Between the Oaks: A Story of Auburn’s Team, Trees, Pain and Hope
On January 22, 2011 almost 80,000 Auburn faithful gathered at Jordan-Hare Stadium to celebrate the Tigers’ 2010 national championship. I wish I could’ve been there, but I’m glad I didn’t know what none of us knew—there was poison in the ground at Toomer’s Corner.
The poison is gone now, and so are the Toomer’s Oaks. But on Saturday new Auburn Oaks will be planted. The installation won’t close the saga of the last three years, but it will complete a chapter.
It’s a natural time to reflect upon everything we’ve witnessed since 2011. My personal reflection produces the following conclusion: the life of the Auburn Football program from 2011–2013 mirrors the health, and the drama, of the Toomer’s Oaks during those three years.
I hope you’ll consider the intertwining events presented below, and let me know whether you see this correlation. Regardless, please share whatever conclusions or feelings you experience when thinking about the Oaks, the time of transition, and/or this Saturday’s new arrivals at Toomer’s Corner.
Crime and Contemplation
All of 2011 was supposed to be celebration. Or, that’s a logical thought, anyway. We weren’t entitled to a year-long celebration. And we shouldn’t have expected that Auburn winning a BCS championship would be like anyone else winning one, because Auburn isn’t like anyone else.
We didn’t expect the unexpected, but we certainly got it. About a month after the win in Glendale, we got the news. All the hate—the jealousy, the foolish contempt—manifested in a new way. The cold war had gone hot. Living outside the region at the time, I hadn’t even seen the trophy in person yet; and now, this.
So the celebration turned, in part, to contemplation. Why did this happen? What does it mean? What do the Oaks mean to us? What do we do?
Another month passes. We’re still working through these questions. And we’ve been told not to get our hopes up, but that some of the efforts to save the Oaks might be working. But then, poison of another type surfaces.
In March 2011, four Auburn players were arrested for an alleged robbery. It’s disappointing. We know it isn’t a true representation of our program, but it’s easy fodder for our constant accusers. It’s the first moment when the football program seems to mirror the health of the Oaks—wounded.
A few more weeks pass. Then, more poison. HBO airs a mockumentary, i.e. mocking themselves and the principles of accurate journalism, depicting former Auburn players as having been paid to play. The Auburn people see through it, but it’s still out there; adds to the current malaise, stealing a little more peace after our victory. Things quiet down a little for the summer, but 2011 is far from done.
A Season Between Crisis and Collapse
The beginning of Auburn’s national championship defense was a disaster. I know we won, but we won in embarrassing fashion. And that’s kind of how the season went—a winning season overall, but 4–4 in conference. There was little to brag about, apart from the most enigmatic win of the Chizik era.
But we did win the final game of 2011—a victory over Virginia in the Peach Bowl. Barrett Trotter, who began 2011 as our starting QB, but was benched for the second half of the season, stepped in and threw for 175 yards and one TD with no INT. We wondered—could the Oaks also make a comeback?
And in March 2012 we got good news. Auburn’s Gary Keever, head of the task force working to save the trees, tried to tell us it was modest good news; that it was only possibly good news. But, man, I wanted those trees to live. You did, too. We all did. So when Keever said:
We’re not out of the woods. We’re not clear of the herbicide. But it is is encouraging that we’re seeing as much new growth in the trees that we are seeing and that it’s not showing signs of poisoning yet.
All I heard—all I chose to hear—were the keywords: encouraging; new growth; not showing signs of poisoning. He said much more by way of caution. The above quote is out of context, as was my selective interpretation at the time.
That was really the last good news. A month later Keever would report new evidence that we weren’t winning the fight; that the Oaks’ photosynthesis levels were too low, and that the new growth was showing signs of herbicide injury after all. Our 2012 had taken a turn for the worse. And it was a year with still more poison in the ground—plenty.
A few weeks before the 2012 football season the Oaks underwent major pruning. It was necessary for safety reasons, so that limbs wouldn’t fall on people. That says it all, regarding their condition. They didn’t look the same afterwards. Soon, our football program would also look much different.
We lost seven of our first eight games in 2012. The only win was against Louisiana-Monroe, in overtime.
After the sixth loss, at Vanderbilt, we learned that Philip Lutzenkirchen, after playing through pain the whole season, had played his last game as an Auburn Tiger. Losing Lutz—the player—means so little now, but it meant a great deal at the time. The Oaks had lost something of their identity—their apparent identity—when their canopies were taken by the pruning. Our team lost something of its identity when we lost the play-making of Lutzenkirchen, already a legend in his own time; one of the heroes of old.
We lost the next two conference games, and then got a win over Alabama A&M—a meaningless win, one that didn’t call for rolling the Oaks. But the Oaks were rolled, and later that night the toilet paper was set afire, causing significant damage to the trees. Their chance of survival was already negligible. The fire was, well—what was it? Needless insult; like the second-half points in the next week’s Iron Bowl.
A New Day
A month later Auburn announces the Oaks’ final rolling, after the A-Day game. Then they will be removed.
One Last Roll brings thousands to Toomer’s Corner. It’s unbearably corwded on the ground, but from above it’s a wonderful display of the Auburn Spirit. In the face of loss, and on the heels of so many losses, we still know who we are. We still know the richness of the blessing that it is to be part of the Auburn Family.
Three days later the Oaks are removed; cut into pieces and hauled away from Toomer’s Corner. Is their coming down the end of the story? Well, let’s see what else happens in 2013.
From Traumatized to Transcendental
How long did it take for the 2013 season to be better than 2012? Sixty minutes. Then we got a couple more wins. We lost at LSU, but our team showed us something that night, and it soon became clear how little tolerance they had for losing. The wins started stacking up. But, what does 2013 have to do with the Oaks?
We see now that in April 2013 the Oaks weren’t simply removed—they were set free; released from the bondage to death and decay. Since February 2011, our program and our trees seemed to mirror each other, and when the Oaks transcended their decline, so for our football team began a New Day. The trees broke free from dying; the Tigers from losing. We saw hints of something special in September and October. But, in November we saw something we’d been looking for the previous two years.
The initial prognosis for the Oaks was so grim—so hopeless—we knew saving them would take a miracle. In 2013, we got a miracle—not at Toomer’s Corner, but just 2,700 ft. away, at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
And then came this moment.
So we got two miracles—one for each tree.
Sure, I wish 2013 had had the perfect ending. But it’s one more way the program mirrors the story of the Oaks. Their perfect ending would’ve been to overcome the poison, to be standing, still. And 2014 wasn’t the proper follow up to 2013 that we had hoped to see between the Oaks—that is, in the time between the original Oaks and the new ones. But, there will be new ones. And we look ahead. We ready ourselves for the miracles now waiting their turn to send us on a path lined with the original Oaks’ descendents, to Toomer’s Corner; to celebrate under these new Auburn Oaks.
Where We Carry Tradition
When Auburn celebrated our football program’s 100th anniversary in 1992, we used the slogan, Where Tradition Began. Toomer’s Corner, in some ways symbolically—and others literally—is where tradition began. And it’s where tradition happens now—where we carry history with us to the present, both bringing its meaningfulness into new moments, and building upon that history with fresh experience.
And these dual aspects of tradition keeping is part of why now is a special time. For none of us who lived through these last three years will ever visit Toomer’s Corner without thinking of the original Oaks, but neither will we mourn those Oaks without remembering the hopefulness symbolized by the new Oaks. The mixing of these emotions is part of the uniqueness of Auburn; part of why It’s Great to Be an Auburn Tiger!