Fabled Iron Bowl is much more about passion than poison

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It's unfortunate but to many rank-and-file college football fans the face of the uber-intense football rivalry that is Auburn-Alabama has become Harvey Updyke.

It was Updyke, a self-described Alabama fan, who went on statewide radio last February and bragged that he had poisoned the beloved oak trees at Auburn's Toomer's Corner.

It was Updyke who came to represent the wretched and unhealthy excesses that this game brings out in portions of the populace about this time every year.

It was Updyke who had talking heads and media intelligentsia from sea to shining sea wagging their collective fingers about the great unwashed in the South who would -- tsk, tsk -- invest so much anger and emotional energy in a mere college football game.

With all due respect to my media colleagues in other parts of the world: That is simply a load of crap.

Because for every Harvey Updyke, who literally poisoned a great institution like the Iron Bowl, there are thousands of people like Oakley Melton who, if I may be so bold, represents the real face of the Auburn-Alabama football rivalry.

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Oakley Melton was a student at the University of Alabama in 1948 when talks began to resume the annual football rivalry between the two schools. For 40 years (1908-1947) the two teams did not play. Exactly why they didn't play is the subject of historical debate. But knowledgeable people on both sides agree that money was at the root of the argument.

Melton was part of a student committee at Alabama that lobbied both school administrations and the state legislature to get the two schools playing again.

"We did everything we could and finally the two presidents had a secret meeting," said Melton. "They shook hands and agreed there would be a game in 1948."

Melton attended the Auburn-Alabama game in 1948 and hasn't missed one since. If you're keeping score at home that is 63 straight Iron Bowls for Melton, who is now 83 and lives in Montgomery.

"There is just something special about being there in person for the Iron Bowl," said Melton. "I had a couple of close calls when my streak was almost broken."

One of those close calls came in 1957 when his oldest daughter was born.

"She was born on a Wednesday or a Thursday and back then they kept the mothers in the hospital three or four days after the baby came," said Melton. "So I got my doctor friend to keep her for a couple of extra days so I could go to the game. He took really good care of her but my wife has never let me forget that."

Another time Melton said he "just felt really bad and decided not to go. But my children told me that I couldn't break my streak. So they got me to the game and made sure I was squared away. I'm glad they got me to go."

Melton said he was really disappointed at all the hard feelings that came out last year when Auburn rallied from a 24-0 deficit to beat Alabama 28-27 at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

"There are great Auburn people and there are great Alabama people," said Melton. "Yes, the game is intense and we all like to win. But the graduates of both schools respect each other. And the really interesting thing is if you talk to the players today, they really respect each other. That is what Alabama-Auburn is to me."

But Melton recently told me that his streak of 63 straight Iron Bowls will come to an end on Saturday.

"I've got three herniated discs in my back and I just can't climb stairs and get into the stadium," said Melton. "I knew the streak would have to end sooner or later. But it was fun while it lasted."

So to me, Oakley Melton is the real face of Alabama-Auburn. Here are some others:

 Eric and Jennifer Harrell of Alabaster, Ala. His dad was the cameraman on Bear Bryant's television show. Her dad went to Auburn's famed veterinary school. They once entered -- and won -- a contest where they painted half their house blue and orange (Auburn colors) and the other half crimson and white (Alabama's colors). They have been married for 15 years and have watched the Iron Bowl together only once. "We couldn't do it again. It is just too intense. We both get too worked up," said Jennifer. "We don't talk too much on Iron Bowl week. On game day we don't talk at all."

 Dick Coffee. The Birmingham businessman was a student with Oakley Melton at Alabama. Melton has not missed an Iron Bowl since 1948. Coffee has not missed an Alabama GAME since 1946. His streak is now 765 consecutive Alabama games and counting.

"Dick Coffee is amazing," said Melton. "He has seen Alabama play in every kind of weather and every kind of venue."

 The Alabama-Auburn game is 40 former players from both schools playing a touch football game earlier this year to raise money to help Tuscaloosa recover from the terrible tornadoes that hit in April.

 The Alabama-Auburn game is Alabama fans raising over $35,000 in an attempt to save the trees at Auburn's Toomer's Corner.

 It is Capt. Randy Lewis, an Auburn fan, and Capt. Greg Gravlee, an Alabama fan, who proudly fly their flags in shared living quarters in Afghanistan. They put aside their differences to play for one team under one flag -- the American flag.

So as we prepare for another Iron Bowl, let's not focus on the Harvey Updykes of the world because, sadly, they will always be with us. Let us instead celebrate the Oakley Meltons because they are what college football should be about.

Watch The Tony Barnhart Show on Wednesday at 8 p.m. on The CBS Sports Network


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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