After months of waiting, college football kicks off later today. There were a few games on Thursday and a few more yesterday, but this is the real beginning. Later today we’re heading to the Liberty Bowl in Memphis to watch Ole Miss take on the Memphis Tigers. Nick came over from Birmingham so he could go to the game with us. Mark and Vanessa will be going also. Alan and BJ will meet us at 10 AM and then we’re driving to the game in Alan’s Navigator. We plan to tailgate in the parking lot before the game, then we’ll watch the game, and afterwards we’re going to one of the many barbecue restaurants in Memphis to further discuss how the Rebels beat the Tigers. I’ll probably call Andy on the cell phone to talk over the game, which he will watch but can’t attend because he’s on call this weekend. And sometime around 10 PM we’ll arrive back home in Tupelo, dead tired but very happy.

It’s hard for some folks outside the South to understand the importance of the rituals of college football. Yesterday Andy sent me a link to this love letter to Southern football that explains it about as well as it can be explained. With us it’s partly a matter of heritage. Forty-five years ago our father took us to see his beloved Ole Miss Rebels play. (He grew up on a farm outside Oxford, Mississippi, home of the university.) That was in the glory days of Ole Miss football when they routinely won most of their games, were always highly ranked, and the legendary Johnny Vaught was the coach. I can remember getting up early and piling into the car so we could go to games in Oxford or Jackson or in Birmingham when the Rebels would square off against Bear Bryant’s Alabama teams at Legion Field. ESPN wouldn’t come on the scene for another 20 years and we didn’t have all those cable channels carrying virtually every game. The Internet was still three decades in the future, which meant that you generally could watch only one or two games a weekend on one of the major broadcast channels. So if we weren’t going to watch the Rebels play, which we did three or four times a year, we could gather in Dad’s study and listen to the games on the radio on his new Telefunken radio. He would man the tuner and carefully try to pick up WWL from New Orleans (if we were playing LSU in Baton Rouge) or there was a station in a small town in Mississippi that had a huge signal that we could often pick up. Dad had installed a radio antenna outside his office that I think he mostly used to listen to football games in the fall. Because of his schedule as a doctor, he was gone a lot of the time, but he always managed to get home in time for the games.

Those were special nights. We ate like kings, feasting on Vienna sausages and sardines on Saltine crackers and sometimes Mom bought smoked oysters. We also got those chocolate-covered marshmallow treats and washed it all down with bottles of Coke. We ate and listened and cheered for the Rebels who won a lot during those years. The high point came during the Archie Manning era at Ole Miss (1968-1970) when we watched Archie work his magic over the Crimson Tide twice and we also watched him lose a heartbreaker to Alabama in 1969. Those were good years, bonding years, probably some of the best times I ever spent with my father. I was a rambunctious teenager, very determined to go my own way, and Dad and I often clashed but when it came time for Ole Miss football, everything else was put aside so we could cheer for the Rebels. We could always talk football.

So it’s a family thing for us, as it is for many families not only in the South but across the nation, and not just in the big conferences like the SEC, but for families that are on their way this morning to watch a small college team that means something important to them.

When our boys were growing up in Oak Park, we tried to get down to Oxford for at least one game a year. Once they were able to drive, Josh, Mark and Nick often drove down for the pre-game parties in the Grove, stayed for the game, and then drove back home.

It’s all about tradition and memory and family heritage and bragging rights and dressing up and tailgating and cheering, and in the case of today’s game, broiling in the 90-plus degree heat at the Liberty Bowl. The games are more comfortable in late September and October when the temperature is in the mid-70s and you join tens of thousands of people making a long car caravan to Oxford. Most cars are covered with Ole Miss blue and red, but when Alabama or LSU comes to town, a massive wave of fans follows them so you honk and yell if you see crimson and white or purple and gold.

Ole Miss has had some good teams since the days of Coach Vaught but not very many so Rebel fans are accustomed to coming out on the short end of things. They make up for it by saying, “We may lose a game but we’ve never lost a party,” which is probably true.

So today we’re off to Memphis for a road game against the Tigers. The experts say we’ll win but the last two years the games have been close and Ole Miss is coming off three straight losing seasons (following the days of Eli Manning, Archie’s son) so you can’t go in overconfident. We should win, and I think we will, but if not, at least we showed up to cheer for the Rebels, which makes me happy and I think my father would be glad. He raised me to cheer for the Rebels and nothing has happened to change my allegiance. It’s a family thing, a matter of loyalty. All true football fans understand.

You can reach the author at ray@keepbelieving.com. Click here to sign up for the free weekly email sermon.