- Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
- 2-time Sports Emmy winner
- 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year
OMAHA, Neb. — How does it feel to finally win a national championship?
It feels like sitting in the concourse of a ballpark you’d never been to before this day, 600 miles from home, wearing an Ole Miss baseball jersey T-shirt and sobbing openly, so overwhelmed you can’t even stand up and watch the trophy celebration happening on the field below.
That’s how it was for Ed Thompson of Memphis, Tennessee, who drove through the night Saturday to be in Omaha for Game 2 of the Men’s College World Series finals, the game they won 4-2 over Oklahoma to ice that title. “I saw them win Game 1 and I just stood up off the damn couch and started driving. I got me a ticket and I ain’t telling you how much I paid,” he choked up, “but it was damn worth it.”
How does it feel to see your school finally win its first officially recognized men’s national championship — in anything — since the school fielded its first football team in 1893?
It feels like leaning over the left-field grandstand railing, waving a $100 bill at the Charles Schwab Field grounds crew, or anyone else who might be interested in earning a Benjamin for filling their empty stadium cup with some red warning-track dirt or maybe even a few blades of grass.
That’s how it was for Lynn and Terry Becker, who cashed in vacation days to come to Omaha late last week. “I want to put some in a jar on my desk,” Terry said. “She wants to sprinkle it all in her flower bed.”
How does it feel to watch your team go from being ranked No. 1 in the nation to falling out of the rankings like a balloon with no air, drop to 7-14 in SEC play and have the fan base and media calling for the head coach’s job, then go from one of the last four teams invited into the 64-team NCAA baseball tournament to being the last team standing?
It feels like standing on your seat and holding your baby, born in the midst of that season, knowing she won’t remember it, but knowing that you can tell her later that she witnessed what generations of Ole Miss fans never had before. All amid chants of that coach’s name, belted by a decidedly powder blue-clad crowd of 25,972. “MIKE BI-AN-CO!” Clap clap clap-clap-clap!
That’s how it was for the Lincoln family of Hattiesburg. As father Jack held his infant girl aloft “Lion King”-style, he joined in the cheer and confessed, “Yeah, okay, back in May I wanted him fired, too.”
It feels like a 40-something-year-old man jumping into the air and trying to catch confetti as a gust of Nebraska wind sent it into the bleachers. It feels like taking selfies with your grandpa in his “OleMAHA” baseball cap while he talks about Archie Manning against Alabama. It feels like not-so-patiently standing in line for $40 “Ole Miss NCAA Men’s College World Series” championship T-shirts just pulled from boxes tucked from behind the counters of the NCAA’s official souvenir stands.
It feels good. It feels even better than expected because it wasn’t expected.
“That’s the best part of it,” explained pitcher Dylan DeLucia, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the series despite not pitching in the finals. “No one thought we could do this. Even after we won Saturday night [to take a 1-0 lead over Oklahoma] it was still out there. That makes this even better to us. That’s what makes this group so special.”
“I think that’s why you had 20,000-plus fans show up here, because this is a special group,” Bianco added. “They knew this was a special group. It wasn’t just a national championship. I honestly believe that. During the trophy presentation, when you look in the stands, the stadium holds 25,000 and it looked almost still packed. This group of young men, I think people have fallen in love with them, their story and where they come from. … That’s why they all showed up here.”
For 10 days, they showed up in waves. There was the first group, who came to Omaha at the beginning of the MCWS and never left. There was the second legion, who rolled north as Ole Miss made it into the semifinals and championship series. Then there were the third-stagers, who arrived on the shores of the Missouri River throughout Saturday night and Sunday morning, downright desperate to be a part of it all.
For a year, they had heard about the way that the supporters of Egg Bowl archrivals Mississippi State had taken over Omaha. For so many years they’d had to take a backseat to the Bulldogs, who were the Magnolia State’s hardball superpower. That’s why some of them lined up by the plaque on the outside of the ballpark on Mike Fahey Street, snapping pics of their middle fingers pointed at the bronzed words “2021 – MISSISSIPPI STATE” above “CHAMPIONS OF THE 2020’S.”
Many in that final group came to Nebraska knowing full well that they weren’t going to be able to secure a ticket. They did not care. As Game 2 moved into the middle innings of a tense one-run affair, Ole Miss fans sat on benches outside the right-field main gate and packed the bars surrounding the ballpark, watching television coverage of the action happening across the street, only a couple hundred yards away.
They stood beneath an old-school outdoor scoreboard in the Slowdown Beer Garden, like baseball fans in the pre-TV era who used to stand in Times Square and cheer when someone would update a World Series score from the Bronx and Brooklyn. Among them was even a Times Square-ish skeezy knockoff mascot, someone dressed in a long-ago-retired Colonel Reb, wearing Under Armour sleeves beneath his Ole Miss jersey like a bad Broadway Elmo but taking selfies nonetheless.
The most popular in-game hangout was the same spot that became a de facto Oxford North during this year’s Series, Rocco’s. For years the sports bar/pizza joint has kept a tongue-in-cheek Jell-O Shot Challenge, another scoreboard, but this one keeping track of how many alcohol-packed gelatin sips were purchased by the fans of the eight teams in each June’s College World Series field. A typical score has always been a few hundred. A crazy number is one that might approach 1,000.
As Game 2 entered the late innings, Ole Miss fans had thrown down 16,174 Jell-O shots. (The previous record was set last year by the Rebels’ Egg Bowl rivals at Mississippi State with … 2,965.)
“I think I can speak for everyone here, every business around this ballpark, when I say that we’ve never seen anything like what we have seen from the teams this week, but especially Ole Miss fans,” said Rocco’s owner Kevin Culjat, who expressed happiness that his newfound friends were closing in on a national title, but was no doubt bummed that they went and swept the first two games and denied the Omaha economy one more day and night of powder-blue buying power.
But Sunday evening, as the sun began to settle over Omaha and the sky above the city began to turn the unmistakable shade of that Ole Miss blue, those fans seemed plenty determined to make that night last as long as possible.
“I ain’t never had a Jell-O shot in my 78-year-old life,” said Gloria Poplin, a self-described “Hotty Toddy Grandma” with a piece of shiny red confetti stuck in her gray hair and wearing an oversized “Don’t Let The Rebs Get Hot” T-shirt. “But I think I am going to go over there and see if they have any of them left. And I ain’t going to bed until Wednesday.”
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