Commentary

The life and times of Harvey Updyke

Harvey Updyke talks about life, death and the trees at Toomer's Corner

Updated: May 24, 2011, 1:13 AM ET
By Wright Thompson | ESPN.com

Toomers Corner Trees AP Photo/Dave MartinThe trees at Toomer's Corner have long been a gathering spot for Auburn football fans.

MANCHAC, La. -- Harvey Updyke walks into the famous catfish place down in the swamp, takes off his crimson houndstooth baseball cap and asks, right off the bat, if I know where he could get some cheap tickets to next year's Alabama-Ole Miss game. Provided, he makes sure to point out later, he's not in prison.

While I'm trying to figure out the appropriate response, he tells this story.

"Yeah," he says, "uh, I liked to not made this deal. Two nights ago I had really, really bad chest pains. I had 'em all night long, off and on. I didn't tell my wife because I knew she'd make me go to the emergency room. You know I have a pacemaker and I've already had open-heart surgery?"

Harvey keeps going, telling me about going to the doctor the next day and explaining, after an examination, that his condition might be stress-related. Then he re-creates the conversation.

Harvey Updyke
AP Photo/Auburn Public Safety DepartmentHarvey Updyke faces four felony charges and two misdemeanor charges in connection with the tree poisoning.

Doctor: Are you under a lot of stress?

Harvey: More than you'll ever know.

Doctor: What kind of stress? Family related? Financial?

Harvey: I really don't want to get into it.

Doctor: I really need to know.

Harvey: OK. You keep up with college football?

Doctor: Yeah, I do.

Harvey: You hear about that guy that supposedly poisoned those trees at Auburn?

Doctor: Yeah.

Harvey: Well, that's me.

Doctor (laughing hysterically): I'm glad you don't hate LSU. You may have poisoned our tiger.

The tape recorder says two minutes and 23 seconds. I just stare across the table at this polite 62-year-old man, his hair neatly combed, his face covered by a beard he hopes will allow him a measure of anonymity. Well, I stare at two different people, both of whom have made an appearance in the first two minutes.

There is Harvey Updyke, a remorseful grandfather who claims he didn't poison those trees and wishes he'd never called a radio show to take credit for it.

And there's Al from Dadeville -- Updyke's radio nom de guerre -- who loves Alabama football, and, if he's being totally honest, doesn't understand why everybody's so damn mad.


Harvey Updyke was 3 years old when his dad was killed by a drunk driver. His mom met a man, and they all moved from Texas to Milton, Fla. Seven years later, Updyke sat in front of the television when the "Bear Bryant Show" came on. Maybe he just really liked football. Maybe he was desperate for a man to replace his father.

"I was 10 years old," he says. "I was laying there watching the 'Bear Bryant Show.' Golden Flake and Coca-Cola was the sponsor. I told my mother right there, if I ever have a son, I'm gonna name him Bear Bryant."


Al from Dadeville actually did it.

He convinced his first wife to let him name their first child Bear Bryant Updyke. When it was a girl, they named her Crimson Tyde. Their next child was a boy and, sure enough, his name was Bear. Al's two dogs are named Bama and Nicky. He has 46 Alabama hats. Last year, he found Alabama national championship T-shirts on sale for $3.41. He bought all 18 in stock. When he was 19, he ran onto the field at the Bluebonnet Bowl, carrying a roll of toilet paper and a box of Tide. More recently, he tried to convince his current wife to name a daughter Ally Bama. He begged. Her response was "Are you crazy?" She also refused to promise that she'd honor his request to bury him in crimson. Even before the Toomer's allegations, she thought he took this Alabama thing too far. She told him he better get a tattoo if he wanted to be buried with anything related to a football team.

Sitting at the table, Al from Dadeville rolls up his sleeve.

It's an elephant with the words Bama and Roll Tide.

"I hate tattoos," he says. "I f---ing hate tattoos."

Again, I'm speechless.

"Well, I'm just a very unhealthy Alabama fan," he says. "I live it. I breathe it. I think about Alabama football, I'm not exaggerating, 18 hours a day. I have always been that way. It just didn't start. That's what people don't understand. The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is get on Tiderinsider and see what's going on. I mean, I know it's not healthy. I've been knowing that a long time. I have a daughter 33 years old named Crimson Tyde."

When his son calls him, the name on his caller ID is Bear Bryant. He uses both names. And how is his name programmed into his son's phone these days?

Al from Dadeville.


Harvey Updyke moved to Alabama in the winter of 2008. He'd retired after a long career as a Texas state trooper. A wreck in a high-speed chase left him with a broken neck and in pretty constant pain. Retirement would give him a long-awaited rest. And he'd finally get to follow the Crimson Tide up close. It was heaven.

His first football season in Alabama was 2009.

The football gods, it seemed, were rewarding him for seasons of loyal fanaticism. The Crimson Tide were going to the national championship game. When he heard a small block of tickets were being sold to Pasadena, he had everyone he knew call to try to get a pair. That didn't work, but, from an old high school friend with corporate connections, a miracle. Updyke was going to see Alabama play for the national title at the Rose Bowl. He found his seats and took in the crisp California air, the football team on the field, the tense countdown until kickoff.

Harvey started crying.

When he got home, he framed his ticket stub and looked forward to 2010. Season 2 brought hopes of a repeat. Imagine, to be a fan from afar for your entire life and then walk into this. Last year, he went to more Alabama games -- eight -- than he'd ever made it to before in a single season. He was at the Iron Bowl, when Alabama ran out to a 24-0 lead, and he was there when Auburn scored 28 points to win. That night, he and a friend had a hotel reservation in Tuscaloosa. They didn't bother, pointing the car south, toward home.

"We just drove straight back to Dadeville," he says, "seriously, I bet we didn't say 10 words."


Fifteen days after Auburn won the national championship, Al from Dadeville called "The Paul Finebaum Show."

He was livid.

[+] EnlargeToomer's Corner
AP Photo/Auburn University News BureauAuburn facilities personnel regularly clean up after fans paper the Toomer's Corner trees.

Moving back to Alabama had also put him in close proximity to Auburn -- and legions of Auburn fans. In Dadeville, he'd discovered an enemy. Now they had reason to gloat.

"I had to put up with that mess," he says. "That's when I really started hating 'em."

Something happened. He listened to the radio most days, all the rumors and accusations, the air full of drama and hate. So Al from Dadeville became convinced that 2010 had been stolen, that Cam Newton and a slew of other players had been bought, that the title had been bought. The other callers made him crazy, I-Man, and Tammy, and all the Auburn fans gloating over their rise and Bama's unexpected fall. Finebaum's show, which is wildly important in Alabama, is strange that way. You can listen to it for four hours, and there are all these little innuendos in the shorthand of people who are familiar with minutiae, and when it's over, you don't really remember any specifics, only that you're pissed.

On Jan. 27, he'd had enough.

Al picked up the phone. In the months since then, he's listened to this interview only a few times. His son has listened to it so many times that his little daughter can recite it. "She's 4 years old," Al from Dadeville says, "she can say basically the whole interview."

So, anyway, he dials the number for Finebaum and is on the air.

Al from Dadeville: The weekend after the Iron Bowl, I went to Auburn, Ala., because I lived 30 miles away, and I poisoned the two Toomer's trees. I put Spike 80DF in 'em.

Paul: Did they die?

Al: Do what?

Paul: Did … they … die?

Al: They're not dead yet, but they definitely will die.

Paul: Is it against the law to poison a tree?

Al: Do you think I care?

Paul: No.

Al: I really don't! And you can tell Tammy, I hope … never mind. Roll Damn Tide!


Harvey Updyke hung up the phone. He had just ruined his entire life in 62 words. Soon, the police would connect him with Al from Dadeville and nothing would ever be the same.

"I'll [be] honest with you," he says. "I realized it was a bad idea when I was doing it. You know, I'm not stupid … "


Sitting in the catfish place, in the middle of the quote, Al from Dadeville takes over.

"… I want to be honest with you," he says, "and I told all my friends this. I actually wanted to get caught. I wanted them to know it was me. I had no earthly idea it was gonna be a felony, and they'd try to get me for poisoning the water system. Never in my wildest dreams. I thought it'd be $500-$600 fine. I thought that was all there'd be to it. I had no earthly idea they'd also accuse me of masterminding 9/11."

Still, he listened to the end of that show, as the enemy began calling up, furious, distraught.

"As soon as I did it," he says, "Auburn went absolutely berserk on the radio. They went ballistic. I sat there and listened to the reaction."


Harvey Updyke says he didn't do it.

Sure, he made the call, but he did not poison those trees. The guy sitting next to him at the Iron Bowl did. A dude in his 30s, with brown hair and an Alabama pullover.

"He's the one that told me about Spike 80DF," Updyke says. "He told me he was gonna poison the trees. I'd never heard of Spike 80DF. To be honest with you, I didn't know a whole lot about Toomer's Corner. I knew all about Auburn, but didn't know anything about these trees. That's where I come up with the idea. My defense is that I didn't do it. I told the police from day one about this guy. I told 'em what seat I was in. I don't know if he's a season-ticket holder."


Al from Dadeville thinks he's a victim.

"They want to take some of the pressure off them because of them buying players," he says. "If you'll notice, every time something is fixing to come out about those four players, they bring a new article about me. I guarantee you, they'll get less time than I do and they arm-robbed."

The four ex-Auburn players arrested for armed robbery have become an obsession. On three or so occasions, he says that he expects to get a longer sentence than them, and this, he believes, is just another example in his larger point about Auburn's corruption.

"I am by no means the first one," he says.

The huh?

[+] EnlargeSaban
AP Photo/Dave MartinEven Alabama football coach Nick Saban joined the effort to try to save the trees.

"Do you know the story behind Bevo?"

He begins rattling off pranks. Texas A&M fans stealing the Texas Longhorn and branding it with a score of a game, and Texas rebranding the word "Bevo" over it, hence the mascot's name. Army-Navy, he says, and a kidnapped goat that was painted pink. One that Rice pulled on Texas.

"What do you think is different?" I ask.

"Me, personally," he says, "I don't think it's a whole lot different."

I don't know what to say at first. I look across the table and decide he's serious.

"Except they didn't shoot Bevo," I say, finally.

Al from Dadeville blows right through that.

"They already knew the trees were dying," he says. "Every time they throw toilet paper in there, they take a high pressure water sprayer and wash if off. That's also killing the trees."

I ask if he understands why so many people are mad.

"I get it," he says. "I understand completely why they're pissed. You know, they've been s---ting on Bear Bryant's grave for 30 years. That's a felony, and they're not doing anything about that. They vandalized Nick Saban's lake house. Painted it orange and blue."


Harvey Updyke thinks about his career in the highway patrol a lot these days. All that work, just thrown away. For a football team.

"Most people don't know this," he says, "but I still have state records for DWIs in Texas. In March of 1983, I filed 40 DWIs in one month. Most police officers don't file 40 in a year. In '83, I filed 227 DWIs for the year. I think I've done a lot of good in my life. I got shot at three times. Made a 7,000-pound bust of marijuana. I was a hardworking police officer, and I think I did a good job. Now to be known for this? I've got 16 grandkids. I can't even go back to Texas to see 'em."


Al from Dadeville seems like he expected to be greeted as a conquering hero. Maybe it was as simple as confusing the angry mob on Finebaum with the fan base as a whole, or maybe it was something deeper, but he figured his side would have his back. After all, he'd struck a blow against the enemy. He was surprised to find the opposite was true, with Tide for Toomer's raising money on Facebook, with former Alabama players calling him horrible names, with Saban writing a check to help try to save the trees.

"It hurt my feelings," he says.


Harvey Updyke is a sick, scared man who realizes he could go to prison. There's another hearing this week, and he's facing four felony charges in Alabama and maybe more from federal prosecutors. He knows what happens to former police officers in jail. And although he never straight-up admits during our two hours together that he poisoned the trees, he knows this is his fault, and there's nobody else to blame. He understands how people feel about him -- he read all 800-plus messages sent to his Facebook account by enraged Auburn fans -- but he says that if the roles were reversed, he'd want to show mercy.

[+] EnlargeBryant
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesThe statue of Bear Bryant outside Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

"I'll be honest with you," he says. "If an Auburn fan had destroyed Bear Bryant's statue and the guy is 62 years old and is in real bad health, I swear to God, I would not expect and would not want him to go to prison. Probation, five years. Ten years. Replace it. A thousand hours of community service."

He looks very small when he sits at the table and thinks about jail. There is no way this story has a happy ending, for Auburn fans who seem sure to lose priceless symbols of the university's roots and rise and recent success, for Alabama fans who will now lose the class argument until the end of time. Nor will there be a happy ending for Updyke and his family. Sometimes, he just wishes he were dead.

The story he told when we first sat down? About the chest pains? Well, he didn't exactly tell the whole truth. He says he didn't say anything to his wife all night because part of him hoped he'd just go on and die.

"I told her, 'I'd rather be dead than go to prison,'" he says. "She said, 'Are you crazy?' 'No, I'm not crazy.' I tell you right now, I'd rather be dead than go to prison. I honestly believe if they put me in prison, within three months, I'll be dead."

One thing, he says, has kept him from doing something drastic. When he was a cop, he heard a statistic he can't forget. If a man commits suicide, he says they told him, his children have an exponentially higher chance of suicide.

"That is the only reason I haven't killed myself," he says. "I mean, I'm serious. I just can't see a future. Auburn is not gonna be satisfied until they put me in prison."


We walk out of the famous catfish place, me, Harvey Updyke and Al from Dadeville, all of us headed to the parking lot that runs out to the swamp. Al asks me again about cheap tickets to the Ole Miss-Alabama game. Harvey tells me to drive safe on my way home.

We're about to part ways, me back up the road, Updyke on a different path, one that seems likely to be leading to prison. He loved a football team so much he ruined his life. I tell him to be careful. He nods and opens his car door.

"There's nuts on both sides," he says. "I guess I'm one of 'em."

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com. You can find his story archive here.

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Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.