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Football rivals like Alabama-Auburn can learn from tree tragedy

An attempt to ruin a football tradition by poisoning famous oaks illustrates the dangers of extreme fan behavior.

By Ross AtkinStaff / November 23, 2011

The trees at Toomer's Corner in Auburn, Ala., are adorned with thousands of rolls of toilet paper Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010, following Auburn's 56-17 win over South Carolina in the Southeastern Conference Championship NCAA college football game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

Dave Martin/AP/File

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As Alabama and Auburn prepare to take the field Saturday in their annual 'Iron Bowl' rivalry, the state’s focus will be on trees as well as football.

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The connection between the two was made painfully obvious to the fans of both teams last January when a diehard Alabama fan professed to a mean-spirited act that went far beyond mere mischief and angered and embarrassed each school’s supporters.   

Harvey Updyke, a retired Texas state trooper, has been charged with poisoning the famous oak trees at the main entrance to the Auburn campus. The trees, which have played an integral role in the university’s football tradition, have grown for many year’s at Toomer’s Corner, named for Sheldon Toomer, a halfback on Auburn’s first football team in 1892. Toomer opened a drugstore across the street after graduating and the oaks have become a rallying area for fans after big Auburn victories. The celebrations have evolved to include draping the trees in toilet paper. 

Against his lawyer’s advice, Mr. Updyke has apologized on a popular Birmingham sports-talk radio show for criminal mischief involving the trees while pleading he’s not guilty(He faces multiple charges, including two counts of desecrating a venerable object. The case is scheduled to go to trial in March.). 

The vengeful prank first came to light two months after last year’s dramatic 28-27 Auburn victory over Alabama, when a caller identifying himself as “Al from Dadeville” boasted of poisoning the trees with Spike 80DF, a herbicide which is used to killed vegetation along highways among other uses. Prosecutors say 'Al' is Updyke, whose passion for Alabama football inspired him to name a daughter Crimson Tide and a son Bear Bryant, in honor of the school’s legendary coach from 1958 to 1982.

Heroic efforts have been made to save the trees, but their leafless branches paint an ominous picture.

The outcome of last year’s Auburn-Alabama game was especially hard for Alabama fans to swallow. National champions in 2009, the 2010 squad led Auburn at one point in the first half, 24-0. But the Tigers stormed back to secure a stunning come-from-behind victory that helped quarterback Cam Newton lock up the Heisman Trophy and Auburn land a spot in the BCS national championship game, which it won by beating Oregon, 22-19.

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