The phone call came Tuesday evening. It was from Bonnie Vaught. She told me they had compiled a list of players and others her father had known over the years and I was on the list because of the many seasons I had had the pleasure of broadcasting his games. She said I might wish to come to her dad's funeral. There would be special transportation, a reserved section at the church and a special graveside service for the 150 of us on the list. Could I come?
Of course I could. My wife and I had talked about coming but we felt the crowds would be so large that at our age we simply didn't want to take the chance we would have to find a parking place nearby and perhaps stand during the service. Now with these thoughtful arrangements we could and would accept her invitation. To me it was an honor, one I knew we would always remember.
The next day we drove to Oxford. Fortunately I have a granddaughter in school at Ole Miss and she has a house there so finding a place to stay was no problem.
Thursday morning we went to the Ford Center as instructed and met with the others. It was a who's who of Rebel athletics for the past 50 years. Archie and Jake and Warner and Bobby and many, many others whose names are written in the UM book of athletics and athletes.
There was a block long string of vans ready to take us to the church and we piled in without regard to who was sitting with whom. But when we left the Ford Center parking lot the lead van turned to the right instead of to the left, the direction in which the church was located. I was confused at first—but not for long. We went up by the Lyceum and then turned to the left and the purpose become obvious. The funeral procession was giving Coach John Vaught his last ride past the stadium named in his honor, the football field he had brought to national honors because of his skills and knowledge, a final tribute to the great coach and his career as leader of the Ole Miss Rebels. It was a touching moment, one that brought back so many memories tears came to my eyes.
From there the procession went to the church and parked in front and on the sides. We left the vehicles and walked to the door past a battery of photographers shooting the moment for history. I saw them taking pictures of my wife and myself but I didn't realize the Clarion Ledger had put us on their website along with 11 other shots until the following day when a friend called me.
It was the first time we had ever been in that church and it is very, very small. Beautiful and filled with character but so tiny, perhaps 200 seats. If the family had not reserved the 150 seats for the invited guests we would never have been able to get inside.
I'm certain you've read about the ceremony. The speakers were not merely young men who were now middle aged or older, kids now gray haired men who had played for or worked with Coach Vaught. They were family. I sat there and thought about the program from his retirement banquet of over 30 years ago. The front cover was a picture of Vaught. I had had the privilege of being the emceeing the affair and he had autographed my copy. It said, "To Stan Torgerson, My Friend Forever." Signed John Vaught. It hangs in a place of honor on my wall of memorabilia from my many years with Ole Miss football and basketball.
The service was not one of pain or loss. It was one of joy at having known and associated with the man. Stories were told, funny stories that had the crowd laughing in sweet remembrance. Inside jokes such as "no one who ever played football at Ole Miss doesn't know how many rows of seats there are in the stadium." Vaught's favorite punishment for his players who got out of line for any reason was to run the steps of Hemingway. It is appropriate they attached his name to the place for many reasons and that is one of them.
From there the 150 invited guests were takien to the cemetery for a final goodbye. The service concluded with a lone saxophone solo of Dixie being played over Coach's grave, a deeply touching farewell to the man who meant so much to his players, his school and his state.
I thought Chancellor Robert C. Khayat said it best when he spoke at the church itself.
"John Vaught was a public figure," Khayat said, "and a private man."
Indeed he was. He was both. And as we said earlier, to everyone associated with Ole Miss athletics, he was also family. The father who loved us all and who all of us loved back.
Honored to be included
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