Bill Little commentary: A family affair
It was Charles Dickens who first brought us to an awareness of the significance of "Great Expectations." Frank Sinatra sang about "High Hopes." And as the 2007 Texas Longhorn football season opens in the under-renovation Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, both of those titles are perfectly fitting.
As Mack Brown ends the pre-season practice for his 10th year at Texas, he has talked about value-based principles and he and his assistants have spent a gratifyingly long month preparing the Longhorns for Saturday night's encounter with Arkansas State.
He has said publicly and privately that Arkansas State is a foe to be reckoned with, based on reports of their talent from pro scouts and from film reviews.
Opening games are like Christmas morning for coaches. You never really know what you are going to get until you open the package.
So in the context of family, Brown has talked about "earning the right" to be a Longhorn, and the importance of a slogan that says "attitude is everything." And they also heard about accountability and responsibility and rewards.
In the final meeting at the close of pre-season practice, the 2007 football team had a distinct message of "where have you been, and where are you going." It began with a standing ovation for 83-year-old Darrell Royal, who had his first chance to stand before this year's team in the session.
It included a review of the successes over the last nine seasons since Brown came to Texas in 1998, a reminder of what it takes to win. Remarkable numbers that have placed the Longhorns in the elite of college football were blended with rankings from media pundits who picked the top teams in the nation over varied periods in the last decade of college football.
As Brown talked about his "high expectations" of his team, he made it clear he wasn't concerning himself at that moment with their on-the-field performance. He talked about values, and character. It was a time to celebrate, with kicker Ryan Bailey rewarded with a scholarship - an example of real-life evidence of "earning the right."
It was also a time to remember.
For several years, a young man named Mitchie Mitchell had celebrated the Longhorns. Jeff Madden had given him caps. Cleve Bryant had visited him. In the team meeting at the end of fall drills, the Longhorns remembered Mitchie and a vacant chair.
For the first time since the 21-year-old, who had been confined to a wheelchair, died last January, his mother, Joyce Adejumo, stood before the Texas team to offer a celebration of a once-happy little boy and a stark caution of what carelessness can wrought.
Perhaps you've heard of Mitchie. He was a perfectly healthy three-year-old with hopes and dreams who was crippled and critically injured by a drunk driver 18 years ago. Sadly, the driver was his biological father, who was returning Mitchie home from a visitation.
Joyce Adejumo made it clear that the injuries which eventually would lead to Mitchie's death came, not from an "accident," but from a "crash." Silence fell in the team meeting room as she showed pictures of Mitchie, before the wreck, and of his gruesome injuries.
Through it all, she reminded the team of two things: how much Mitchie loved the Longhorns, and how over 17,000 people die annually at the hands of a drunk driver.
One of Mack Brown's overriding concerns is the epidemic of drugs and alcohol abuse in this country, particular among young people. There was no greater messenger on that final day of practice than Joyce Adejumo. She now heads a foundation dedicated to "rebuilding lives impacted by drunk driving."
At the same time, reality impacted the team with the pending surgery for prostate cancer of running backs coach Ken Rucker. Ken, a devout man with supreme faith, had his surgery this past Monday.
After the meeting, I happened to be talking to Alan Cannon, the media relations director at Texas A&M, who worked with Ken when he was with the Aggie staff. I put Alan on the phone with Ken, and joked with Coach when he got off the phone that if the Aggies and the Longhorns were both praying for him, and given his own relationship with the Good Lord, he had to be in pretty good hands.
Ken's recovering nicely from the surgery, and we're all still praying everything works out. He's got a lot of good years left, and for a man whose goodbye greeting has always been, "You have a blessed day," it won't be long until he's back with the kids he loves.
All of which takes us back to family, and the Longhorn family that will begin the 2007 season Saturday night. There are hopes and dreams, and dreams and hopes. For Texas, it is a season that has been as anticipated as any in recent years.
Folks are ready, really ready, for some Longhorn football.