bowl is rivalry at its finest—Alabama has 40 wins to Auburn’s 34, with sides often alternating wins year to year since its origin in 1893 (there was a forty year hiatus 1907-1948). In fact, ESPN ranked the rivalry only one spot behind Yankees-Red Sox in their list of the top ten rivalries in the history of sports. But the joy of a well-matched rivalry comes with great animosity, and with great animosity comes less-than-great sportsmanlike conduct. The Dadevillain is merely one in a long line of overzealous fans on both sides to push the limits of acceptable fandom. Back in 1993, one of the Toomer oaks was set aflame by enthused ‘Bama fans after an Auburn victory in the Iron Bowl, and panic ensued in a packed crowd of Auburn celebrators. More recently, in 2005, an Alabama fan injured seven Auburn fraternity members, stabbing five of them the day before the Iron Bowl, as he cried out, “Roll Tide!”
Al from Dadeville’s real identity is Harvey Almorn Updyke Jr., a name that screams “you’re lucky I only kill trees.” If there is any upside to this story, it is the discovery of the character of Mr. Updyke. His mug shot says it all: a mean grimace, sweaty wisps of hair across his forehead, upturned villainous eyebrows, and a black-and-white striped shirt that looks half prisoner, half referee. A retired Texas State Trooper, Updyke named his son “Bear,” after the heroic Alabama football coach Paul William “Bear” Bryant, and his daughter “Crimson,” after the Alabama University mascot. Tracking the radio call back to his home in Dadeville, the police arrested Updyke, charging him with a Class C felony of Criminal Mischief for violating the sylvan sanctity of Toomer’s Corner. For his enthusiastic vandalism, he faces up to 10 years in prison. His police record includes another arrest for criminal mischief in Williamstown, TX in 1996, and a theft charge in 2004, also in Texas—though neither charge appears to be related to sports fandom. Meanwhile, Alabama University released a statement saying they have no record of Updyke having been a student there.

Alabama Accord?
In the aftermath of the incident, as would be expected for such a long standing heated rivalry, retaliation ensued. Grassroots media outlets throughout the state exploded with rage over the crime of the Dadevillain, referring to him as “The most hated man in Auburn” or “The most hated man in the Southern states” or even “The most hated man in America.” One fan-made image shows Updyke’s mug shot with the caption, “If found, please hog-tie and bring to Auburn, Alabama.” Death threats were reportedly sent from Auburn fans to his home, forcing his family to pull their children out from school. And according to Birmingham News, when Updyke visited a Wal-Mart, out on $50,000 bail, his car’s tires were slashed.
Surprisingly, although the individual perpetrator has been demonized, his actions have inspired a new unity: fans from both universities have joined together in solidarity over the lost oak trees. On February 19, the Auburn community gathered for the “Toomer’s Tree Hug,” an event to mourn the loss of the Auburn oaks that “reflected the depth of pain and frustration” in the small town, Associated Press reports. One Auburn fan shook his head in mourning over the dying trees: “I don’t understand why anybody would just maliciously [kill] a tree that’s not bothering anybody.” One powerful image shows a woman’s hand laying a roll of toilet paper in a bed of roses at the base of the tree that reads, “Get Well Soon.” For Alabama University, while a small minority of stubborn fans celebrate the fall of the Auburn tradition, many have pitched in to help the grieving Auburn community. An organization called “Tide For Toomers,” run by Alabama football fans, has raised over $45,000 through its Facebook campaign to save—or, if they are truly lost, replace—the Toomer oaks. Alabama coach Nick Saban even teamed up with Auburn coach Gene Chizik to issue a joint statement expressing that this incident “is not what the greatest rivalry in college football is all about.” Out of the violence seems to have grown a new harmony, at least temporarily, for the rival universities. In this hearwarming scene, however, many have forgotten about Mr. Updyke and his felony charge. Let’s just hope the judge is an Alabama fan.

DAVID ADLER B’14 and EDWARD FRIEDMAN B’14 did time for second-degree sapling slashing.

With March Madness approaching quickly, sports rivalry becomes a choice topic. College basketball fans from around the nation are currently preparing to undergo a grueling month’s worth of dedicated fandom, and the marquee matchups of the NCAA tournament will no doubt feature many infamous rivals. It is impossible to deny that rivalries are the most compelling aspect of a sporting event. They elevate the competition to a level of emotional significance that transcends the physical act of sport and provide far more entertainment than a regular game detached from a history of feud, even for those of us uninvolved in the rivalry itself. However, rivalries can often expose the dark, pitiful underbelly of sports fandom—drunk old men slinging fists over whether the receiver’s feet were or were not inbounds when he caught the ball. Here, we look back on sporting allegiance gone too far.

When in Rome
Among the most ancient of all sports violence were the Nika Riots of 532 B.C.E. at the Hippodrome chariot races in Constantinople. The classical brawl—catalyzed by a volatile combination of preexisting civil unrest and chariot faction pride— dwarfs anything that modern fans could offer. At the end of the January 13 racing day, the two leading sporting factions of the day— the Greens and Blues— stormed the palace of Emperor Justinian I to protest the imprisonment of fellow fans from each of their ranks. Not stopping there, the enthused fans burnt down the Hagia Sophia, along with much of the city. The Nika Riots lasted over a week and claimed the lives of a whopping 30,000 Roman citizens. In the end, Justinian let his true colors show, expressing his support for team Blue (and throwing a little gold their way). The Imperial troops finished off the haplessly abandoned Greens. Peace was restored to the Eastern Capital of the Roman Empire. Rebuilding of the burnt, gutted city began. They kept racing chariots. Of course.

Killer Babe
The rivalry of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox offers a history replete with competition and pranks, some more tasteful than others. The teams first met in 1901 and the rivalry was cemented when, in 1919, the Broadway producer and owner of the Sox sold his starting home run record-setter Babe Ruth to the Yankees in order to finance a production of No, No Nanette. Ruth’s hitting prowess would go on to propel the Yankees to seven World Series, of which they won four. The Curse of the Bambino, as it came to be known, has haunted the Red Sox ever since.
Rumbles and beatings outside of games and at Cambridge sports bars colorfully pepper the last decade of the rivalry, but nothing comes close to the actions of one Nashua, NH Yankees fan in 2008. 45-year-old Ivonne Hernandez rammed her car into a group of Red Sox fans outside a Nashua bar after they allegedly taunted her for the Yankees sticker in the back window of her 1997 Dodge Intrepid, injuring several and killing 29-year-old Matthew Beaudoin. Hernandez claims that the group had harassed her, slammed on her windows and shook her car after she cited the deficit of Red Sox championships. She was convicted of second-degree murder in December of 2009. 20 to 40 years—that Red Sux.

Those Hooligans
Heated as our American rivalries can get, across the pond they’ve been doing it longer (and better). While Football Hooliganism transpires globally, Europe has fervently extended the violent lengths to which beer-sodden fans, known as Hooligans, will go. Today, gangs of such hooligans, known as “firms,” brawl with the support of a terrifyingly calculated organization behind them, occasionally associating themselves— most often unofficially— with extremist political movements. One such firm, the Continental Football Hooligans, have cornered the market on signal flares as DIY pyrotechnics and even (if you’re a good shot) projectile sabotage. Italian Football’s first fatality occurred 30 years ago in the class-divided Lazio-Roma rivalry when a fan was hit in the eye by a flare and died from the resulting injuries. In recent years, in the fierce AC Milan- Internazionale rivalry, the AC Milan goalkeeper was struck by a flare in a 2005 Champions League quarter-final. Why is it taking America so long to catch on?