In the twilight of a summer evening, as the giraffes and the buffalo and the zebras and the antelopes played in the distance, Red McCombs talked about identity.
At the end of the day, as it is "cliché-ish" to say, that is what it was all about Sunday night at McCombs' 5,000 acre ranch in the Texas Hill Country west of Austin.
The outing came at the end of a weekend of activity for the Texas Longhorn football team, 10 days into fall practice and two weeks from the kickoff to the season. And as has become tradition, the trip to the McCombs' ranch where he raises exotic animals for refuges and zoos, unveiled the Longhorns' new theme tee shirts. The message was simple, and it fit perfectly with the events of the weekend. On the back of the shirt is a big Longhorn helmet, and one word: "Family."
The Longhorn family.
A scrimmage Saturday morning had set the stage for a couple of events over the weekend that emphasized just that.
First, the scrimmage was a good, solid showcase of how far the team has progressed in its 10 days of practice, and a reminder of how far it has yet to go as it prepares for the season opener against New Mexico State on Sunday night, August 31. The morning practice drew a multitude of fans who came to watch, and hung around for the traditional autograph session which followed.
And the most striking thing about the events of Saturday was the number of folks who brought their kids to see and meet the Longhorns. The Fan Appreciation Day is a staple of the Mack Brown era at Texas, and it is one way for the next generation to maintain a tie with this team, and this University.
Reality can be hard as the wooden seats which used to be part of the "knothole" section in Memorial Stadium. In a time gone by, kids could get a cheap ticket and go to the games. Now, with the expenses for maintaining athletic programs for 20 sports, that is no longer possible. In a department where football's revenue accounts for 80 percent of the overall sports budget, that end zone seat now will buy part of a soccer scholarship.
So the next best, up close and personal, contact with the guys who wear the helmets comes at the annual Spring Jamboree in connection with the spring game, and with Fan Appreciation Day in the fall.
That part of the Texas family gathered Saturday after the scrimmage. The planned two-and-a-half hour signing and "meet the fans" session included the entire team. And when that period of time passed, Brown, Jeff Madden, Roy Williams, Cedric Benson, Nathan Vasher, Kalen Thornton, Selvin Young and the three quarterbacks--Chance Mock, Vince Young and Matt Nordgren, stayed for another two and a half hours making sure that everyone who came got a picture or a signature.
For five hours, they signed. And the people of the Orange had been in line waiting even longer than that.
So it was fitting that Red and Charlene McCombs, who have been so generous with their fortune, hosted the team for a great dinner and a window of opportunity to have some fun. It couldn't last long, because even with a "day off," there was a wake up call coming at 5:45 in the morning for the resumption of two-a-day practices on Monday.
The McCombs represent another part of the Longhorn family - those people who have been blessed enough to be able to "give back" to The University. A $50 million gift to the School of Business (which bears his name) and the Red and Charlene McCombs Softball Complex are both concrete examples of another segment of the Longhorn Family. And it takes everybody.
McCombs, who owns the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL, took some time during the outing to talk to some of the older players on the team about what it takes to make it in the NFL, and he also mentioned a figure which reinforces the importance of considering life after football.
He told those who would be drafted and those who would dream about making the league as a free agent that what the scouts will look for will be effort. They will know of your talent, he said. You can't prove that to them. In the corner, Mack Brown surely was smiling a knowing smile. In the midst of two-a-days, that is what the Texas coaches do every practice, with every click of the mouse or remote control on their state-of-the-art practice/game video system.
If your dream is to play in the NFL, he said, consider this: Shortly, every NFL team will cut 30 players to get down to their first limit. There are 32 teams. That is 900 dreams that will end, if you would, "at the end of the day."
So it was that on Sunday, at the time of the visit to a rustic part of Texas, that the "E" in effort transitioned into the "I" in identity.
"You have to determine your identity," McCombs said. "I love the 'family' reference, because that is what you are. There is no way for you to understand what you have done for this state, and this university. In the five years Mack and Sally Brown have been here, they have helped restore that pride in Texas, and it has carried far beyond the borders of this state."
Choose your identity, said the man in the cowboy hat who has made a fortune selling cars and being nice to people. That is what you will be remembered for.
And in the twilight, if you looked at the burnt orange tee shirts, you realized that the identity of this team in this year has already been defined.
On the front of the jersey is a Longhorn emblem, cast over the State of Texas, and with the well-known slogan, "We Are Texas."
And from that space, the identity will determine what you are. Now, it will be up to the effort to determine how far that takes you. On the video, day after day of practice, in the games and through the fall, it will be the effort which determines not what, but who, you are.