Across 4th Street on the opposite side of Highway 49 from USM in Hattiesburg sat a watering hole known as the North End Zone.
My college roommate Tommy and I lived a short walk along the abandoned train tracks from the bar, which was located in a strip mall with a sandwich shop on one side and a laundromat on the other.
Underage but certainly undeterred, instead of watching our laundry do spins in the dryer, we waltzed next door to the North End Zone for something to occupy our time.
What we found was about 12 old men sitting around a bar talking about Southern Miss football, to which I was quite enamored. Along the walls were jerseys, newspaper clippings and photos all paying homage to the Golden Eagles.
Draft beer — cheap draft beer — cost $1 for a 16-ounce plastic cup. In the decrepit back room were a few dusty pool tables and a free jukebox. But we couldn’t stop talking about the beer — and football.
One of the regulars started spouting off about something Southern Miss related that I knew was terribly erroneous. I spoke up, corrected him — which was returned with a scowl. Moments later, another of the regulars came up to me and put down a dollar for my next beer.
“We’ve been trying to get that guy to shut up for years and you did it,” he said with a jovial laugh.
The North End Zone slowly became a regular hangout for those who ran in my circle. We pumped life into that back room and eventually it started to get packed out on the weekends. We became such regulars that when they called last call on a Thursday night — at 1:45 a.m. — I would instinctively buy one more pitcher of beer.
Instead of pounding it in front of the bartender, he would allow me to take it home, then return the empty pitcher on my way to school on Friday. I had no car in college so my feet were my transportation, and I dutifully returned the pitcher each time.
About a decade after that first visit, Dad made his annual pilgrimage to Hattiesburg to watch a Southern Miss game. It was December 2004, and the Eagles were playing the California Golden Bears.
The Bears featured a young up-and-coming quarterback named Aaron Rodgers and a running back named Marshawn Lynch. They were good — very good.
It was a beautiful Saturday as Dad and I enjoyed a few pregame beverages at the North End Zone. When he left for the hotel for a nap, I stayed at the bar with a few USM fans.
It was dark inside when the busload of Cal Golden Bears’ fans pulled into the parking lot. They had flown to New Orleans then traveled north for the game. They were fired up and obviously had been into the juice pregame as well.
The party began as these folks from Berkeley, Calif., sang the praises of Mississippi and its matchup that day. They wanted to know most what the locals did, what they ate. They wanted to be Mississippians for a day.
In a place called Yokena, just south of Vicksburg, my friend Don Taylor was preparing for his pilgrimage to Hattiesburg. A 1970 graduate of the school, he is the most passionate Southern Miss football fan I have ever met. The stories of him attending games are things of local legend, including once checking himself out of a hospital with pneumonia for a day game, shivering through an early September matchup and then checking himself back in to the hospital.
He also had an affinity for ... gulp... pickled pig lips. I swear, he ate pig lips — and he had a jar of them in his truck for his tailgate party.
I then thought of these Californians... and then the lips...
“You ever eat pig lips?” I asked.
As if I had snakes coming from my scalp, they all shook their heads no.
“Would you like to?”
With glee, they nodded. They wanted to be immersed in the Mississippi tradition of eating pickled pig lips. (To this day, the only person I know who eats pig lips is Don Taylor, but I was having fun.)
I called Taylor, told him where we were and before hitting his tailgate party, he stopped at the North End Zone. We met him in the parking lot — me and my newfound Berkeley friends.
Don walked to the back of the truck, laughed, shook hands with the left-coasters and broke out the jar of lips.
One at a time, a hand reached into the brine, each emerging with a lip.
The Californians took a bite.
I took a bite and the lip started its ejection process. I gagged and coughed before half-drunkenly tossing about 90 percent of the lip onto 4th Street.
To my dismay, I was the only one who played quarterback with the lip. The Californians ate them completely. I was stunned.
Fifteen years later, Dad has passed and those Californians were never to be heard from again — at least by my ears.
But I must believe that over a tailgate party somewhere in Berkeley or Oregon or Washington State, those same Golden Bears’ fans recall that sunny December day when they became immersed in a Mississippi culinary oddity — the pickled pig lip.
As for Don Taylor, I imagine he will be at MM Roberts Stadium on Saturday. Look for a older man with long — really long — white hair enjoying his tailgate party.
Ask him for a lip. He certainly will share.
Sean Murphy is managing editor of the Leader-Call. Email him at email@example.com.