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Trees or not, Toomer's Corner will live on

Before anyone starts calling Auburn fans a bunch of tree huggers, remember this: No one has ever actually been seen locked in an embrace with the suddenly endangered trees at Toomer's Corner.

They have been seen covering them in toilet paper, though. More than a few trees from other places have been sacrificed over the years to make the two-ply that festoons the two oaks at the intersection of College and Magnolia streets in Auburn on major occasions — like a win over hated rival Alabama.

Toomer's Corner has always been a place to celebrate, and if the trees are wrapped in toilet paper there are good reasons to celebrate. That was especially true last month when the Tigers won the national championship and the rolls of paper flew with every cry of "War Eagle!"

The toilet paper was back over the weekend, but this time mostly in rolls left at the base of the towering 130-year-old trees. Written on them were messages of sorrow and hope.

"Get well soon," read one toilet paper roll with the Auburn logo drawn in ink.

Unfortunately, there's little chance of the trees getting well soon — or at all. They were poisoned with a herbicide used specifically to kill trees, and experts say so much of it was used that their fate has likely already been determined.

The people of Auburn may not be the tree hugging types, but they're devastated by the impending loss.

"It's more than these oak trees, it's the role they played in Auburn history," former Auburn athletic director David Housel said. "People in Auburn feel violated because their tradition has been attacked."

Making matters worse, the man who allegedly attacked those traditions has children named "Crimson Tyde" and "Bear."

Yes, a 'Bama fan.

His name is Harvey Almorn Updyke Jr. and court documents say he admitted to being "Al from Dadeville," who phoned a radio show late last month and claimed he poured herbicide around the oaks. He then signed off by saying, "Roll Damn Tide."

The 62-year-old — who has denied the actual poisoning — is being called a lot of other things by outraged Auburn fans, though stupid has to be at the top of the list for bragging about what he allegedly did. He's so toxic in Auburn that the attorney appointed to his case immediately filed a motion to withdraw so he can walk around town without a disguise.

Updyke is free on $50,000 bond on charges of first-degree criminal mischief, and if there's one safe bet it's that whatever attorney finally takes his case will ask that his trial be moved as far from Auburn as possible.

Those of us outside Alabama can't even begin to imagine the depth of the rivalry between the two schools, though the stories of those on the inside are telling. For more than 40 years at one point the schools refused to even meet on the football field because of arguments over money, officiating and just about everything else.

In Alabama, it is said, you have a choice at birth: Auburn or Alabama, and don't take long making your decision.

Supporters of either college have fought each other, pulled pranks on each other, and found creative ways to express their hate for each other. But this went beyond malicious, because of what Toomer's Corner means to people in Auburn goes way beyond football.

It's not just the trees, but the place.

"I'm guessing Auburn people gathered there to celebrate secession in 1861 and to celebrate the election of Barack Obama a few years ago," Housel said. "That's how historic it is."

To their credit, Auburn coach Gene Chizik and Alabama's Nick Saban were quick to issue a joint statement, calling the tree poisoning "an isolated incident by one individual that is not representative of what the greatest rivalry in college football is all about."

They're right, though that doesn't make it any less painful for the Auburn faithful. Laugh all you want at the idea of grown people celebrating with toilet paper, but there are stranger traditions in college football in places supposedly a lot more sophisticated than Auburn.

And while the trees may not live, it's a safe bet the toilet paper will continue to fly.

"The tradition of rolling Toomer's Corner will go on whether these trees survive or not," Housel said."The next football game we win I bet there's going to be one heck of a rolling at Toomer's Corner."

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org