Stuart Stevens on Football and his Father

The author of The Last Season reflects on time spent with his aging father doing what they love.

Stuart Stevens

In the fall of 2012, after working on a presidential campaign that suffered a devastating loss, Stuart Stevens, having turned sixty, realized that he and his ninety-five-year-old father had spent little time together for decades. His solution: a season of attending Ole Miss football games together, as they’d done when college football provided a way for his father to guide him through childhood–and to make sense of the troubled South of the time.

Now, driving to and from the games, and cheering from the stands, they take stock of their lives as father and son, and as individuals, reminding themselves of their unique, complicated, precious bond.

In his poignant memoir The Last Season: A Father, a Son, and a Lifetime of College Football, Stevens reflects on returning to his native South to spend a special autumn with his ninety-five-year-old dad, sharing the unique joys, disappointments, and life lessons of Saturdays with their beloved Ole Miss Rebels. Stevens talked with Read it Forward’s editor Abbe Wright about the relationship between the south and football, as well as aging parents and children and the importance of taking a backward glance together while you still can.

Read It Forward: When you started researching for this book, you had just come off a tough political loss, working on Presidential candidate Romney’s campaign. Was writing this book a way for you to change tacks?

Stuart Stevens: Well, it was certainly a way to reflect. It wasn’t so much that I was sick of doing campaigns. It was more just trying to get in touch with something that was outside of a campaign. When you do something like a presidential campaign, it’s all-consuming. You forget that there’s another world. A friend of mine—Mark McKinnon, who worked on the Bush campaigns—he says when you do these things, it takes you a long time to see the world in color instead of just black and white afterward. There’s a lot of truth to that. You constantly judge your success or failure in life by your daily tracking numbers. Then, ultimately, by the final tracking number, which is the election.

I can’t say I wouldn’t have done this if Romney had won. I’m not one of these guys who goes into government. So in a sense, losing closed off a path for me. But I did naturally find myself reflecting more on the nature of loss and asking tougher questions by losing. I’ve been lucky to work on a lot of winning campaigns, and I think that you realize pretty early that, in politics, the pain of losing is far greater than the pleasure of winning. And it’s not like after winning one of these things you go off on some great bender of joy, but doesn’t have the impact of making you stop and think about your life.

I had turned 60 during the campaign, and my dad turned 95, which does make you believe there might be some credibility to this rumor that we’re all mortal. All of a sudden he seemed very important to me. I’ve always been goal-oriented to a fault, judging myself by the obvious wins and losses in a campaign. But all of a sudden that didn’t seem as important. It was wonderful to be able to spend a fall with my father and not have fall dominated by a campaign. I thought, “Oh, this is how the rest of the world lives.” It’s really quite remarkable.

I’ve always associated fall with elections. But suddenly, I was able to watch these wonderful football games and share them with my dad. It was nice to reconnect with that and to see that there was still this other world out there. Something about that is renewing, and it really places things in perspective. So it was a wonderful thing to do. I am also very fortunate—my dad’s now 97—and he’s doing great. He gets around. I mean, we didn’t move that fast at these games, but he’s not in a wheelchair. He’s been very fortunate; he has great genes. So does my mother, who’s 87. They’re probably going to outlive us all.

RIF: (Laughter) So when you started writing this, what was your aim? What were you hoping to recapture with your father, or was it a way to understand him better, or your relationship better?

SS: I’ve always believed there’s a lot of truth in this idea that through writing, you process thought and emotion and understanding, and that is a necessary process to understand the world. This was my sixth book. The other books were less personal—one was a novel and the rest were nonfiction. They involved personal experiences, but not necessarily in a deeply reflective way. But by writing about those personal experiences, I found that it really helped order them.

Certainly more than any other book I’ve written, I was writing this for myself and my father and my mother. I found that when you start to think back to these moments when you were growing up, it’s amazing how many of them you can recall. One leads to another. It’s all there, it’s just a question of allowing yourself to go back to it. It’s not so much that we forget these things, it’s that we don’t think about them because we’re thinking about other things. That journey of memory is an extraordinary quality. The mind has to be able to hold these things, even though you don’t spend your life thinking about it. If you did, you’d be paralyzed.

RIF: The whole aspect of writing a memoir is that it’s reliant on memory, and sometimes in the book you talk about how you can’t remember where the car is parked. So how was it plumbing the depths of that memory? Was it reliable?

SS: It’s really hard to say because there’s no empirical touchstone.

RIF: There’s no fact-checker.

SS: Yeah, it’s not a historical event, it’s a personal event. But I found that these games and these moments I certainly could remember well. There is of course an empirical touchstone to the game. There’s a score. We know what happened. I don’t really play golf, but they say that golfers can remember every shot they make on a course years later.

I found the most vivid memories were those of experiences I was having for the first time, like going to an Ole Miss/LSU game for the first time. This was set against the backdrop of what was happening in Mississippi, which was extraordinarily vivid and painful—the whole civil rights movement and the worst of the Mississippi burning days. In that sense, it’s almost as if the game was taking place against a wartime environment, because there were these huge moments that were so traumatic—the assassination of Medgar Evers, or the civil rights workers who were killed—it was this backdrop on which all this was occurring. It’s all interwoven together.

One of the threads that fascinates me, and that I try to work through the book, is the social impact of football in the south and what it’s meant in race relations in general society. It’s played a role much like, from what I can gather, rugby has played in South Africa. You know, the first time blacks and whites really cheered for each other. It’s extraordinary to think about the changes that have occurred. You have the 1962 riots at Ole Miss over integration, when they allowed in one African American student. This is arguably the last battle of the Civil War—there were 33,000 troops in Oxford, Mississippi. Now the only time they’re likely to have some civil disturbance on campus is if some African American student had committed to Ole Miss to play football and then changed his mind. It’s complete role reversal, and it’s not that long ago.

RIF: Right.

SS: It’s amazing to think about, going to an Ole Miss game now. Mississippi is the most southern state, and the University of Mississippi is the most southern university, and it’s so steeped in this very tragic history. Right there at the Grove, at the heart of the campus, which is now famous for these wonderful pre-game gatherings they have—to call them a tailgating party would be like calling the Oscars a regular award ceremony—it’s this phenomenal thing.

But when the Civil War began, that’s right where the university regiment mustered up and went off to war. They ended up leading Picket’s charge with something like 80% casualties. The Grove is also where they had the riots in ’62 when two people were tragically killed. Now before home games they have a tradition where the players walk through the Grove on their way to the stadium. To see this very integrated team mobbed by black and white fans as they march past the Confederate War memorial, which is right there on the Grove—it’s a very powerful moment. I find it in many ways a very hopeful moment. Mississippi and the South still have tremendous problems, but it’s difficult to look at that and not feel that change isn’t possible.

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RIF: What do you think it is about football that makes it easily relatable? Why is it a great connector?

SS: When I was growing up in the South there were no professional sports teams. There were no baseball teams, and I think that elevated the role of football, particularly college football, to a greater degree than any other sport. But I also think that there is something uniquely American about football. Of all the sports that we have created in America—baseball, football, basketball—it’s the one that has been least accepted abroad. I think that speaks to the unique nature of football. There’s something about it that is very American. There’s a violent streak in the South, and I think it appeals to that. It has the ability to create moments that you feel are very special.

Particularly in the South—Mississippi has always been so poor— football was an escape that transcended economic and cultural barriers. It was a way a lot of people who were having very tough lives, on special Saturdays or Friday nights, could feel that they were part of something bigger and more exciting. You see this theme work beautifully in Friday Night Lights—you know, what it means to this small town. You see that over and over across the South.

I think it means more in a place like Mississippi where there’s less. We don’t have any professional football teams or baseball teams in Mississippi. It’s not like you grow up in New York, and it’s like well, should we go to a football game, should we go see the Giants play, or should we go see the Mets? I think that that elevates the importance of it.

RIF: So as our parents age—this is universal; everyone is going through this—what are the most important things to focus on when it comes to time spent with them? What do you hope your memoir teaches the reader about addressing their own aging parents?

SS: I hope it gives people permission to value that time. We’re all so busy now, and our lives are so much more consumed by work. One can feel guilty about focusing on time with parents if that’s as equally valued as making money or answering emails or all the things that we do. I am certainly the most guilty of that as someone who tends to be obsessive when it comes to work—both work and the pursuit of non-work goals. All these sports that I do badly are all structured around goals, be it doing this triathlon or this bike race. It’s not just about going out for a ride, it’s about trying to get better. To set that aside and to treasure just spending time together—that’s one of the beauties of sports. And it’s not just fathers and sons, you see it with mothers and sons and mothers and daughters and fathers and daughters—it can often be a way to talk about everything without talking about anything.

It doesn’t have to be sports at all; it can be going to art museums together, going to plays. I have lots of friends that grew up with their parents taking them to plays, and now they take their parents to plays to be able to recreate that. Or sometimes it’s road trips. In the Romney family, when he grew up, his father would take them on these long road trips to National Parks, and it’s something he’s recreating with his grandchildren, he and Ann Romney. They love to take their grandkids on these trips. Last summer, being very Romney-esque, they did some 16-mile hike, and I’m like, what are you doing? This is like the Bataan Death March. They go, “No, the kids love this!” That was something very special to him growing up, and I think he’s been able to share that.

Whatever it is, you should find something that’s special as a way to slow time. One of the much-discussed realities of our addiction to electronics and the way that it’s changing our minds and the way that it’s changing our sense of space is an acceleration of time. That’s why there is a whole celebration now of a slow food movement, and there are wonderful books like The End of Absence—this beautiful book that talks about how difficult it is to find time to read now, about how we’re losing our ability to concentrate. When you go to a football game in the south, people pay attention. I can remember when I first came to New York with some friends, we went up to a game at Columbia. We couldn’t believe that there were actually students reading in the stands.

It literally was like someone bringing a small television to church or something—it was so unimaginable. I mean, they could have been eating ants on a skewer and it would have seemed no less weird to us. It’s one of the things that’s different about football than, say, baseball. It’s socially acceptable to go to baseball games and sit in the stands and talk about other things, because a lot of time at a baseball game not much is happening.

RIF: Right.

SS: But it’s a different intensity in these moments. If something happens like Ole Miss beating Alabama last year, and Ole Miss rushing the field—it’s something that people remember for the rest of their lives. It becomes a special moment, like going to Paris for the first time, or the first time you run a marathon. To be able to share that is very special.

RIF: One of the things that resonated most with me is how you talk about role reversal, where your dad held your hand when you were a little boy, and now you’re holding his arm, or you were the one moving slowly then, and now it’s him. Talk about that sensation for me.

SS: I think it’s seasons of life. My father has always been an extraordinarily healthy presence. He’s a big guy, super athletic, and in his own way still is at 97. He’s someone that had a real presence of vitality, who always was active. He took up marathon running in his 60s and did it well into his 80s.

RIF: Wow.

SS: There’s a sense of vulnerability that you get when you’re around your parents when they’re older that you didn’t have when you were a kid. It’s very different. Sometimes it can seem unsettling. But I found that one of the nice things about going to all these games was the repetitive nature of it. It allows you not to feel like you have to experience everything that you’re going to experience at one game. If you were late for a game, there was the next weekend to go to another.

That sense of time rolling out was very nice, because as we get older, we interact with our parents in very time-controlled manner. You’re coming for Thanksgiving; you’re coming for Christmas. You know when you’re going to arrive. You know when you’re going to leave. It’s usually difficult to find that time. It’s usually difficult to be completely isolated these days from work when you do have that time. This was special to have a sense that it wasn’t going to be one weekend or one week. It wasn’t just going on a vacation that had an end.

I mean, there was an end to the season, but it always seemed further away. Football seasons have a natural rhythm to them. The games get colder, and by the end you’re ready to transition out of that season. It’s rare to be able to experience that. I think we used to have it as kids when we would look forward to summer. On the first day of summer, it would seem like it was going to stretch out forever.

RIF: You talk about being caught up in the fervor and that if someone had handed you a Confederate flag, you would have waved it with wild abandon. In light of recent events centered around the flag, what does it mean to you now?

SS: It’s really fascinating, because I’m not sure at what point as a kid I became aware that the Confederate flag was something other than the Ole Miss symbol.

RIF: Right. You talk about it in the classroom, thinking, this is the football team’s flag.

SS: Yeah, it was always associated with the Ole Miss football team. At some point, I became aware that it was actually a symbol of the Confederacy, but I can’t honestly remember when, and it wasn’t at a particularly young age. It’s just part of this whole paradox of the South that is embodied in Mississippi, and particularly at the University of Mississippi.

The Confederate flag is the flag of not only a defeated nation, but a nation that needed to be defeated. When I was growing up, there was a distinct pride that was associated with the idea that these Ole Miss teams would be really good teams even though they had been defeated. We’ve gone from the wealthiest state in the country to the poorest state in the country, but this is one thing we can do well—play football. And ’62—I find this fascinating—it’s the last year that Ole Miss won a National Championship, and it’s the year that Ole Miss was integrated and they had the tragic riots. It was almost as if it was this last gasp to try to prove that there was something redeeming in it.

I think we have this very human instinct to believe that wherever you’re growing up is great. Your school is better than the other school. Your neighborhood’s better, whatever it is. The great conflict, particularly when I was growing up in the South, was that yeah, you felt that, because it was very human, and yet there was also a sense that something really terrible had happened here. In our house, there was a sense that what happened was deserved—that is was important that the South lost, which it was, of course.

It’s a very mixed emotion, because on the one hand you want to be proud of the place where you grew up. But on the other hand, there’s something difficult to process about being taught about this terrible thing that the South tried to do—it was good that it was defeated. It’s a very contradictory, powerful push and pull in emotion that I think is unique to the South. I don’t think people in Maine walk around a lot thinking about the Civil War.

RIF: Right. They don’t have to, as you said.

SS: They won.

RIF: Right.

SS: Maine native Joshua Chamberlain was a great hero of Gettysburg, but I don’t think they feel conflicted about it. That is something that’s really different with being a white southerner. This whole, great tragedy of racism has held back the South so much and still does. It’s better now, but it’s still such a defining quality. I mean, still in Mississippi, being born black or white is one of the great defining qualities of your life, which is not to say that it is definitional as to what will have to happen in one’s life. It’s not destiny, but it’s definitional. And it’s a very powerful thing.

There’s some debate now in Mississippi again about the state flag. There was a referendum twelve years ago or so whether or not the state flag should be changed, and it was defeated pretty overwhelmingly. I think today it would pass. Interestingly, as the debate has come back to the forefront, the head football coach of Ole Miss and Mississippi State have both called for the flag to be replaced. I think that’s really significant. I think there will be some mechanism to replace it. But it’s another sign of the role that football has played in a cultural sense.

RIF: Did anything surprise you about this journey, whether it was something you learned about your dad or yourself?

SS: A lot of things surprised me. I was surprised how all-consuming I could find it and how gratifying I could find it. I didn’t feel like I was missing anything by doing this. I wasn’t working campaigns, I wasn’t writing a television show; I was just doing this. And I didn’t miss any of that. (Laughter) I was just really focused on who we were going to play next weekend, and whether or not we were going to win, and—

RIF: What quarter you’d get the hot dogs in?

SS: Yeah. And I found it completely satisfying. There’s a whole little universe there, and it was very satisfying. I was surprised at the power of these memories when I began to focus on them, and how an emotion that I felt as a child could still resonate with me, and how thinking about one moment led you to think about another. It’s a very complex quality of the mind when you isolate yourself and allow yourself to focus on these things.

I know that there’s a lot of therapy that is connected with this process in different ways, and I can understand how that works. You have a reason and a need and a desire to recollect something and process it, what it means to you and how it’s still defining who you are today. I think that’s fascinating and very powerful. I was also surprised at the South and how much it really has changed culturally in a lot of very positive ways.

It’s difficult to imagine how isolated the South was when I was growing up. In Mississippi, there was one dominant television station—WOBT—and that station is the only station in the country that had its license revoked for racism. I mean, it was so bad they took away the license. There was basically one newspaper chain in Mississippi that was owned by one family that dominated the news in Mississippi. There was a famous phrase that a professor at Ole Miss came up with, that Mississippi was “behind the magnolia curtain.” And it really was true. That has changed now, the South is much more interconnected to the rest of the world. I don’t find anything nostalgic about that. I don’t think that it’s losing anything; I think it’s gaining.

RIF: Yeah.

SS: I think the South has plenty of regional identity still. But the degree to which the South is integrated now—Mississippi is integrated now—it’s obviously not perfect, but the fact that it is so unremarkable, I find remarkable. I was reading a New Yorker piece about the schools in New York, and I didn’t realize New York State schools are still the most segregated in the country.

RIF: Wow.

SS: In many ways, Mississippi is a very integrated society in a lot of ways. You go back to the South, and you see this, and I find it very encouraging, the power of it in its normalcy. That acquisition of normalcy is a great goal for all race relations; the idea of people being able to interact without these barriers. Sports, and the greater sports world, is a great leveler for that. It’s very powerful.

RIF: Speaking of sports, you’re an extreme sporty kind of guy. You’ve skied the last hundred miles to the North Pole, I read.

SS: Yep, the last hundred kilometers.

RIF: Wow. And then you did the Paris Bicycle Race?

SS: Yeah, that was great fun. I like doing these things. I like taking normal pursuits and going to extremes. As we say in long-distance bicycling, you never know how far you can go until you go. And I like that. The idea you can get on your bike and ride 1200 kilometers, I think it’s nutty. It’s fun. And now you can ski to the North Pole. I like getting out there on that edge. I mean, after you go to the North Pole—you’ll never feel cold again. It’s minus 40 all the time. It’s crazy. It’s wonderful. I like doing those things. I like the focus of it and the way that you feel after a certain point.

I’m now getting interested in ultra running for the clarity of mind that you get. If you’ve been riding your bike for three days straight with just a couple of hours of sleep, all you’re thinking about is riding your bike. You’re not worried about anything else, and it’s just getting to that next control point that is the complete focus.

Before I did this, the summer of 2013 after the Romney campaign, I rode my bike across the country with this small group that specializes in these trips— fast trips across the country. We did it in 30 days, which is not particularly fast—the northern route—but we had one day off where we took a ferry across Lake Michigan. But I thought it was fantastic. We did about 120 miles a day. So life gets very simple, and I think there’s a real clarity in that. I like being tired—I like that sense of physical exhaustion.

RIF: I also read that you studied filmmaking at UCLA film school.

SS: I did. I’ve always been interested in politics, film, and writing, and tried to pursue those. When you grow up in a place like Mississippi interested in film—about the only way to get involved in it, or at least the easiest way—is to go to film school. I think the academization of film is something that’s absurd. You really should just apprentice to do this stuff. Later when I worked in television, the fact that I’d gone to film school had nothing to do with why I was working in television. It was because I had written books, and people were interested in that.

But for me it was positive, because it opened up other doors to me and I learned a lot that helped me in politics. The intersection between popular culture and politics is something we talk about a lot now, but it’s something that I realized fairly early. The first television show I started writing for was Northern Exposure, and the idea that you could write these things and that people would actually watch them was kind of fascinating.

RIF: And still talk about it 35 years later.

SS: Yeah, it’s an interesting cultural phenomenon to be able to do that. I felt film school very intimidating at first. Everybody was, particularly in this Hollywood world, very pretty and superficial. But while working, I came to like that everybody was very pretty and superficial. We’d go to a party and it’s like, well okay, no one’s really going to talk about anything deep, but people would be very pretty.

RIF: Is storytelling inherently different through film?

SS: Well, I worked more in television. We’ve seen this great resurgence of television now, which I think is wonderful. One of the things that you realize very early on about television is it’s very mathematical—dramas are. The trick is not to make it look mathematical. It’s a form, and if you take Mad Men, if you take Hill Street Blues—two great shows separated by a couple of decades or more—every time, you’re still going to have—an A story’s going to have 12 or 13 scenes, a B story’s going to have eight to seven scenes, a C story is going to have three to five scenes. In every one, there’s going to be an A, a B, and a C story.

I had a friend named Bob Ward who’s a great magazine writer and novelist who came from Baltimore to work on Hill Street at the height of its popularity. Bob was a fantastic writer, but he never worked for television. He was sitting there with Steven Botchco and David Milch, and after the first session, he got up, went in the bathroom, and threw up, because he thought that they were the smartest people that he had ever met in his life, and he’d never been able to figure this out. Then it finally dawned on him that they were just speaking in code. It was just a formula, and the trick was to make it not seem a formula.

I like that about television. I like that it’s an hour for dramas. There’s always a question with film, like should a film be three hours? Should it be an hour and a half? You can have great films that are three hours, great films that are 80 minutes. With television you have an hour. And that’s a certain—it’s like a sonnet, there’s a certain discipline to that.

One other nice thing about writing for television—it’s very different than other kind of writing, because you involve other people. Dramas you write by yourself, but you work out stories together, typically. Every show’s a little different, but that would be typical. And I really like that. It’s oft observed there’s nothing as lonely as writing a book. You write a book, it’s—

RIF: Years.

SS: Yeah, and 80,000, 90,000 or more—400,000 words. A one-hour television show is about 55 to 60 pages with a lot of white space. And that was one of the things that frightened me at first when I came, and I started working in television. I was lucky, because I had a show that was successful with Northern Exposure. For me, it was a question of whether or not I should write for television full-time. I kept meeting people who used to write books, and it really terrified me that you would get into a routine of writing television and not write books again. I remember talking to one of these people who had written two or three wonderful books and then became a television writer. I said, “Aren’t you going to write books anymore?” And he goes, “You know, man, that’s a lot of typing.” And it was like, “Oh god, you’re right. It is.”

It is.


Author photo: © Michael Lionstar

 

STUART STEVENS is the author of seven books, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Esquire, and Outside, among other publications. He has written extensively for television shows, including Northern Exposure, Commander in Chief, and K Street. For 25 years, he was the lead strategist and media consultant for some of the nation’s toughest political campaigns. He attended Colorado College; Pembroke College, Oxford; Middlebury College; and UCLA film school. He is a former fellow of the American Film Institute.

About Abbe Wright

Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Editor of Read It Forward. As a kid, she used to get in trouble at summer camp for using a flashlight to read inside her sleeping bag after lights out, but these days, she lives in Brooklyn, where nobody minds if she stays up late reading. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.

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