It’s 10 p.m. on a Tuesday, and he’s still running. He’s been doing this all day, sprinting back and forth on the borrowed Oxford High School practice field. They let him use it as much as he wants, not because he has any clout here, but because he asked nicely. He stops running, comes over to me, pours some water in, says, "I think people have the wrong idea about me."
He’s sweating even though it’s cold, beads of moisture popping up on his smooth surface, dripping down to the dirt at our feet. I ask him if he wants some ice.
"Can’t have it now. Just water until I’m done, then ice, then I’ll get some sleep." He turns away from me and is back to running, a little water sloshing out as he goes.
Blue Cup has something to prove, and on Friday and Saturday, he’ll take his first steps toward doing so. This is his first year running against Red Cup and Yellow Cup at Ole Miss’ Swayze Field, but the rumors have already started.
"He’s a juicer," I’m told by a local media member who agreed to comment on the condition of anonymity. He needs quotes from Blue Cup, and he’s afraid being identified in this story will hurt his ability to cover Blue Cup this season. "It’s the worst kept secret in Cup Racing."
I’ve heard similar allegations from Ole Miss students, from people around town. This reaction against Blue Cup isn’t surprising – he’s running against entrenched hometown favorite Red Cup, after all – but the vitriol of the allegations is surprising.
"Have you heard about Blue Cup’s girlfriend?" a student asks me.
We’re sitting in Blue Cup’s living room. The TV is on, but he isn’t watching it. He’s standing against a wall, stretching his hamstrings. He offers me some water. I’ve been with him for five days, following his training regimen, and this is all he’s offered me. I say no thanks, and I ask about the rumors popping up around town, on twitter, on message boards.
"It’s fear," he says. "They’re worried about their precious Red Cup going down to someone like me."
I don’t know this yet, but on Friday and Saturday, what he says everyone in Oxford fears most will come true. He’ll beat Red Cup in two out of the three races on opening weekend. He’ll lose Sunday only because of what can charitably be called pour sportsmanship from Yellow Cup.
But none of that has happened yet. Right now, we’re still two days from the first race, and the rumors are flying, and Blue Cup is getting fed up.
"Have you heard the one about my girlfriend?"
I have already, but I ask him to tell me about it anyway.
"Last weekend, me and Shot Glass are out on the square. She trips on the sidewalk – she’d had a little too much – and chipped herself. Next thing you know, I’m beating her." He looks down at his feet. "It’ll get better once the races start."
I don’t tell him that it won’t get better. I don’t tell him that the allegations and rumors will only get worse as he goes head to head with Red Cup three or four times a week for several months.
"It’s crazy," he says. "No one says this s--- about Yellow Cup."
"Why don’t they?"
"Because he’s not a threat. He’s Red Cup’s buddy. No one’s worried that he’ll take down their hero. Yellow Cup’s a joke. You know he didn’t even start training until a week ago? I’ve been going since August. Every day. But, you know, it must be the juice." He laughs, a short, halting bark, and I see that he’s getting flushed with anger, his normal blue shading close to purple. I change the subject.
"How’d you meet Shot Glass?"
For the first time since I arrived in Oxford last week, he seems genuinely happy. "Everyone thinks we met at a bar, but we didn’t. I don’t go to bars. We met through a mutual friend who set us up on a blind date. She didn’t want to go at first, when she found out who I was, but for some reason she showed up. I thank God every day that she did."
She wasn’t supposed to like a guy like Blue Cup. Her parents, Pilsner and Wine Glass, frowned on the relationship at first, told her that she couldn’t expect stability from a Cup. That was four years ago. Now, her parents are his biggest defenders.
"He won us over, plain and simple," Pilsner says over lunch at Newk’s. "We judged him by reputation, by look, and he went out of his way to prove us wrong."
I ask if they’ve heard the recent rumors about his treatment of their daughter. Pilsner bristles, his surface catching a glare from the lights.
"It’s bulls---. Question his work ethic, question his ability to beat Red Cup, question his performance in the races, but don’t drag his personal life into it."
Blue Cup has his defenders. Hugh Kellenberger, the Ole Miss beat writer for Jackson’s Clarion Ledger has been an outspoken advocate. But even with some voices of reason, the detractors drown out any positivity.
In his living room, I show Blue Cup a message board post that accuses him of spiking Red Cup’s water.
"It’s insane," he says. "It’s just...I can’t even describe what it’s like to be the most hated Cup in Oxford."
Here is what it is like:
Friday morning I meet Blue Cup at his house, and we go to campus together. He has agreed to promote the weekend’s Cup Races by walking the campus with Red and Yellow. We’re barely out of the car when a student walking by shouts an epithet that my editor won’t let me reproduce, even with dashes substituted for letters. Blue Cup keeps walking.
On the five minute walk to the Grove, he’s called a juicer, a cheat, a phony. He’s called trash. He doesn’t respond, doesn’t look at the people yelling at him.
The abuse continues when we meet up with Red and Yellow. Everywhere they walk on campus, students high-five Red, pose for pictures, wish him luck. Yellow is largely ignored. Blue is anything but ignored.
Imagine it for a moment: you have trained for this weekend for seven months. You have poured more water than you thought you could contain. In eight hours, you’ll actually be on the field, surrounded by these people who are saying you belong in the trashcan. You will hear their chants of "Red Cup, Red Cup, Red Cup," as you warm up. You will start the race behind, the chants still ringing through Swayze, but you will overtake Yellow and Red, will take a quick lead that you will never relinquish, and the boos will rain down on you. You will achieve what you have worked hard to achieve, but that is not what anyone will talk about.
In a quiet moment, when the glad-handing and promotion has paused, I sit in the grass with Blue Cup, ask what he’ll do if he loses. He laughs, says "What’ll I do if I win?"
Full disclosure time. The rumors are not completely unfounded. There was a brief investigation in October. Allegations surfaced relating to performance enhancers. Blue Cup won’t talk about the investigation other than to say that it was all bulls---, but others that I speak to verify that while nothing could be proven, it is generally accepted as fact that some questionable training activity did take place. It is, at this point, a matter of he said/they said. The he being Blue Cup. The they being nearly everyone else in Oxford.
Thursday night, I meet Red Cup for dinner at City Grocery. I’m not too embarrassed to admit that I was unprepared for the scale of his celebrity here. Among the admirers who approached our table during the course of the meal – and there were many – you can count City Grocery chef John Currence and New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. To his credit, Red Cup does his best to downplay the attention. He’s self-deprecating, funny, and I find myself easily swayed by his mystique. I ask about the rumors swirling around Blue Cup.
"I don’t get into all that. I’m a professional, and so is he. If people want to speculate, want to talk on the message boards, well, that’s what they’ll do."
He seems to be mostly bemused by his status in this small Southern town. "It’s great to walk around the Square signing autographs and taking pictures," he says, "but let’s be honest, if this were New York, I’d just be another Cup."
I press him for more on the perceived rivalry with Blue, but all he’ll give me are canned answers, and I smell the scent of his publicist. He’s not likely to let anything real slip, and I don’t blame him. His profile is at an all-time high, and he needs to carefully manage his image.
Still, as we leave the restaurant, I ask him one more time about Blue, and for a split second, he shades toward maroon. "Villains get all the good press," he says. I start to follow up on this, but before I can, he’s swept into a throng of people, all of them offering up their drinks to his wide-open mouth.
It’s Friday, and the first Cup Race of the season is only minutes away. Red and Yellow are huddled together, saying a prayer, photographers snapping pictures of them in all of their good-sportsman glory. They didn’t ask Blue to join them, but that won’t matter to the message boards in the morning, which will paint him as a loner, a standoffish outsider who only got where he is by cheating.
Right now though, he’s sitting quietly, working on a last bit of water before the race. There is a moment with athletes – a moment that is rarely captured on camera because it doesn’t sell the way triumph or defeat or courage sell – where you can spot the real humanity that is buried by all of the clichés and bravado. For Blue Cup, I spot it here, in the minutes before he takes the field to a chorus of boos and slurs. He is nodding along to some unheard music, and I can hear the slosh of water inside him, can hear it echoing up from his mostly empty body. He hums a few bars of some tune, and he looks up for a minute, and I realize for the first time just how afraid he is.
The weekend’s races will come and go in a blur. Though they are spread across three days, once they start they will seem to fly past, one after another. Before I know it, it will be Monday, and I will be leaving Oxford. Blue will drive me to the airport in Memphis. It’s generous of him to do this; he’s giving up his normal training routine to make the drive. I ask him how it feels to have won the weekend.
"It’s a long season," he says. "A lot of things can happen."
I agree with him. When I ask about Yellow Cup tripping him on Sunday, he just looks out the car window at the I-55 traffic. "Comes with the territory," he says, finally.
He pulls up to my gate at the airport. Now, in the closing minutes of our time together, he’s opening up a little bit. I don’t even have to ask the question; he does it for me.
"How does it feel to be hated?" he says. "Well, when you’re winning it feels pretty f---ing good."