Auburn tree poisoning bad for college sports

February 18, 2011 

Harvey Updyke isn’t smart enough to spell tebuthiuron, but he is believed to be dumb enough to use the stuff on two ageless oak trees that were around when Shel Toomer was playing football instead of making lemonade.

Updyke is also known as “Al in Dadeville,” and the toxic chemical is known best as Spike 80DF. He is charged with criminal mischief in the first degree after allegedly using the herbicide to poison trees that for more than a century have spread their branches over Toomer’s Corner -- an intersection where fans of Auburn University celebrate winning football games.

After Auburn defeated Alabama in December, fans covered the trees with endless rolls of toilet paper. A few days later, Updyke allegedly poisoned the roots of the trees and left them to die.

Updyke was so proud of himself that he bragged about his deed on Paul Finebaum’s radio talk show. That led to his arrest on Thursday.

His chunky face is becoming the face of a rivalry that began in 1893 -- 13 years after the planting of the trees. Shel Toomer was a member of that first Auburn team and later opened a pharmacy where Magnolia meets College and where school meets town. The area bears his name.

When it all began, there was no ESPN. No hounds- tooth hats for sale. No national titles on the line. But in Birmingham, where the first Alabama-Auburn game was played, hotels were jammed, hacks and streetcars were filled and storefronts were decorated as fans descended on the state’s largest city.

A newspaper article said, “Little children just beginning to toddle were anxious to see the big boys fight.” Auburn scored a 32-22 victory.

This was the dark ages of college football. By 1905, an Auburn official called for abolishment of the sport. L.S. Boyd said all that was noble was in rapid decline.

Boyd called players hoodlums who “can yell like a steam calliope, slug his opponent in the stomach, sit on his neck, and promenade on his face with spiked shoes. As for coaches, he described them as men of loose morals “and very often deep-dyed scoundrels as well.”

If Boyd wrote anything about the fans, those words didn’t survive. But rest assured, the behavior of many of them is worse today.

Updyke fits the stereotype. He was never an Alabama student and isn’t a season ticket holder. He is one of those nameless voices that calls into sports talk shows and throws grenades at opposing schools. Such vitriolic fans slander the programs they support and put the game of football in the nearest gutter.

Clay Travis of Fanhouse.com writes: “Message boards have stoked the fury, crazies have found each other and bonded on the Internet, this cauldron of small-time convicts and big-time losers has taken over the game and the people with the most at stake in this rivalry -- you know, the small minority of fans who actually went to either college -- are being swept aside by a rising tide of idiocy. Alabama’s always been crazy about football, but somehow this year the state came completely untethered from reality.”

Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution says the killing of the trees is evil.

“People get excited about football in the South. Sometimes excited people do silly things. ... There are times when I wonder if the games we follow are worth following. This isn’t just one of those times; this is the worst of those times.”

If this isn’t wacky enough, a Free Harvey Updyke page has shown up on Facebook.com and others have followed. Eventually he will go before a judge in a courtroom not far from Toomer’s Corner.

And while angry words are being exchanged, the oak trees will slowly die.

Richard Hyatt, an independent correspondent for the Ledger-Enquirer, is also found at www.richardhyattcolumbus.com

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