2017-01-12 / Opinions

Vergos’ autograph might rival those of big leaguers


MEMPHIS, Tenn. – College football is about as big as anything there is in this country. Aficionados of the game keep active with the passing years. They grow old with enduring affection for alma mater. They can’t wait to return to campus in the fall, and they remain smitten with good memories well into their sundown years.

While there is bitterness in some rivalries, there are the many who are above that and whose love of alma mater allows them to embrace the supporters of other institutions. Good work often takes place on campuses everywhere and often goes unrecognized. Many alumni who take note of those good works, nonetheless, subordinate its importance to winning big games. That is unfortunate. Let’s hear a resounding rah, rah, rah for both.

In Memphis, a Tennessee town, you, nonetheless, find that there is great passion for the University of Arkansas and Ole Miss. Geography can influence sentiment. Here last week for the Liberty Bowl, I was the beneficiary of the warmest of hospitality authored by three Ole Miss loyalists – Keith Ingram, Coleman Connell and Reggie Barnes. They have diverse professional careers, but are unalterably wed to college football, emotionally.

A friendship with the first great Manning, Archie, the patriarch, led to an introduction to the aforementioned who mean it when they say, “ Y’all come!” Manning hosts a luncheon for a circle of his friends at the 21 Club in New York in December during the College Football Hall of Fame induction banquet which is how I came to know this engaging trio. “Archie,” says Connell, “is good to his friends. If you are a friend of Archie Manning, you are a friend of mine.”

Ingram, who is a Democratic state senator and former mayor of West Memphis, like Connell, lives to duck hunt. “It is fun the way we do it,” Keith says. “We have heaters in our blinds. We want to make it comfortable for our guests.” Connell drives to his place in Clarkesdale, a couple of hours away in the afternoon and gets up early the next morning to “bust” a few mallards and get back to Memphis for a full day in the office – a reminder that all across our great country, everyday men and women utilize the sporting scene to gain fulfillment in life.

Reggie, a long time mover and shaker with the Liberty Bowl, made friends across the SEC when the old bowl invitation system dictated that the bowls recruit its participants. “That meant I got to go to Athens, and that always meant that it was a great trip,” Reggie says.

John Vergos, the proprietor, had reserved a table at “Rendezvous” which is a landmark that ranks with Graceland and the Peabody Hotel as “musts,” when you are visiting this river city. Vergos spiced the conversation with factoids about his family and Rendezvous which spawns long lines of barbecue aficionados waiting for a plate of signature charcoal ribs. The restaurant’s popularity is reminiscent of Yogi Berra’s comment about a popular restaurant in New York: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

Sports have redeeming value when it comes to friendships, hospitality and morale. If you are having a bad day, a buzz about some sporting issue or accomplished athlete can become a welcomed distraction.

Casual reference from this corner about a big leaguer who came the Peach State’s way got top billing at the Rendezvous’ conversation of-the-week. Eddie Robinson, whose minor league career began in Valdosta with his last stop taking place with the Atlanta Braves, where he was general manager. Holding court by underscoring that Robinson is a 96-year-old marvel, I noticed Reggie Barnes’ eagerness to pitch in.

When he was nine-years-old, Reggie’s father took him to an exhibition game between the White Sox and the New York Yankees in Memphis. Reggie’s seat abutted the Yankee dugout which had him just beyond arms-length of the Yankee first baseman who was aimlessly tossing a baseball in the air.

The player noticed the excited kid who would wind up with the ball he was tossing about – but not before the autographs of Yankee legends like Whitey Ford, Eddie Lopat, Joe Collins, Enos Slaughter, Tommy Byrne, Bob Turley, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle had been added. And, of course, the signature of Eddie Robinson who had a soft spot in his heart for kids. “I couldn’t believe my good fortune,” Barnes said. “I’ve never forgotten Eddie Robinson and thought that he had to be the nicest man in the world.” It was easy to confirm that Reggie is correct.

The goodbye hugs were warm and generous. I felt John Vergos stuffing a bottle of Rendezous famous seasoning, a Memphis original, in my pocket. Back at the Peabody, where the ducks were doing their thing, I began chastising myself. Should have had John Vergos autograph his famous seasoning. His autograph in the food business would be comparable to that of some of the big leaguers, who signed Reggie Barnes’ baseball in 1956.

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