Mike Marshall (no relation to Phillip), an Auburn graduate, was a journalist for 28 years and won more than 70 state and national awards. He won the Herby Kirby Award for the state’s top sports story three consecutive years. He also won two first-place awards from the Football Writers Association of America, a first-place award from the Associated Press Association for feature writing and the Associated Press Sweepstakes Award for the top newspaper story of any kind in Alabama. He was the Sportswriter of the Year in Alabama in 1994. He covered Auburn for The Montgomery Advertiser and covered Auburn and football recruiting for The Huntsville Times. He will share his thoughts in a column each Thursday.
Now that the trees are gone, I think of James Echols and the girl who was prepared to guard them on the night some Alabama fans tried to roll them for the first time.
I think of Echols because he gave me perhaps the best answer as to when those oaks at the corner of College Street and Magnolia Avenue were rolled for the first time.
He should have known. For more than 40 years, he made and served lemonade at Toomer’s Drug Store, across from the most famous trees in Auburn.
“They were rolling this place when I came in ’58,’‘ he said. “No telling how long before that.’’
As a reporter for The Huntsville Times, I had come to Auburn in the summer of 1997 to discover, among other things, when the tree-rolling tradition began. Some said Thanksgiving night 1971, when Pat Sullivan won the Heisman Trophy. Others said “Punt, Bama, Punt’’ in 1972.
I found an Auburn history book that said the trees were rolled for the first time in 1962 or ’63. Who knew for sure?
Echols and James Foy, the former dean of students, seemed to know. They told me that pre-game pep rallies were held at Toomer’s before 1958 and that post-game gatherings started there in the late ‘50s.
A confession: I have thrown rolls of toilet paper into those trees - plenty of them.
Not so many when I was a kid. More when I was an Auburn student. Fewer when I was there with my children.
My history at Toomer’s Corner was the reason I planned to attend the A-Day game on Saturday. Because those trees have been a part of my life for 41 years, I wanted to roll them one more time before they fell.
I was introduced to Toomer’s during the Sullivan and Beasley years. My father took me to Toomer’s Drug Store when I was 10, ordered me a lemonade, and informed me it was the best drink of its kind.
Later that weekend, Auburn defeated Florida 40-7. I don’t remember anyone rolling Toomer’s Corner after the game. A member of that team told me years later it might have been because beating Florida wasn’t a big deal in 1971.
It was, however, a big deal when Bill Newton blocked those punts and David Langner ran them in to beat Alabama in 1972.
“When they beat Alabama 17-16, they had to get fire trucks up here to get the stuff out of the gutters,’’ Echols said.
It was a big deal, too, in 1999, when Alabama won for the first time at Jordan-Hare Stadium. All week, there were rumors going through Auburn that the trees were going to fall if Alabama, a decided favorite, won the game.
My assignment that night was to go to Toomer’s Corner and watch the scene unfold. I left the stadium early in the fourth quarter, after a safety turned the game in Alabama’s favor.
The first Alabama fan charged the trees around 9:30 p.m., minutes before the game ended. He grabbed a stray piece of toilet paper from a nearby tree, as I recall, and threw it toward the famous oaks.
“TOOMER’S CORNER,’’ he yelled.
Some Auburn fans were waiting for him. They chased him down College Street before some of the 60 or so policemen gathered near the corner intervened.
When the game was over, a large crowd of Auburn fans came to the corner to protect the tree. Among them was a seventh-grader at Auburn Junior High who was worried that some Alabama fans were going to chop down the trees.
In her pre-game anxiety, she composed a poem. It began: “I am an Auburn fan.’’ The poem ending: “But you aren’t taking our tree.’’
She was so determined to protect those trees that she considered tying herself to them with some old ski rope. After Alabama’s 28-17 victory that night, she went to Toomer’s Corner, carrying that ski rope, prepared to tie herself to one of the trees.
But now, the trees are dead and gone, poisoned by a troubled man. It would be easy to be bitter about what he did, but it would be no use.
Those trees and that corner are all about celebrating, and there was much to celebrate last Saturday, when the trees were rolled one last time.
I do, however, have a final message for Harvey Updyke: Those trees at Toomer’s Corner were not rolled when Bear Bryant died, as Updyke claimed after his arrest.
As an Auburn student from 1980-84, I walked or drove past Toomer’s Corner almost every day for four years. I drove past those trees on the day Bryant died, and I drove past them on the day he was buried.
And there were no strands of toilet paper in those trees on either of those days.