The last time Chance Mock saw her, the morning sun shone brightly against her across the sparkling waters. From the distance of the hotel balcony, you could see the big aircraft carrier and the bold letters "CV64."
When FOX news showed some of the first pictures of airplanes taking off in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, there she was again.
Mack Brown held a 30-minute meeting with his team before Thursday's practice and he talked about war and freedom. For each Longhorn, there are certainly personal feelings, but for the players who were part of Texas‚ trip to the 2000 and '01 Holiday Bowls, it came particularly close.
San Diego, the host city for the Holiday Bowl, is home to some of America's most prominent military installations. One of the particularly meaningful events is the Navy and Marine Luncheon, held aboard a ship of the United States.
The ship Chance and many of us staying with the team at the San Diego Marriott and Marina would see every morning was the USS Constellation — the "Conny" in Navy terms — and that CV64 that identifies her is part of the memory of the landscape (or seascape, if you prefer) of wonderful visits by the Longhorns to the City by the Sea.
So too, are the young men and women, and I emphasize the word "young," whom the players met when they lunched with the service personnel aboard the ships. In 2000, the luncheon was held aboard the USS Boxer, an "amphib" (a small carrier whose purpose is to carry Marines, their attack helicopters and their jump jets). So when Texas and Oregon football players sat down to eat, they were accompanied by Marines and sailors whose average age, including their older officers, was 23.
In 2001, the luncheon was aboard the massive carrier the USS Nimitz, where the presence of pilots who had undergone several years of training had upped the average age of ship personnel to 27.
So as Brown talked about the war, for a lot of the Longhorn players it was easy to think back to the faces of the uniformed young people their own age with whom they shared fried chicken on a December day in less threatening times. It was easy, when Brown asked them to pray for and remember the troops, for them to do it.
"I told them that we were taking the weekend off and that we should remember that we could do that because of the people who were over there fighting for our freedom," he said. "War is ugly. Even the sound of the word is bad, but it is important for us to remember that we are free because people are willing to fight to defend that freedom."
So, as the team broke for position meetings, Brown went to every group saying, "Remember to pray for the troops."
It wasn't the first time Brown had held such a session with his team. Following 9/11, he held a similar open forum where players could ask questions.
"I was their age during the Vietnam war," he said. "I told them about the draft, lottery numbers and things like that. It was important for them to know that this is a volunteer armed forces — that these people are serving so that they don't have to go."
Most of all, Brown's conversation with his team was a message of the importance of supporting America, its leaders and the men and women in the military in a time of war.
Not too long ago, I remember seeing that the USS Nimitz had departed San Diego en route to join the Coalition Forces in the Middle East. I recalled walking on its giant deck and climbing into its operations tower, high above the Pacific as the ship was being readied for its journey.
Nathan Kaspar and Chris Stroup, both letterman on that 2001 team, were co-winners of the Admiral's Trophy given to unsung heroes on the teams. Both were headed for Navy flight school and both lingered as the Texas and Washington teams slowly made their way back to the buses.
Brown still displays the pictures of the Boxer and Nimitz, given as mementoes of the teams' visit to the ships.
As the war drums sounded and the inevitable battle finally came, I had wondered about the Boxer, for it was those young sailors and Marines who first made an impression on me. Probably because I have a son who will always be a proud Marine.
Several weeks ago, at a recognition of Texas Military Veterans in the Senate chamber of the State Capitol, our old friend Larry Gatlin sang the National Anthem and a special song he had written after 9/11 called "Stand Up and Thank Them Now."
Gatlin said his dad, like my son David, would always be a Marine.
"In fact as old as he is, he's sitting out there in Abilene, Texas, with his bags backed and his guns loaded, just waiting for President Bush to call him and tell him to 'come on,'" he said.
I emailed the Web master of the USS Boxer site the other day, just wondering where she was — the lady who had first brought us so close to the people who are in a very real fight for our freedom.
Today I received the following reply:
I was forwarded your email request from our Web master. USS Boxer is currently deployed to the Arabian Gulf in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. We departed San Diego on 17 January, 2003. If there is any other information I can help you with, please let me know.
Very Respectfully, LTJG Dave Merrifield USS Boxer PAO
Semper Fi, guys and God bless America and those who are willing to defend her.