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I.

There was an uncle who was an eye surgeon. He sometimes liked to have a drink or two after a day of staring at eyeballs, and no one can blame him for that. It had to be maddening to be back at work every time he looked at someone, doing the thing someone is supposed to do when listening, but scanning the eyes for discoloration, distortions, burst blood vessels. It probably wasn’t constant, but there had to be one moment in his life when, listening to something very important from a loved one, his mind wandered and noticed a faint corneal defect instead of listening — and he felt worse for noticing himself doing it.

Sometimes on a special occasion when he got a bottle or two of wine in him at dinner, he’d start filing through stories from New Orleans.

We got mostly the risque and/or gory stories. The homeless man who wandered into the ER with an eye blown out from behind. (Cause: wandering low-caliber bullet in backstreet brawl.) The John who came in with glass cocktail stirrers shoved into his urethra. (A signature move from a local madame whose work was recognized a little too quickly by the head of the ER.) The admiral’s wife in the Navy who came in for a gyno exam and had “Please pay before entering” tattooed above her pubic hair.

The uncle once aided and abetted in the theft of a live tiger.

Mike I was kept on the LSU campus in a trailer. His original name was Sheikh, and he was purchased from the Little Rock Zoo for $750. The official story is that the athletic director and a few others decided LSU needed a tiger. In 1935, that desire and a mountain of quarters collected from students was all anyone needed to justify the purchase of a deadly apex predator. The big cat arrived in 1936. LSU named him after athletic department trainer Chellis “Mike” Chambers and blithely housed the 200-pound cat in the middle of campus, surrounded by potential meals.

The eye surgeon uncle attended Tulane Medical School in New Orleans. Tulane was one of LSU’s conference rivals at the time. Tulane didn’t know the two-game losing streak against LSU started in 1948 would spread to 25, effectively ending the rivalry in any real sense. They didn’t know Tulane’s admins would sour on football, believing it was beginning to overshadow academics, and cut coaching salaries and scholarships in 1951. No one could really believe that in 1966, Tulane would opt out of future TV money and leave the SEC despite being a charter member.

It might be hard to believe now that anyone at Tulane would care enough to break a law for football, much less steal a tiger.

They did, though, and did it on a whim. Only one guy at LSU was really in charge of Mike. That guy was driving Mike down to New Orleans for the rivalry game. He stopped for a diner hamburger at one in the morning, where four Tulane students were eating after a night of coon-hunting out by the levees. While the tiger’s minder was inside eating, they unhitched the trailer and drove off with a tiger.

The wheels weren’t even locked. They just drove off with a live tiger in a trailer. There are bad feelings, and then worse ones, and then one of the worst ones: walking out to a parking lot where you left your tiger and finding no tiger.

The Tulane students did nothing right. They chained the trailer to their car poorly, letting Mike’s trailer roll untethered at one point, very nearly losing him before they chased it down. A cop stopped them, but the students somehow convinced him they were providing an escort to campus for the big cat before the game.

Please let me write that again. A New Orleans cop pulled over a car towing a tiger through town at something like two in the morning and did nothing to investigate the matter further. Normal place, normal people, normal cops.

The uncle comes in at this point. He’s at the house where the Tulane students put the trainer into the garage, after parading Mike around Tulane’s campus at two in the morning. Mike is fine — roaring occasionally, but otherwise fine. The house belongs to the family of one of the conspirators. They sense something is up when the dogs won’t stop barking at the garage door. The guy tells his dad there’s a tiger in the garage. The dad asks him if he’s been drinking.

For a moment they worried about being discovered, but then realized: there is no hiding a tiger in civilization, not after everyone hears it roaring from a suburban garage. In the wild a tiger is terrifyingly invisible, capable of sitting just a few yards from people looking for it.

Jim Corbett — hunter of man-eating tigers in India — had one stalk him once, heard but never seen.

Here was an example of how a tiger can move through the jungle. From the sound she had made I knew her exact position, had kept my eyes fixed on the spot, and yet she had come, seen me, stayed some time watching me, and then gone away without my having seen a leaf or a blade of grass move.

Stuck in a trailer in the New Orleans suburbs, though, the tiger was the most conspicuous thing imaginable. The police showed up to the house the next morning. No one was arrested. Mike made it back to LSU in time for the Sugar Bowl, a 14-14 tie that pleased no one. Mike lived another six years. Being a tiger, he probably slept for the majority of them, lazily waiting for his feedings and dreaming about killing.

The uncle usually ended the story there. He had things to remember and things to forget — a long, sometimes chaotic life with the good and the bad and countless eyeballs looking back at him, probably staring at him in his dreams after he closed his eyes and went to sleep. The one thing he inevitably remembered at a distance of 50 years, after too many drinks and almost too much living: the tiger.

II.

Mike I died in 1956. LSU bought another tiger immediately. (Again: for long stretches of American history, buying a tiger was a little too easy.) It died a month after it got to campus. Then, after dying once, Mike II died again less than a year later.

Given the neighborhood, dying twice wasn’t that weird. It is so hard to avoid this — the gumbofication of everything Louisiana, including LSU, into a runaway Mardi Gras barge floating through history without a rudder — but it wasn’t that strange to worry about whether something was really dead or not.

New Orleans buried its dead above sea level in vaults. Those vaults sometimes had bells attached to strings leading down into the crypt. The fear of being buried alive in the pre-modern era was real and semi-justified, and not just by local stories of Turkish sultans being entombed alive in the courtyards of New Orleans rental homes.* The alligators in the bayous go torpid and sleep away the mild winters. Zombies are real between the hours of 12 a.m. and 8 a.m. Central Time, and sometimes a little past, via traffic and the usual delays.

*Unverified NOLA story, but colorful enough to make sure no one really ever wanted to fact-check the story too vigorously.

It’s hard to avoid sensationalizing Louisiana and by extension LSU football. So let’s just be precise about it.

The death of LSU football has happened a couple hundred times. Whatever that exact number is, it is too many by at least a hundred, because LSU has had everything it has ever needed to go on a yearly rampage. The university was the place for white talent to play football in the state since before integration, and afterwards siphoned talent out of the HBCU system to become the place for every talented player.

The oversight of finances has been non-oversightful at best. The devotion: maniacal to the point of disrupting at least six or seven solid work weeks a year for almost a century.

Yet LSU has a history of oddball successes and nakedly mismanaged entire eras. LSU has 11 conference titles. It was also flailing away under a well-meaning but nakedly incompetent coach named Curley Hallman in the 1990s when much of the SEC was hitting the afterburners. They lost their first coach who won a national title — Paul Dietzel — to a job offer from Army in 1962, then replaced him with a guy who held the job for 17 years. Charlie McClendon won more games at LSU than any other coach ever, but somehow only won the conference once.

It’s not just a management thing. Billy Cannon, LSU’s lone Heisman winner, ended up being a prison dentist after he was convicted of counterfeiting. The highest-profile draft pick in the school’s history fell out of the NFL after three seasons, his career derailed by bad teams, bad coaching, an inability to adapt, and an addiction to codeine cough syrup. Five-star QB talent spent a lot of the 2000s going to Baton Rouge for nothing.

The 2013 team that had Odell Beckham Jr. at wide receiver went 5-3 in conference; 2007 LSU is the only team in the modern era to win a championship with two losses.

The team’s biggest booster ever, Huey Long, co-wrote “Touchdown for LSU” for the school, diverted funds to pay for a new, expanded Tiger Stadium by building bleachers on top of a dormitories, and led the band — properly funded and tripled in size on Long’s orders — out on the field himself. He wound up dead on the steps of the Louisiana State Capitol down the street.

Things appear and sometimes disappear very quickly for everyone involved, all the time.

Mike II — the first one, the one that died a month after getting to campus of pneumonia — was allegedly buried beneath a willow tree along the banks of the Mississippi by the athletic director and head of campus police. Consider this moment: three grown men, with a dead adolescent tiger in their possession, some shovels, and a couple of lanterns or flashlights, quietly laying it to rest thousands of miles from a subcontinental home it never knew. Maybe a prayer or two followed.

The fake Mike II — bigger and with different facial markings — died less than a year later at Audubon Zoo after breaking his leg. Tigers are astonishingly strong in the wild, and can be just as fragile in captivity.

III.

Mike III is the one that freaked out Bear Bryant.

It is less than sane, the idea that LSU named their football team after a Confederate regiment, much less one noted for being so ferociously racist that they were notable among Confederate soldiers for being ferociously racist. That was the story for a long time, at least, long enough for the team name to be a topic of conversation on campus, and to become the subject of a Change.org petition to “change the racist mascot of LSU.”

That part about the Tigers is still accurate by default. The Tigers got their name from a Louisiana regiment. There isn’t much historical evidence to suggest they were any worse than the general level of bad in Confederate units. LSU wouldn’t be alone in that. Ole Miss is right next door and has a way, way more problematic name, Auburn’s “War Eagle” cry gained in the 1960s a (likely mythical) Civil War connection, and Missouri’s “Tigers” were a Civil War-era militia. (Not the kind on the winning side.)

The Louisiana Tigers that gave LSU their name did have one documented reputation: being drunkards, thieves, and the ”lowest scrapings of the Mississippi,” per the University of Louisiana-Monroe’s Terry L. Jones. At one point on a train ride, the enlisted men uncoupled the officer’s car, drank the car dry, and upon arrival in Montgomery tore the town to pieces.

That part sounds right on both ends. Being at a night game in LSU is uncut cocaine injected straight into the eyeball. The going to it and leaving it make up the sketchy purchase and dreadful, paranoid hangover. Random small children call you “motherfucker.” Adults glower suspiciously at anything not wrapped in purple and gold. A man told me that he was going to steal my car. This was a joke about a Florida football player arrested for stealing his own car out of a towing yard, or it may not have been a joke at all.

Getting out after a win or a loss is bad. Huge trucks in the dark blasting Boosie, the frat-boy drivers leaning out of the windows three feet over your head yelling “TIGER BAIT” and pointing two fingers at their eyes and then pointing them at you, the person sitting in the dark walking to your car alone, surrounded by drunk bayou people with guns and god knows what else in their trucks. After a loss it’s quieter, but feels no less dangerous. Every tree has a giant swampneck behind it waiting to crack a brick over your head. The car, wherever it is parked, feels like it is 20 miles away.

It feels like a place full of people who steal trains.

Mike III would roar on command. He sat in his custom-built cage on game days, parked right by the visitor’s tunnel. Opposing players had to walk right by him to get to the field. Bear Bryant hated it because — mascotry aside, pageantry aside, all the protections of having glass and steel between the tiger and people aside — well, it was still a goddamn tiger, wasn’t it?

LSU still put a real tiger in a box every Saturday and took it to a football game like it was people. If LSU’s mascot choice isn’t especially racist, then the alternative is that they are batshit crazy and have carried the crazy across time like a murderous big cat waiting for exactly the right moment to escape like it was people.

Like it was people, y’all.

IV.

He got out once.

Mike IV was ornery, even relative to the curve for captive animals. He did not always cooperate with his keepers. By the time he arrived on campus in 1976, the tiger did not travel to road games or to the bowls like Mike III had. In the end, that was a good thing, if only for the trainers. Getting Mike IV to do anything, much less get in a travel cage on a regular basis, was difficult.

Not that it should have been easy. Mike IV was a tiger, and like all tigers — even those raised around people — he’s going to be a wild animal, without hope of domestication. The people who take care of tigers from infancy have a universal moment when they realize it: the cage is not for the tiger, but for the edible, fragile, lesser humans around it. At one point the adolescent cub is suddenly and silently behind and above the trainer on a rock in the habitat, looking down and considering whether it’s playing or hunting at the moment.

The tiger could do it in seconds — if it wanted to, because tigers sometimes kill, and sometimes they don’t. The difference between the two is mostly random.

An experienced trainer at the Kaliningrad zoo in 2017 was cleaning up around Typhoon, a 16-year-old male tiger who’d showed no signs of aggression towards his trainers. The trainer survived an attack from Typhoon with non-life-threatening injuries after horrified bystanders scared the tiger off with rocks and yelling. The zoo blamed the trainer for the incident. She was the one in the cage without help with an animal whose idea of fun can change for the worse in an instant.

Someone’s idea of fun some time after midnight on November 28, 1981 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana was to cut the chain on the outer door of Mike IV’s habitat, cut the lock on the inner door, and then see what happened next.

What happened next: Mike got out.

A free-range tiger in a heavily populated area can go a lot of different ways. On Christmas Day in 2007, Tatiana, a four-year-old Siberian tiger, escaped its habitat at the San Francisco Zoo just around closing time. Tatiana killed one teenager and injured two more before being put down by San Francisco police officers.

The 911 call happened at 5:07 p.m. Police arrived at 5:20 p.m. Think about 13 minutes on the ground with a tiger on the loose, knowing it had decided that humans were on the menu. Time one minute out and imagine being in danger of being eaten at any second. Then, imagine doing it 12 more times. An eternity is not long enough to describe how long 13 minutes can be.

Sometimes the tiger is the only casualty. In 2017, a tiger escaped from a circus in Paris and was seen wandering around the 15th arrondissement before its owner shot it in an alley. When a whole herd of exotic animals got loose from a preserve in Zanesville, Ohio in 2011, local wildlife officials and police shot 18 Bengal tigers in a single night.

Sometimes, somehow, no one gets killed. In China in 2017, two tigers escaped from circuses. One clawed two children before being recaptured; the other, described generously in translations as “tame,” returned to its cage without incident.

In Mike IV’s case in 1981, nothing much happened. He walked down Stadium Drive. He was seen playfully attacking trees. He wandered into the track stadium, where Dr. Sheldon Bivin, Mike’s caretaker, put three tranquilizer darts in him before the cat fell unconscious to the turf. There are versions where this is harmlessly done to a wandering Mike. There are versions where the tiger charges Bivin with the worst of intentions and passes out just a few feet away from becoming the second mascot in SEC history to commit murder.

*The first: Tusk, who has gone on two separate escapes/killing sprees, including a 1977 streak involving a 450-pound domestic pig, a coyote, and seven rattlesnakes.

Either way, Mike woke up the next day like a lot of people after a late night in Louisiana: Groggy, without clothing, and in his yard.

V.

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

There is an airboat tour in 2009. I’m on an airboat for the first time in my life somewhere east of New Orleans. It is touristy and still as glorious as imagined: Loud as hell on the ears, featherlight to the ass in the seat, ripping across an open bayou with gossamer ease like a bathtub skating on a sea of liquid teflon. The man steering it is a tiny Cajun man with a precisely clipped mustache and a good-sized handgun on his hip. In my head, he is named Claude.

Claude sometimes hushes the big fan to point out wildlife. Heron here, turtles on a log over there. He doesn’t point out the sumps, the odd dials and pipes sticking up from the water at semi-regular intervals. Once I start noticing, there are little bits of this all over the place: platforms, fishing traps, navigation signs, obvious human tweaking and notation of the landscape.

That doesn’t stop when I get off the boat, the noticing, the sudden prominence of these rigs and bulkwarks against the water, of humanity desperately building straight lines over a curved, shifting landscape that over a hundred years ago tried to wiggle away from its spot on the map. We speed over clear channels dredged by people remembering murky waters filled with lurking stumps, logs, and old cars ready to upend a clueless airboat, punch a hole in its hull, or spill every last passenger headfirst into the bayou. The dials and knobs controlling the water hold back a Biblical flood that happened 90 years ago, or 30, or maybe last year.

Nothing will hold it all back. Eventually the thing on the other side of the fence, the valve, or the net gets through. There is nothing permanent anywhere. But the things I am thinking about hardest (when Claude pulls the airboat up to the banks of this rerouted, wired, and pipe-laced bayou to point out an alligator) are this:

  • That the fifth Mike the Tiger, a carnivore kept as a totem by a university built in a state that is effectively North America’s festive, possibly uninhabitable, and waterlogged gutterspout, got a new habitat in 2005. It featured realistic rock features, a huge play pool, large windows on one side for viewing, and an open-air setup using nets and chain-link to keep Mike in and other animals out. Mike V had what most at LSU considered the best personality of all the Mikes — outgoing and playful — and he got two years in the habitat before he died in 2005. The cat thought it was forever. People at the window thought they were safe. These are both contracts that make life happen. They are both lies.
  • That Claude, with one blue-jeaned leg on the embankment and pointing out a hole dug out by an alligator in warmer weather, did not hear it. The noise was dry, rolling growl, a hiss made through the din of a rock tumbler. He missed it once, then twice. Claude was talking about the alligators: How they got torpid in winter, and on days like this when it was about 55 degrees, they would be burrowed up somewhere sleeping, just a shade away from full hibernation, only dimly aware of the world around them.

He didn’t hear it a final time. I told him that I thought there was an alligator in the hole and that it wasn’t happy. Claude grabbed an oar and jabbed it into the bank. The hissing, booming gravelly growl rolled out of the hole. There was a moment’s pause and Claude looking back at me through his aviators and smiling a stunned but pleased smile.

He laughed.

“Ohhhhhhhhhhhh! He mad.”

VI.

Les Miles and Mike VI arrived in Baton Rouge in the same year.

Miles inherited a nice new habitat in 2005. His predecessor, Nick Saban, rebuilt LSU football in total: new facilities, locktight recruiting in the state of Louisiana, increased funding for the program and an expanded staff. LSU won two conference titles and a national title under Saban, all paid for by an obsessive attention to detail and hostile disregard for anything remotely resembling an intrusion on the football team’s attention.

Saban left LSU in December 2004 to take the Miami Dolphins job. Oklahoma State head coach Miles replaced him in January 2005. Miles was not the polar opposite of Saban, only because a polar opposite to Miles might not have existed at the time.

SEC Championship - Tennessee v LSU Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

For example: Miles was an offensive coach to Saban’s defensive coach, but it was hard to say precisely what Miles’ school of thought as an offensive coach was. (He liked to run the ball! Most football coaches do!) He could recruit well enough, but wasn’t renowned as a recruiting specialist. His teams at Oklahoma State played hard and won games. LSU’s immediate need to find a credibly successful coach to show up quickly did the rest.

The rest of these things actually happened. Miles had the job for just over six months when a Category Five hurricane hit the state. Katrina doubled Baton Rouge’s population with people displaced from New Orleans. Fats Domino slept for a while on star quarterback JaMarcus Russell’s couch. Miles lost his first home game — LSU’s first after Hurricane Katrina — in a chaotic, poorly managed, 30-27 defeat.

That team somehow won the SEC West and went to the SEC Championship before losing to Georgia, then beating the daylights out of Miami 40-3 in the Peach Bowl. The 2006 team won 10 games, too, including an almost equivalent 41-14 asskicking of Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. Russell still owes former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis money for helping him inflate his rookie contract by letting him throw uncontested, 60-yard bombs against the hapless Irish defense.

This was all preface to 2007, the wildest, least sensical college football season ever, with its wildest, least sensical national champion ever: a two-loss LSU team who spent the entire season doubling down on madness. The Tigers faked a field goal against South Carolina for a score. They did it again versus Florida for a crucial late first down and came back from a 24-14 fourth quarter deficit to beat the Gators in Baton Rouge. LSU went for it on fourth down five times. LSU converted all five.

The 2007 Tigers did not lose twice. They lost in triple overtime twice, once to Kentucky on the road and once to Arkansas and wunderkind running back Darren McFadden. Neither mattered. Somehow, through a long series of events beginning with Stanford beating #1 USC as the biggest underdog in college football history, LSU stumbled punch-drunk and smiling back into contention.

Les Miles did not control any of this, but that’s not provable to the heart, and not pleasing to the mind. Later this would all unravel. The gambles and freewheeling style would wear on LSU fans. The chain lightning luck would even out over time. Miles, it turned out, could recruit talent and squander it as well as anyone in the country. Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry started on the same team — that lost three games.

On September 25, 2016, LSU fired Miles. He’d come so close to surviving another week. LSU, driving against Auburn a day before with just seconds on the clock and down 18-13, scored as time expired when quarterback Danny Etling railed a pass into the hands of a tiptoeing DJ Chark for a game-winning touchdown. They scored, and then they didn’t. A clock review showed the ball snapped with no time on the clock.

Time catching up to Miles seemed impossible, if only because time in a game never really seemed important to him. His teams ran out of time outs; they failed to use them. They ran out of time. They scored touchdowns and won at the last second in situations when other teams would kick field goals. They played jibberish football and somehow still won.

It didn’t last — but it lasted long enough and was all stolen anyway. The best way to think of LSU’s happiest streak in modern history is to think of Miles as the only person to really steal the tiger — and then, unlike his predecessors, to make it work. To live with it on its own terms, explaining nothing, all while keeping the whole arrangement afloat somehow.

He could only do it for a while, but he did it. Miles made the ungovernable seem like his pet. Like the whole thing could be governed not by stats and repetition, but instead by weird, animal laws only he could understand or control. Les climbed into the tiger habitat, curled up next to Mike, and stayed in there for 11 years. The tiger ate him in the end, but tigers do that, even to their friends.

Mike VI died on October 11, 16 days after Les Miles was fired at LSU.

VII.

People love Louisiana for a lot of reasons, but never because it works well. They will never love it for its efficiency. They will never love it for its justice or equality or temperate weather. The sun will bake, and the water will steam and flow and evaporate, sometimes in a matter of minutes. There are prisons and more prisons and poverty and more than one town described to me as “where the factory blew up that one time.”

There is case after case of money or fame or success or the state’s unofficial official sport serving as protection against a simmering and horrifying violence. Joe McKnight was a five-star running back from the suburbs of New Orleans who played at USC and in the NFL, and he was gunned down by a white motorist with a gun in a road rage accident. Will Smith was not from Louisiana, but he made the city his home after winning a Super Bowl playing defensive end for the Saints. He and his wife were shot in New Orleans in another traffic dispute. She survived. He did not.

A hurricane can disable the state overnight. LSU has played every game for the entirety of its history at the mercy of the Gulf of Mexico, the straggling power grid, otherwise mercenary politics, and whatever else the swamp might conjure up to obstruct the flow of daily life.

There are people who love Louisiana for three days on vacation because it is festive, because it is fun, because there are drive-thru beer daiquiri stands where motorists drive away with a 64-ounce alcoholic drink inside their car and do not have an open container violation because “the straw is taped to the lid, so you’re good.” They love it in short spells because it feels like a different life where no consequence exists, all somehow separated from the rest of the country by a few rivers and a notional line up north separating it from Arkansas.

That might be true. There are others who love it because it feels as warm and broken as they feel. Eat this. Drink that. It will be fine, or it won’t. Okay it won’t. There are no indicators that it will be fine, ever, and it is still fine. Have you met my cousin? She’s a mess. You will love her. Do not give her money, and she will never fix anything in her life, but for a moment you will love her. Because you have to live. Sometime and somewhere before you eventually don’t, you have to live.

This is a rigging of pipes and rivers. This is a tiger in a swiftly rusting cage. It will inevitably swamp us. When it happens we will have to die or move, and not all of us will move, and that is fine, too. In the middle of everything in life, it might be possible to feel as broken-hearted and scattered as garbage floating slowly over brackish water to an oil-poisoned sea. That being happy or at least at peace with that was okay for a moment, or perhaps for longer if the schedule allowed. Not an escapism, but an honesty about it.

Mike the VII was introduced to the public on August 21, 2017. He was named Harvey. He spent his childhood in people’s laps at a sketchy tourist attraction called Animal Adventures in Florida. Pay a hundred bucks, and a real, live, adorable tiger cub would be brought out to sit in a lap. The owner of the park eventually had more tigers than she could handle. There were holes in the fences, and she couldn’t keep up with the tiger shit or pay the substantial bills for all the meat she needed to buy to keep them alive and mostly on her side.

Harvey was a rescue. Like a lot of LSU students, he gained weight in his first three month on campus. In his case, the total came out to somewhere over 100 pounds. He seems to like people, as much as any tiger can like something that it might later decide to hunt and eat.

He sleeps a lot and eats meat shaped into the logos of LSU opponents on game weekends. Mike has never known the wild and seems to enjoy the company of people. He’ll sit by the edge of his pool and hunt bystanders through glass for fun, waiting to splash water toward them.

No one goes in the cage with him any more. The cat can easily sneak behind his handlers, and climb on top of the giant stone features with his enormous paws without making a sound. He can look down from there onto the fragile, tender back of a human’s neck all day if you let him.

Florida v LSU Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images

TWO: GAMECOCK

THREE: ELEPHANT

FOUR: VOLUNTEER