Confession: I Like Alleged Tree-Poisoner Harvey Updyke

This week Sports Illustrated will release a new story on alleged Toomer Corner tree-poisoner Harvey Updyke. In the story, among other things, Updyke will confess to having run onto the field during Alabama’s 1970 Bluebonnet Bowl. Updyke’s family will also make an appearance in the piece. That’s not surprising considering that Updyke, a retired Texas state trooper, has four children, two step-sons, and sixteen grandchildren.

Over the past several months I’ve had multiple lengthy conversations with Updyke and the most fascinating part of those conversations is how much he sounds like millions of other SEC fans across the South. The more and more I’ve talked to Harvey, the more like us he becomes. The carnival side show element of Updyke, the man living down by the river who went on the Paul Finebaum show and professed that he had done a lot of great things in life and hated to be typecast by these tree-poisoning events, disappears and Updyke’s story becomes much more evocative, the tale of a fan pretty much like the rest of us, gone bad.  

That’s because for better or worse Harvey Updyke is a lot more like you and me than we want to admit. He’s the dark side of our football fandom that every single one of us, saint Tebow to sinner Updyke, grapples with each fall. Indeed, much of the condemnation of Harvey Updyke has struck me as a reflexive sense of relief, a calculated cleansing designed to create distance between ourselves and fandom run amok below the Mason-Dixon line.

If we point and laugh at the circus freak undone by the vituperative nature of his football hate, it all makes us feel much better about ourselves. That’s why the subtext of every ridicule is the same — my football fandom isn’t really that bad. There’s someone worse, someone deeper in thrall with sixty minutes of football on fall Saturdays in the South.

Harvey Updyke is the South’s own reality football version of Jersey Shore. The Situation with a side of herbicide.

Oftentimes we hate the flaws the most that we worry lie embedded deep within us. And don’t lie, every single one of you reading this piece right now — no matter how educated and no matter how successful or wealthy or “sophisticated” you fancy yourself — has had a moment where you could have become Harvey Updyke. Now you may not have acted on it like he did, but you’ve been closer than you’d like to admit. Maybe it came when someone of a rival fan base got you so angry that you contemplated fighting him at a bar, before walking away. Or maybe it happened when a fan stood in front of you on a bleacher shaking his pom-pom in time to his school’s fight song and even though you wanted to you didn’t stand up push him down the bleachers. Maybe your sense of the sublimely ridiculous kicked in and you thought — am I really going to fight a man holding a pom-pom?

But every single fan has thought about doing something really dumb. (And lots of us have done dumb things. We took calls one day on 3 Hour Lunch and the stupid things we’d done because of sports was truly unbelievable. And entertaining as hell.)

At some point what I call the Walter Mitty moment of fandom kicks in — when anger pushes itself to the boiling point, reason subsides, and homicidal rage over the most trivial of matters seems like the only outlet for your frustrations — a fan’s fantasy of rage takes over. Lashing out at an opponent becomes the only possible response. Every single one of us has fantasized about truly shutting up the jerk in the opposing team’s rooting section. Only most of us keep quiet, take a deep breath and move on in our lives. Recognize that we have something else to focus on, become aware that our lives aren’t the sum total of who wins a football game.

But later on when you think about those moments, admit it, they’re scary.

It’s the duality of fandom life; the same duality, by the way, that underlies any serial killer movie. The serial killer is always stalked by the police officer who shares many of his same traits. Flip a coin, take the road less traveled, and either man could have ended up on the opposite shore, killer and cop, cop and killer. Follow our fan fantasies and we’re all Updykes.

Standing in the darkness with a can of herbicide, furtively pouring out a life’s frustrations in a circle around an oak tree.

That’s scary, right?

Terrifying, even. That’s the story of Harvey Updyke that doesn’t get told. This isn’t the story of a man whose passionate fandom was so unique that he allegedly poisoned trees; it’s the story of a man who acted on a fan anger that every single one of you reading this story right now, men anyway, have all felt as well. Told that way the humor of this story recedes pretty damn quickly, doesn’t it?

That’s why I’m going to be there covering Updyke’s eventual trial, because I think he’s a uniquely positioned figure in college athletics in America. The man whose rage-filled fan fantasy became a reality.

It’s easy to dismiss Updyke as an outlier, much more interesting if you consider him for what he is — a funhouse mirror reflection of our own fandom in the South.

Be honest Alabama fans, how many of you, in your heart of hearts, worried that one of your relatives was the tree poisoner when you heard about this act and the subsequent investigation? Lots of you. You’re lying if you said you didn’t know a single fan who might be capable of this act. And how many of you Auburn fans were terrified that one of your own family or relatives might retaliate in an equally sinister fashion?

The truth is, every single SEC fan in the country knows someone who might be willing to do something like this.

Word is Harvey Updyke’s attorneys are going to defend him by saying he’s insane. I think he’s something else entirely…an SEC fan a lot like you and me.

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