Book Review of "The Last Season" by Stuart Stevens
Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Posted by: Christina Mimms
Reviewed by Jay Watts, Assistant Director of Athletics, The Westminster Schools, Atlanta
Few things are as iconic as college football in the Deep South, especially to those who grow up with it all around them. In The Last Season: A Father, a Son, and a Lifetime of College Football, Stuart Stevens tells a story about his journey to see every Ole Miss football game in the 2013 season. Stevens, who was a part of the presidential campaign for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, is not undertaking this adventure solely for the love of the Rebels, however. After decades of hard work and being away from home, the author, at age 60, is using these gridiron expeditions to reconnect with his 95-year-old father. The Last Season chronicles Stevens’ experience of staying with his parents throughout the football season to recapture much more than just the glory of football seasons now passed, but the unique bond between a father and his son.
On the football field, the Rebels’ 2013 season had its ups and downs. A 3-0 start was promptly followed by three losses. A win over #6 LSU was perhaps the apex of the roller coaster in mid-October, but a regular season loss to bitter rival Mississippi State certainly ended things at the bottom of an emotional valley. Stevens aptly expresses the feeling of so many when their team finishes a contest on the wrong side of the scoreboard as he laments, “Dying may feel worse than losing a game,” he says, “but at least with dying, there’s the comfort of knowing it’s unlikely to happen again.”
The physiological yo-yo of the Ole Miss football season is stabilized by the presence of Stevens’ father. A World War II veteran, he is declining in strength of his body but not in mind or spirit. His memories and quick wit lead the author to numerous flashbacks to his childhood. Decades of physical separation seem to evaporate quickly as the pair reminiscence about previous seasons, stars of the gridiron, and memories from Stevens' own childhood. The Last Season contains numerous flashbacks to the 1962 season when Ole Miss went undefeated on the football field while the campus was a flashpoint for the Civil Rights movement. “All Mississippi stories are eventually about race, and mine is no exception,” says Stevens.
While the archetypal ideals surrounding football, fathers, and sons in the South have not changed much in the last century, the social landscape on the Ole Miss campus certainly has. In one of the more poignant sections of the book, Stevens’ discusses his childhood in Jackson, MS, and the decision that was made to close all of the public pools. While other reasons were given publicly for the closings, Stevens and others all knew that the pools had been closed because of a decision forcing their integration. Stevens’ parents responded by having a pool built in their backyard and opening it up to all of the children in the area, regardless of their race.
Several years ago I read Warren St. John’s Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer which is the story of a Columbia grad and New York Times reporter who embeds himself in the fanbase for the Alabama Crimson Tide by renting an RV to follow the team around in the fall of 1999. I mention this work because of St. John’s efforts to rationalize his love for the Tide while hearing racially insensitive comments from other fans which were clearly against his own beliefs. In The Last Season, Stevens also draws contrasts between the current state of the world and 1962 Mississippi. While he in no way disavows any of the social progress that has been made, there is a clear longing for the past with his father, and those memories are hard to separate from a collegiate marching band that played “Dixie,” employed a mascot called “Colonel Reb,” and flew Confederate flags much more frequently on campus.
The Last Season is full of humorous commentary about college football and growing up in the Deep South. In a line that Alabama fans would surely appreciate, when Stevens’ father told a convenience store clerk that he was an Auburn fan, the woman quickly replied, “Honey, the good Lord blesses all sinners.” The book also serves up numerous history lessons about Medgar Evers, Southern politics, and the culture of Jackson in the 1960s. The reader even gets a glimpse the experience of a World War II vet through Stevens’ father when they visit a World War II museum in New Orleans.
Those who follow college football in the South should understand that it is hard to separate the fabric of everyday life without recognizing the rich tapestry of the sport. However, this book is much more than just a story about football at Ole Miss and could be enjoyed by readers without a background in SEC Xs and Os. While the losses on the football field were greatly lamented, the biggest victory in The Last Season is found in the rekindling of a close friendship between a father and a son. For school administrators and coaches, the book can certainly help you appreciate the benefit of athletic participation that goes well beyond the athletic field for so many of our male and female athletes. Final scores never have the same value as eternal bonds of family and friendship.
Jay Watts is Assistant Director of Athletics at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta. He can be reached via Twitter at @GamedayEveryday or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.