The Last Season begins with a scene of a young Stuart Stevens at the 1962 Ole Miss vs. Kentucky game that preceded the riots over the university’s integration. When halftime came, the band marched out onto the field with “the Largest Confederate Flag in the World” as usual, but afterwards Governor Ross Barnett came out onto the field and gave a speech: “I love Mississippi! I love her people! Our customs!” The crowd was riled up and Stevens’ father left with him in disgust.
The prologue sets the stage for a book that evokes the great social changes that took place in the South and the relationship college football had to that society. Football in the South, Stevens told me in an interview that will be published later at The Federalist, plays a role akin to that of rugby in South Africa, which helped build some degree of unity between whites and blacks. The importance of football in the South and at Ole Miss in particular in relation to issues of racial strife is no less evident day.
Stevens described his lack of awareness as a child of the meaning of the Confederate battle flag, which was waved frequently by fans until the university started trying to discourage it in 1997. The flag is still a controversy in Mississippi and other Southern states. It appears in the corner of the Mississippi state flag. Speaking to the prominence of football, it was widely reported news when Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze spoke in favor of changing Mississippi’s state flag.
So, as a function of Stevens having grown up in Mississippi and being an Ole Miss fan, those themes are big issues throughout, but the book is about more than that; it’s about family and life. It’s about Stevens reconnecting with his father after both of them have lived busy, driven professional lives. And it’s about facing the inevitable disappointments one will face in life. Stuart Stevens was a high-ranking advisor with the Mitt Romney campaign for president in 2012 before he back to his birthplace to watch each game of the 2013 Ole Miss football season with his dad. It’s Stevens’ sixth book, after three travel memoirs in China, Africa and Europe; Scorched Earth, a fictional political campaign thriller; and The Big Enchilada, a memoir on the 2000 Bush campaign, on which he worked as a media consultant.
Stevens goes through important games of the season, recounting the games while tying those events to his memories growing up and part of his and his father’s lives. The familiar sights and sounds that everyone loves about sporting events—the hot dogs, the roar of the crowd, the excitement and anticipation before each game, the charged tailgating environment and the impossible struggle to find a parking space (or hates)—are all described in lifelike detail in the 224 pages. So are the life events, like Stevens’ sneaking off to go swimming one summer day and his early adulthood watching crappy Northeastern football in New York City. Through it all, the book ties together the meaning of sports in people’s lives.
Stevens makes much of how football is like a religion in the South—a religion that people not from the South cannot understand. It is not hard to accept that Southerners—and in particular fans of the dominant Southeastern Conference (SEC), which has won 7 of the last 10 national titles—really love their football. Stevens paid a lot of attention to the strange traditions of some of the schools, like Ole Miss fans’ cries of “Hotty Toddy.” But having grown up in Ohio—and Ohio State is the defending champion!—I had to point out that football is pretty intense in the Midwest and Big Ten, too. Indeed, most sports fans should be able to understand the fandom here, and one who isn’t a fan should have a better understanding of it after reading the book.
All in all, The Last Season is a good book to get you ready for the college football season, which has just started. It will also give Northerners an insight on the Southern identity for the next time a debate roars up about something related to the Civil War or other such issue. When the book concludes at the end of the season, with people already thinking about the next season, it is a reminder that the events of history never really end. They just continue again under different circumstances.
Purchase on Amazon: The Last Season, 224 pages, $12.99 Kindle, $13.45 hardcover
Also get ready for my interview with Stevens to be published at The Federalist. We talk about the topics of the book as well as politics and his career—including the Bush and Romney campaigns and Donald Trump. If you want to be updated by email when the interview is live, subscribe in the box below.
Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist who has lived and worked in China for six years. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, The Shanghai Daily, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, City Weekend, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.