Somehow, I survived my first Mississippi State University football game, an event that merges two objects of my enduring contempt: sports, and the Deep South.
Regular readers of this blog will remember that when we last left our intrepid carpetbagger, she was furiously making preparations for this blessed event. This included purchasing earplugs that her beloved spouse reminded her every day that she was going to need to withstand a full season of Bulldog football.
The reason became all too apparent when we settled into our 300-level seats just before kickoff. For well over half a century, the cowbell has been the noisemaker of choice for Maroon and White loyalists, and most of the 54,000-plus men, women and children in attendance seemed to be wielding one in an unending cascade of clanging. Even my husband had to get in on the fun, and so he bought one along with a branded baseball cap. He made sure it was the genuine article, made by a company called Year of the Cowbell and deemed the “official cowbell of Mississippi State athletics.”
The athletic department’s official history of this tradition explains it, in part:
The most popular legend is that during a home football game between State and arch-rival Mississippi, a jersey cow wandered onto the playing field. Mississippi State soundly whipped the Rebels that Saturday, and State College students immediately adopted the cow as a good luck charm. Students are said to have continued bringing a cow to football games for a while, until the practice was eventually discontinued in favor of bringing just the cow’s bell.
Based on my experience at Saturday’s season opener against Charleston Southern University, all manner of occasions warrant some celebratory cowbell:
- The “maroon and white” chant. One side of the stadium calls out “maroon,” the opposite side answers with “white,” and the cowbells keep time with the chanting.
- The “State spell-out,” where spectators are urged to “get your cowbells ready.” This involves the crowd spelling out “S-T-A-T-E” with cowbell accompaniment. I appreciate the pure simplicity — an easy word (this is Mississippi, after all), spelled out only once.
- A salute to the fighter jets that buzz the stadium following the national anthem.
- When the team takes the field.
- When fans are urged to “GET LOUD.”
- When it’s time to “turn up the volume” on the Entergy Power Meter, which happens at random intervals throughout the game.
- When it’s time for the BankPlus Cowbell Cam.
- When a touchdown is scored or a field goal kick is good. Heck, even on a first down.
Believe it or not, there are times when a reprieve is mandated, which I assume are when a play is getting started. At those times, the scoreboard flashes: “REST YOUR BELL. JUST YELL.”
Although the earplugs help dampen the din a little, I am no more a fan of the cowbell than I am of any other aspect of this experience. The incessant clangor grates on me at the most basic, cellular level. It goes back to my freshman year of high school, and more specifically, my experience in marching band.
It is inevitable that, when joining any large group, the newest arrivals will constantly be reminded by those who came before them of their lowly station in the hierarchy. Against this backdrop at Hedgesville High School in West Virginia, I was treated to my own unique hazing at the hands of a small coven of female upperclassmen within the clarinet section to which I belonged. This clique unceremoniously christened me with the nickname “Cowbell” from Day One of band camp and forced me to answer to it throughout the 1984-85 school year.
I put up with this indignity because I knew that resistance was futile, and I wondered if somehow I had brought it upon myself anyway by insufficiently ingratiating myself with these vipers. I tried to keep some perspective by counting my blessings that no physical abuse was involved, and at least I wasn’t forced to wear an actual cowbell. And yet, I felt a profound sense of injustice fueled by the cruel irony that the worst offender was a sophomore who, in my opinion, was much more physically bovine than me. I might have weighed 100 pounds soaking wet. Still, I was astute enough to know that no good would come from pointing this out to her. And so I carried out my reign as the official Cowbell of the Hedgesville High School Marching Band.
Once I became a sophomore, I earned the right to be treated like a human being, a new crop of freshmen came in for hazing, and the name-calling stopped. It was only then that the Cowbell origin story would be revealed to me by a senior in the flute section who was friendly with me and also knew these girls. As far as I can recall, it went something like this:
- The year before I arrived, there was a girl in the band with a reputation for being nice, but perhaps not the brightest bulb in the box, who previously held the title of Cowbell. (I can’t recall if she was still a member when I got there.)
- The aforementioned cabal of clarinetists believed that I looked a lot like this girl upon whom so much scorn was heaped.
- Therefore, it was only logical to transfer the nickname to me.
I could only guess that their outsized enthusiasm for using this moniker made up for their lack of originality. How sad and pathetic.
As I mentioned when I started this blog, some of my heaviest psychological baggage from my upbringing is stored in West Virginia. This episode is probably the equivalent of a carry-on. If there’s any upside to being forced to sit through a season of Mississippi State football, maybe it’s that I’ll eventually come to accept that sometimes a cowbell is just a cowbell, and not a stupid nickname.