End Zone still dedicated to USM

By BUSTER WOLFE,

After 40 years as an iconic watering hole in Southern Miss history, The End Zone has found a new home in historic downtown Hattiesburg. And the difference from its previous location is like night and day, according to the owners.

Now located at 115 Walnut St., The End Zone has gone through several cosmetic changes in the past 40 years. However, the management has stayed true to its beginnings as a sports bar that started with owner Dave Brandon and continued with Mike and Gale Walker.

“It is totally from one end of the spectrum to the other from the beginning,” Brandon said about the new End Zone. “The beginning was crude and a hole-in-the-wall type of bar.”

Now the Walkers have an End Zone that is open bright, with a courtyard that includes ivy-covered walls, a stage, casual seating, four televisions and a separate area with a lighted tree.

“All the tables and chairs were here when we moved in,” Gale Walker said. “All the stuff in the kitchen was here –  two coolers and two freezers, lots and lots of storage.”

Gale said she enjoys coming to work.

“We work a lot of hours,” she said. “It felt good to walk in here. You’ve got to be in a good mood to be here, from the old place. You walk in and you smile. This is nice. I love this place and I think it’s great.”

The face of The End Zone has changed since Brandon started the bar on Hardy Street near theZoo on Aug. 26, 1977. Brandon said the bar began with a meager investment.

“I took every bit of money that I had (to start The End Zone),” he said. “I had a van that was paid for; it was 1972 Dodge Tradesman 200 and it had bean bag chairs in it. I slept in it many a time. I put it up as collateral and got a loan of $2,000. The day I opened up, I had a little over $300 of that $2,000 left. It didn’t have any air conditioning, and it was Aug. 26-27. We had fans, but it was basically 100 degrees standing next to each other.”

Brandon said he was able to get some help from a friend, Bobby Walters, who was in the electrical business.

“We worked out a deal to pay him off in 6 months,” he said. “I paid him off a week shy of three months. Every extra penny I had, I put it in a jar and paid him off.”

In the past 40 years, times have certainly changed in the bar business, Brandon said.

“It was a lot of fun; it was different,” he said. “The way young people are today, they are so used to brass rails and stuff. A 12-ounce bottle of Miller Lite was 50 cents the day I opened up. A 16-ounce draft of Miller Lite was 25 cents. People don’t understand that. It was a simple time. People don’t understand; that was 40 years ago. There was a lot of change.”

That first weekend, The End Zone sold a little more than $400 in beer. However, getting more aligned to Southern Miss included a move to 2505 W. Fourth St. in January 1989. Mike Walker had been working with Brandon since 1979 when he was 18 years old. When the Fourth Street location opened, Gale came on board, but Mike went to help his friend, Robert St. John, begin his restaurant business.

Brandon said the students were regulars until the drinking age changed to 21 in 1986. The End Zone connected itself to USM with membership in The Big Gold Club, The Century Club, The Hardwood Club and the purchase of 10 football season tickets every year. The first nine parking spots sold for The Right Field Roost at the baseball field and The End Zone was No. 9.

The End Zone also offered new and exciting items that other nightspots didn’t have, especially late-night food.

“We were different,” Brandon said. “We were the first to put a VCR in a bar, the first to have a satellite (dish). We had dart tournaments every week and we had a golf tournament for St. Jude (Children’s Research Hospital) for 20 years. A lot of students called The End Zone their second bank.”

Gale Walker said the bar had a lot of regulars that offered a great deal of camaraderie.

“It was definitely a neighborhood bar,” she said. “Late night is when the restaurant turned on. We were so busy late at night. When every restaurant had closed, they all came to The End Zone. We had beer, shots, pool, foosball, Golden Tee or whatever.”

However, the area around The End Zone changed, becoming a rough neighborhood with gang activity, and that affected the business.

“The last time (a gang member) pulled a gun on me, I had my grandkids with me,” Gale said. “Both of them ran away crying. There was no excuse for living like that. That’s one reason I love this (new) neighborhood.”

Gale also said she likes the new courtyard for smokers because the former location forced customers to go outside for a cigarette.

“At the old End Zone, you had to stand at the front door or the back door and people wanted to bum a cigarette,” she said. “Or they would try to sell drugs to you. It was kinda creepy at night.”

The economics of a beer-only bar changed when the drinking age was raised from 18 to 21.

“I went from a $1,200-1,500 night – you’ve got to understand, I was only selling beer, no whiskey or anything like that – to an average of $100-150 a day,” Brandon said. “Times got tight.”

The Walkers bought The End Zone in 1999, but not without a last hoorah under Brandon.

“My last weekend – we played Texas A&M here – we took in a little over $29,000,” hs said, adding that he never considered The End Zone a dive bar. “That’s like anything; the person who opens it, to them that’s their living, that’s what they are going to feed their children with. Don’t call it ‘a dive bar’ to my face because that is a generalization.”

The theme of The End Zone never changed. Sports played an integral part in the bar, from Southern Miss Golden Eagles, to the Atlanta Braves baseball and native Mississippi athletes who made it to professional sports. Gale Walker looked around the new End Zone’s walls and pointed out different sports themes and remembered the stories.

“It’s always a sports bar,” she said. “I brought all of my sports stuff. We walked in (the new location) and the furniture was all here. They had pretty pictures in nice frames, so I changed it out with my stuff. Mike and I had collected it over almost 30 years.”

She sat next to her “Katrina wall.” Pictures showed USM hero and Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame quarterback and former Alcorn State and Tennessee Titans signal-caller Steve “Air” McNair, along with a radar image of Hurricane Katrina.

“Those two brought 18-wheelers down here with supplies and water from wherever they were playing that week,” Gale said.

“That’s my ‘Ray Guy wall’ around the corner,” she said, pointing out the autographed photo of the former USM standout and the Oakland Raiders punter who is the only player at that position in the NFL Hall of Fame. “When we moved (downtown), he said, ‘Be sure and take my stuff out. It’s not for anybody else.’ We sent him pictures of it. He is so nice. I was so glad that he got into the Hall of Fame. He definitely deserved it.”

Of course, the Walkers have their “Brett wall,” with memorabilia of Favre as a child, a USM all-star and a Packer great.

“I also have a lot of (Atlanta) Braves stuff with USM stuff on that side,” Gale said as the pointed to one side of the restaurant. “Look there, Hank Aaron sent me a Christmas card. Every year, I got one from him for like 10 years. I’ve got some from (Phil) Niekro, Bobby Cox, (Leo) Mazzone, I can’t remember all of the ones I’ve got.”

Gale said her connection to the Braves goes back to Milwaukee.

“I used to babysit for Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette,” she said. “We used to stay in the hotel next to the one where they stayed. We’d hang out with them. One year, we were at the airport and they forgot to pick them up. I really love those guys, sitting, drinking and talking with them.”

Gale said she and Niekro ran into a little boys baseball and their fathers at the airport.

“It was so neat,” she said. “Niekro was sitting by me. He saw them over there and he started showing them how to throw a baseball, coin tricks and stayed with them for like an hour. He signed all their hats. He was such a great gentleman.”

Gale said her love for all sports has diminished this year.

“I love sports,” she said. “I haven’t been as involved in pro football this year (because of the kneeling controversy). I still love baseball and college football. I always pull for (Hattiesburg sports agent) Bus Cook’s guys; he’s got a lot of good guys. He’s awesome and he’s a great guy.”

Several of the regulars from the Fourth Street location have migrated to the new End Zone, Gale said.

“We had so many lawyers and bank people who went to the old one, and now they can just walk down here,” she said. “They come in all the time because their offices are right there.”

Gale also added that she is glad to see the activities downtown, with Farmers Market, Live@Five, small concerts and things in the park. The addition of desserts has also provided customers an opportunity to stop by on the weekend for a bite.

“We never had desserts,” she said. “Our plates were so big that nobody had room for dessert. Now, it’s like a weekend thing. People will come in just to get dessert. They’ve got more time to relax on the weekends.”

Gale said people will still walk in and ask, “What makes this the End Zone?”

“Well, it’s my stuff, the menu, the people, the same customers and the employees,” she said. “It’s the new and improved End Zone. After 40 years, it deserves a facelift. Next will be mine.”