Louisiana college football: another historic match-up

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I attended a small college, Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. In the mid-1980s we had maybe two thousand students. Although we had a football team, I don’t recall any games. We had a Greek system, but I evaded that as well, opting instead for extra classes and the AIDS suicide hotline.

In short, I received an excellent education in both books and sensitivity but, arguably, missed the college experience.

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  • Dennis Couvillion, 2011

In my family, I was the exception. My parents graduated in ’61 and ‘62 from Louisiana State University, and my sister attended Ol’ Miss, followed by graduate school at Florida State. Without question, they were the cool kids, fans of football games, dating and parties, while I brown-nosed my professors and stood waiting early-morning at the locked library door. In the end, we all graduated, meaning, I suppose, that I missed out…needlessly.

For sometime now, George Rodrigue seeks to repair this lapse. It began when he insisted that I attend the 2004 Sugar Bowl in the New Orleans Superdome despite my guilt-motivated speech that my ticket belongs instead with a real fan.

To my surprise, I cheered and cried, losing my voice, but not my enthusiasm, for hours after LSU’s win. If I close my eyes as I write this, I picture the energy of the strangers’ shoulders on either side of me as we walked the length of Poydras Street to the Mississippi River. I knew for the first time this sort of exhilaration and, after losing my mother later that same year, cheered for her going forward, for the Homecoming floats and decorated fraternity houses, for poodle skirts and jukeboxes, for young love and life-long friends and, more than anything, for tradition.

Atomic Cannon, from my mothers photo album, 1958
  • "Atomic Cannon," from my mother's photo album, 1958

It was the 1957, ’58 and ’59 seasons, the years my parents attended LSU, that changed Louisiana football forever.

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  • LSU Sports

In the late 1950s, Billy Cannon won the Heisman Trophy, the Tigers won the National Championship, and LSU stadium filled to capacity. About this same time, national television broadcasted NFL games, watched for the first time by large audiences. People saw the Baltimore Colts with Johnny Unitas play the Green Bay Packers, coached by Vince Lombardi.

“When I went to art school in L.A.,” explains George Rodrigue, “the first thing I wanted to see was a national football game live. I saw Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts play the Los Angeles Rams at the L.A. Coliseum. I was shocked to see only 30,000 people in an 110,000-seat stadium. Pro-football still struggled for attendance.”

George Rodrigue at Tiger Stadium last week with Bunnie Cannon, Executive Director of Institutional Advancement at LSU, and daughter of famous LSU running back, Billy Cannon
  • George Rodrigue at Tiger Stadium last week with Bunnie Cannon, Executive Director of Institutional Advancement at LSU, and daughter of famous LSU running back, Billy Cannon

“Years later,” George continues, “I’m standing in line at Ray Hay’s Cajun Po-Boys in Houston, Texas, and Billy Cannon taps me on the shoulder. Turns out that he’s a fan of my Cajun paintings. I could barely speak. It’s probably the only time in my life that I felt star struck.”

Before heading to art school in Los Angeles, George Rodrigue attended USL (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette). Considering his football fever today, it’s ironic that he remembers little of 1960s USL football, focusing on his drawing exercises more than the Bulldogs (now the Ragin’ Cajuns), a team he follows with enthusiasm today.

Rodrigue sought a formal education in the arts, and before graduating at USL, he hopped on a train to California, where he watched Louisiana football from afar and painted full-time.

For George in those years, tradition was not football. Tradition was the Cajun culture, and, desperate to preserve it, he painted it.

In Modern Medicine (1985) Rodrigue compares the teamwork put forth by todays Louisiana health care workers to that of a kids football team, including his sons, Andre (yellow helmet) and Jacques (red helmet)
  • In 'Modern Medicine' (1985) Rodrigue compares the teamwork put forth by today's Louisiana health care workers to that of a kids' football team, including his sons, Andre (yellow helmet) and Jacques (red helmet)

Gradually, George Rodrigue’s college football fever returned, an addiction (a wife’s word) consuming much of his life, even in the face of painting.

Okay, its not college football; but you get the idea...
  • Okay, it's not college football; but you get the idea...

His son André attended UL (George’s alma mater), and his son Jacques attended LSU. As a result, George’s sense of tradition pulls him both directions, yet still firmly rooted in Louisiana football.

In the 1980s he spent ten years supporting UL with paintings of award-winning authors and scholars for the Flora Levy Lecture Series (pictured here), and in 2003 he painted LSU’s mascot, Mike the Tiger.

The more than $1 million in proceeds from Mike’s print helped to replace the tiger’s cage with a habitat, Mike’s home on the LSU grounds today.

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This year, the LSU Museum of Art held a major Rodrigue exhibition based on paintings from the collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art. Rodrigue took advantage of this situation to once again paint in support of LSU. This time, however, proceeds benefit not only LSU’s programs, but also arts-infused education throughout the state of Louisiana. (details here)

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For me, I attend games when summoned or stay home when permitted, serving gumbo or red beans, not only because it pleases my husband, but also because it honors my parents.

My mother was the first person in her family to attend college. A tradition was born, assumed my grandparents, and as an 18-year old know-it-all, I disappointed them out of the gate, choosing a small south Texas school (that I loved) over the Baton Rouge campus.

John Wolfe and Mignon McClanahan at LSU, 1958
  • John Wolfe and Mignon McClanahan at LSU, 1958

Yet this weekend, as LSU takes on Alabama, I’m thinking about tradition as though I high-fived Billy Cannon himself. I’ll cheer at the top of my lungs for players I’ve never met, from a school I never attended, against a team no doubt full of nice people (although, honestly, I’m partial to Auburn over Alabama, thanks to my sister’s in-laws and a wonderful experience at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art earlier this year) — all for a game I hardly understand and for a collection of photographs (some sprinkled throughout this post) that provide a glimpse of my young parents.

Whatever your reason, I urge you...

Cheer loudly — for your team — this weekend.

And hey, Good Luck-

Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)

-for more photos and discussion, please join me on facebook

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