Auburn fans bid goodbye to beloved Toomer's oaks
AUBURN, Ala. (AP)
Rhonda and John Shelton made a six-hour round trip Friday so their kids could see the doomed oak trees at Toomer's Corner that have been part of so many Auburn celebrations.
The Trussville, Ala., residents weren't able to join the thousands of their fellow Tigers fans who will bid farewell with a final rolling Saturday of the two live oaks. The trees will be cut down Tuesday, more than two years after an Alabama fan poisoned them. One day they will be replaced as Auburn is in the planning stage of a seven-figure renovation.
But the Sheltons won't get a chance to make rolling the oaks a family tradition, like thousands of other Auburn fans.
Dylan, 11, only rolled them once and 8-year-old Josie says, with that exaggerated little-girl pout, ''I never got to.''
''They're supposed to be in school right now,'' said John Shelton, during a break from taking pictures of the kids next to the trees. ''We just came down here to spend some time together and be part of history.''
Auburn fans will one last time drape toilet paper over the two frail, poison-infested oaks after the football team's first spring game under Gus Malzahn, a perfect storm that has turned what's normally a nondescript scrimmage into a milestone moment. The makeover of Toomer's Corner is expected to begin after next season.
For the past two years, the trees have become a symbol not so much of decades of celebrations but of the feudal hatred that is the Alabama-Auburn rivalry. Longtime Crimson Tide fan Harvey Updyke Jr. pleaded guilty on March 22 to poisoning the trees after the 2010 Iron Bowl, when Cam Newton led Auburn to the national title - and an Iron Bowl comeback from a 24-0 deficit.
The Tide has won the other three BCS championships over the state's four-year stranglehold on the crystal trophy.
Auburn had sold 33,000 tickets to the spring game by Friday afternoon, spokesman Kirk Sampson said. He added that most fans at the Tigers' spring games are traditionally walk-ups. Last year's announced crowd was just over 43,000, many of whom probably made the 10-minute stroll to Toomer's Corner at some point.
Toomer's Corner is the bustling connecting point of campus and community, where Toomer's Drugs serves up lemonade and lunch at the old-fashioned counter and the trees serve as a gateway.
The celebratory rollings date back at least 40 years, starting with the now-underground wires that used to criss-cross the corner and switching to the trees some three decades ago, according to retired Auburn athletic director David Housel.
Housel remembers being at Toomer's Corner to celebrate quarterback Pat Sullivan winning the Heisman Trophy on Nov. 1, 1971. Toilet paper wasn't really part of the party.
More than a year later on Dec. 2, 1972, Tigers fans swarmed the spot that connects Auburn's campus to downtown to celebrate a dramatic upset of rival Alabama that included two punt returns for touchdowns. Perhaps that's the genesis of the tissue tradition.
''Alabama was ranked No. 2 in the nation at the time and all week long (Auburn running back) Terry Henley went around saying, `We're going to beat the No. 2 out of Alabama,''' recalls Housel. ''And you came back from Birmingham after having beaten the No. 2 team in the nation 17-16, there was toilet paper all over that corner.
''In my mind, in my memory, that is when it morphed into what it is today. And with every great victory, it has grown more and more.''
Third-generation Auburn graduate Will Collier is expecting a bittersweet farewell to the once-lush trees at the corner of Magnolia and College streets, one of which is completely bare while the other sports a smattering of green.
''It's sad and more than a little disgusting to drive by and see what condition they're in,'' said Collier, an Atlanta aerospace engineer who writes a blog on Auburn and the Southeastern Conference. ''I'm sure the university wants it to be a celebration, and it should be. That's more than reasonable.
''It's a wake. It's a funeral, let's face it.''
Birmingham's Melissa Austin is attending her first Auburn spring game because of the Toomer's Corner celebration.
''It's historic,'' said Austin, who is going with friends from high school and family members. ''It's the ending to a tradition. It's just not going to be the same after Saturday.''
This state is big on its college football history and traditions. Alabama has Bear Bryant, Nick Saban and Denny Chimes.
Auburn has Heisman winners Sullivan, Bo Jackson and Newton - and Toomer's Corner.
''I don't think there's an Auburn person alive that's been to the games that hasn't been over to roll Toomer's Corner,'' said Jason Dufner, a former Auburn golfer who now plays on the PGA Tour.
Toomer's Drugs is stocked with T-shirts celebrating the tradition of the corner and the trees. ''A Celebration of the Greatest Tradition Ever,'' proclaims one stacked on a display at the front.
Housel and Malzahn will be among the speakers at Saturday's festivities starting a couple of hours after the spring game.
''It's one of the best traditions in college football,'' Malzahn said. ''For the Auburn family, it's really unbelievable. I'm looking forward to being a part of that after the A-Day game. I know that will be very special.''
Housel said the event is about moving forward not just nostalgia, anger or the loss of the iconic trees.
''Memories, yes,'' he said. ''Sadness? There's more to Auburn than two trees.''
AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli in Hilton Head, S.C., contributed to this report.