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24 hours

Finally, we’ve arrived.

An Appalachian County’s Community Bonds Help Overcome Challenge Of Poverty Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Some years ago, a friend and I hiked the southern 30 or so miles of the Ocala Forest in central Florida. It was mid-July, which was of course stupid on both our parts. There’s very little fresh water to filter — the black, brackish stuff sits comfortably at 80 degrees out in the sun.

My friend, Chris, had the previous year hiked the entirety of the Appalachian Trail from north to south. I was an inexperienced hiker stupid enough to go walking through the Florida back country in the middle of July. We were miserable. 24 hours in and I was dehydrated.

The Ocala woods are a strange place. This viper-pit of human and animal activity seethes with the state’s wet, unnatural heat and humidity. The human element is downright terrifying. We’re in the heart of Florida meth country, after all, and a few years before our particular hike, two Sante Fe Community College students walked into the forest and never walked out.

I don’t know if they ever caught the guys that disappeared those poor kids, and I’m not sure I care to go find out. It’s an awful story.

In the smack center of the forest sits the “88 BBQ.” If you don’t know already, an “88” not in the familiar NASCAR script represents a Neo-Nazi call sign of sorts. 8 = H, so 88 = HH = “Heil Hitler.” Sinister stuff. Who knows the quality of the barbecue, though.

Ole Miss football is nearly upon us. We survived this swampy summer that saw the highest levels of rainfall in years down here in the Carolina low country. I covered the college baseball tournament in June, then taught my absolute favorite Latin author, Lucretius, to undergraduates at the College of Charleston in July. I took over this wonderful, ridiculous blog and turned it into ... something I rather enjoy. My writers are energized and ready to get to work on more sports-specific projects.

We survived this trek on the strength of you, our readership, and my sundry fine writers, notwithstanding the squirming around in the comments over my editorial decisions. If you’ve walked this far with us, thank you for sticking around. If you quit on us, waylaid by Florida meth cookers, I’m sorry to have lost you. We’ll continue down this trail, because those beautiful, cool Juniper Springs sit just on the other side of those trees there. You can peruse some of our best efforts over here.

We’ve also survived the non-football life for eight months. Off into the woods we walked back in November — unsure of the NCAA investigation, unsure of recruiting, unsure of depth in the defense, unsure of Shea Patterson’s development, unsure of whatever slam piece Dan Wolken would release next — and we’ve come out the southern end hopefully no worse for the wear. There was brackish water along the way, to be sure, and we lost a shoe when Hugh Freeze resigned, and I was dumped back on the day of the NFC Championship and went slowly insane over the next two months, but I’m here, you’re here, and we’re more or less intact. That’s a good thing.

On Sept. 11 of this year, Ole Miss’ lawyers will sit down with the NCAA Committee on Infractions in Covington, Kent. to learn their football punishments. Off we walk into yet still more forest, unknowing of what’s around that corner. That meeting will take place on the Monday of the Cal game week, and no one will talk about on-field football for the next six days. It’ll be utter chaos, and if that pressure cooker doesn’t blow the whole of Egg Bowl Twitter sky high, it’ll sure as shit give it its best shot.

But there’s hope. You don’t have to personally invest any emotional currency in those events. We can sort of squint and guess at what’s coming, but really there’s no good, healthy, psychologically sound reason for giving much of a shit about what the NCAA does. It’s out of your control, Matt Luke’s control, Shep Rattlerson’s control. It’s inevitable inertia. So, put that thing over there in the corner and come sit by the campfire. There’s comfort here.

Cheer your soul out of your chest for these guys this year, because that’s all they have: you. Make them feel alive. Make opposing teams’ collective lungs rattle around in their thoracic cavities as the Vaught erupts in strident ecstasy or anger or hate. Free yourself from the mundata of the NCAA, the bowl ban, the recruiting restrictions, the scholarship reductions, the looming COI decision and its aftermath. We’ll worry about those things later. Focus on the field. On Benito Jones and Marquis Haynes. Welcome Ken Webster back to the secondary with open arms.

But don’t look at the NCAA.

We’re out here in the wild blue.

Just let go.