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ESPN Films Ghosts of Ole Miss: 30 for 30 Shows Resiliency of 1962 Rebels Squad

Courtesy of nytimes.com
Courtesy of nytimes.com
Ian HanfordFeatured ColumnistOctober 31, 2012

Mississippi has taken part in two Civil Wars. One on a grand scale beginning in 1861, and one lesser-known, but no less brutal, conflict in 1962.

The Civil Rights Movement and integration was a polarizing topic in the 1950s and early 1960s, and the University of Mississippi's campus was the epicenter of this situation in 1962. With James Meredith set to be the first African American to enroll at Ole Miss, tension was at an all-time high.

Federal agents, riots and stunning levels of violence shrouded the campus as the deeply embedded racist culture battled John F. Kennedy's attempt to end segregation in the school. The film makes it obvious that most people would sooner have closed the school than allow Meredith to walk freely on the campus' confines.

Wright Thompson, who wrote the piece that this film was drawn from, weaves a stunning 60-minute narrative, pulling in social, cultural and athletic factors like few could. The ignorance, fear and racial bigotry takes center stage on the program, but the 1962 Rebels football team takes on an underrated role.

People outside of Mississippi viewed the state as a war zone, and it was. Despite the stereotypes facing Dixie country, the football team took the field every Saturday, looking to prove to the nation that its state wasn't all bad.

Playing football during this tumultuous time would have been a tough task for some, but the football team managed to stay the course. Not only did this provide a distraction for the players themselves, but it allowed the people of Mississippi to focus on something other than the jaw-dropping brutality taking place within the state's borders.

The team showed the rest of the nation that perseverance was possible, even at the most trying times. Bringing people together in any way was important, considering that everything else seemed to be tearing apart at the time.

No team in college football history has faced a task such as this. On homecoming weekend, the practice field was filled with American soldiers, waiting for more violence to erupt at any moment. Rather than fold, the team rose above the cultural war plaguing the surrounding area.

"Ghosts of Ole Miss" takes viewers on a harrowing journey, and it's not for the faint of heart. Watching the scenario unfold, watching people battle their own people, is difficult to watch.

It showcases the human side of things. Whether it be Rebels fullback Buck Randall—dubbed the toughest guy in Mississippi by some in the film—begging rioters to stop the violence, or Mississippi governor Ross Barnett battling JFK throughout the ordeal. Both the good and the bad are put on display by Thompson's story.

The Rebels' football team ultimately finished the season undefeated, but peaked at No. 3 in the Associated Press polls. This kept them out of the national championship game, but eventually led to a 17-13 win over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl.

That perfect season was one of the only positive things to come out of Oxford, Miss. at the time, but it showed that good things were possible amidst the horrors of the time. No other team has had to deal with federal marshals lobbing tear gas canisters on their campus—most couldn't even fathom it.

Because of that team, or largely because of it, Thompson is able to say "Mississippi was, but Mississippi is" several times at the end of the film. These events will never leave the state, but positive things like the undefeated football team offer solace.

50 years later, things are different. The end of the film shows Meredith being honored at an Ole Miss game, something that never could have happened before.

Football is just a game, but it was much more than that in 1962. Ole Miss may have finished No. 3 that year, but that team will always be No. 1 to anyone who witnessed its feat.

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