The summer sun was shining on the patio, glistening off the large fountain and pond half-hidden under the trees across the way. It may have been the only day in June that it didn't rain.
Mack Brown had arranged a surprise party, and the subject of honor is a guy who seldom likes surprises. But Mack decided to surprise him, anyway.
Edith Royal was in on the ruse as well. She had told her husband, that would be Coach Darrell Royal to most of us, that he had to make an appearance at some charity luncheon. That it took him away from a golf course on a pretty day not withstanding, for darn near 60 years he's done what Edith said, so this day was no exception.
Mack knew that he, and most of his coaching staff, would be on vacation this week, and today, July 6, when Darrell Royal turned 80 years old, most would be out of town. So he put together a surprise birthday party a month early.
When "Miss Edith," as Mack calls her, arrived at Matt's El Rancho and headed to the back room that looked out on the patio, Coach never expected a thing.
But gathered in that room were a fist full of memories, and a bucket full of tributes.
Mack and Sally Brown had assembled the entire current football staff, along with Eddie Joseph, the retired executive director of the Texas High School Coaches Association, the Royals' son, Mack and his wife, and loyal friend Luis Murillo. Joe Jamail jetted in from another court room victory.
But also waiting in that room, down the stone tile and through the glass doors, were a collection of guys who had been a part of some of the most successful years of Texas football. Gathered there, on very short notice (so short the word didn't get to everybody) were members of Darrell Royal's staff at Texas.
It was, for all practical purposes, like a gathering of old soldiers feathered amidst the current high tech military staff officers.
There were Willie Zapalac and Leon Manley, who coached some of the greatest offensive lines in history. R. M. Patterson was there, and so were Spike Dykes, David McWilliams and Ken Dabbs.
At Mack's request, each had written Royal a note about what he had meant in their lives. The current staff related to his involvement now. Some of the newer members talked of how he had touched them, and the game of college football.
And as each of the Royal staff members spoke, the common thread was the phone call that came to each of them asking them to join Royal's staff at Texas.
And what we saw in that room, and what we see on this very special birthday, is the impact that a single soul can have on countless lives. He is, in no particular order, a role model, a teacher, a surrogate Dad, an idol, a hero, a philosopher, a mentor, a pillar of strength, but most of all, a friend.
Darrell Royal came to Texas in December of 1956, and he retired from coaching after the 1976 season. Twenty years of the eighty, and yet he built a legend.
As a kid growing up in West Texas, I remember the excitement, and the energy, that was generated in Austin in 1957 when a young coach--then one of the youngest head coaches in America--hooked up with The University of Texas. He was folksy and dashing, down-to-earth and regal (pardon the pun) all at the same time.
In the decade of the 1960s, his teams dominated the game of college football. In the decade from 1961 through 1970, his teams won three national championships, six league titles and finished in the nation's Top Five seven times.
His teams recorded a 30-game winning streak, the longest of the latter third of the 20th Century.
The Austin American-Statesman, in a nice front page feature on his birthday, did a projection of the wins that Royal might have had if he had not decided to retire at the young age of 52. More than Paterno, more than Bowden.
But it was never about that. It was never about the wins. It was about the players, and the game. And always, always, the integrity.
Today, the phone calls came rolling in. Touched most, of course, were the players. One who called was a former writer, who had covered Royal years ago. Most of all, however, those whom he has touched include common folk just like you and me.
He has been a friend to Presidents and janitors, and he has left a rare legacy of "Royalisms," -- sayings Mack Brown says take complicated things and make them simple.
He came to us in a time when we desperately needed heroes. America was torn in the time of the '60s, and Royal gave us something to believe in, and have fun with. That's what Texas football meant.
And what he stands for today are the same principles that he avowed so long ago: honesty, integrity, and the simple value and importance of the human spirit.
I have told this story many times, but it is well worth repeating here. When we were doing the Darrell Royal tribute video for a gala announcing the adding of his name to the stadium, I wrote a couple of unique verses to add to Garth Brooks' song "The River," and a UT student named Emilie Williams (now Emilie Fennell) agreed to record the new version.
In the lyrics, I had written the words, "Orange Towers, earned with effort, are all lessons in the stream."
There was little lyrical about that. Earned, effort, and lessons aren't tremendously poetic.
I had already given Emilie the words, but after a sleepless night, I came up with the perfect solution.
"Orange Towers, etched in sunsets, are all memories in the stream," I wrote.
That, I thought, was perfect.
The next morning I came in the office and dropped the new version on Emilie's desk.
"What's this?" she asked.
"Those are your new lyrics," I said.
She studied them for a moment, and then said forcefully, "You can't do that."
"Why not?" I asked indignantly.
"Because," she said, "they were earned, and it did take effort, and the lessons were important."
So I reworked it, to include both.
When James Street, who quarterbacked Texas to 20 straight wins as a starter and was the field general on the 1969 National Champions first heard the song, he sat in my office and critiqued it.
And the most important line for him--the line that meant the most to him--was "Orange Towers, earned with effort."
So as we help Coach Royal celebrate this, his 80th birthday, let us celebrate the accomplishment.
At 80, he is enduring.
But the lessons he taught us, and the joy he brought us, are eternal.
Happy birthday, Coach.