COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It was empty now, with only a few security guards and a couple of clean-up crews working in the distance. The "thud" that broke the eerie silence came from the falling of a support beam as workers took down the television set above the tunnel at the southwest corner of the stadium.
The portable lights peered over the rim of the massive facility, as if they were giant birds perched and gazing, focused on the green grass nestled in the canyon of gray concrete.
As Mack Brown walked back onto the field, there below the lights and the concrete for one last time to tape the opening to Longhorn Sports Center, the north end of the stadium looked ghostly in the empty stillness.
It was his last look at the Horseshoe.
Only an hour or so before, Ohio Stadium, known to the locals and the followers of college football simply as "The Shoe," had welcomed a record 105,565 fans and two teams for a classic college football game.
The crowd, plus the national television audience who watched, probably constituted the most people ever to watch a Texas football game, and maybe even any college regular season game. It was the second-ranked Longhorns against the fourth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. The "Showdown In The 'Shoe," in prime time, in certainly the biggest September matchup in recent college gridiron history.
Over 1,000 media credentials were issued. Both ABC's studio crew and ESPN's GameDay were there. There were Heisman Trophy winners, celebrities and true American heroes. The distinguished looking fellow who boarded the elevator with his gracious wife really was John Glenn, and Jack Nicklaus was there too, perhaps searching for a Titleist somewhere between the plush suites and the massive press box.
And that is where our story begins.
"Take Dead Aim."
Nicklaus, of all people, would have know the expression, and known what it meant. In 2005, the Texas football team has taken the philosophy of the late golf master teacher Harvey Penick as its theme.
It is a simple plan, with a simple meaning. Choose the target, blot out everything else, and Take Dead Aim.
Blotting out means that when things have gone bad, you push them aside. It means when one thing isn't working, you try something else. It means that you concentrate your efforts, and in the words of today, "do what you do." But most of all, to activate the premise, you have to believe.
It is hard to put into perspective how history will remember this first ever meeting between Ohio State and Texas, and the Longhorns' dramatic 25-22 come-from-behind win. By the numbers, it ranks as perhaps the most significant non-conference victory (discounting the Oklahoma game, which was an annual affair and is now a Big 12 contest) since the 1934 Longhorns went to South Bend, Ind., and handed Notre Dame their first-ever home opening loss, 7-6.
For the legion of Longhorn fans who cheered Texas' first ever meeting with Michigan in its first ever Rose Bowl game last January 1, it offered a validation of where Brown and his staff have brought the UT program. In 1999, when Texas upset Nebraska during the regular season and then played the Cornhuskers in the Big 12 Championship game in San Antonio, Brown had talked of "visiting the neighborhood" of college football's elite.
His team's goal, he had said, was "to buy a house there."
Ten and eleven win seasons over the past four years had purchased the property. The Rose Bowl had allowed the Longhorns to have an open house. Saturday night in Columbus, they invited the whole wide world in for a party.
A day before the game, Brown had been waiting for a radio interview near the southwest corner of the stadium. He looked up, and saw members of the Ohio State band arriving for practice at the north goal post, deep into the horseshoe. Brown walked the length of the field to talk to the kids.
"I'll probably see you guys tomorrow," he had joked. "But I'll probably be a little too busy to say hello. But I want to tell you how much I admire your band, and appreciate what this place means to college football. We have a great band, and you have a great band, and it should be great tomorrow."
The drummers put down their sticks, and the trumpet players, who had just given a cheer that finished "Texas sucks," sheepishly gathered around the coach and willingly accepted his presence.
He was, after all, a normal guy, and it was a moment they will always remember.
"Too often," he had said as he walked away, we forget what this game really means. It is about those kids, and our kids, and it's important to remember that. College football should be fun."
A day and a few hours later, he was in the middle of the tension, watching as the Longhorns reversed all of the precepts of the game. Eighty-one-year-old Darrell Royal, who watched from the press box as his late friend Woody Hayes was honored at halftime, would tell you that any "big game" will be decided by "turnovers and the kicking game." Although there were positives in the Longhorn kicking game, Texas lost both, and still won.
In pondering its significance, it is important to remember that sport is not a matter of life and death. There are troops standing in harm's way, fighting to keep us safe and free. There are brave volunteers and prideful refugees who are struggling every day to survive the ravages of nature.
But sport does teach us much.
In the locker room after the game, Brown gathered his team around him. They knew at times they had not played well, but they understood they had played hard.
"You won," he had said, "because you never quit. Regardless of what happened, you kept coming back. You had each other, and you believed. There is a lesson in life, there. Keep fighting, stick together, and believe."
Standing on the bench near the north wall of the locker room, Vince Young asked to say something to his teammates.
"I just want to thank the defense," he had said. "Because when we messed up, you guys kept playing and gave us a chance to win."
People had spent up to a $1,000 a ticket, and one military pilot had taken two-weeks leave from combat to come all the way from Iraq to see the game. In the dangerous al Anbar province in Western Iraq, Marines from Texas and Ohio gathered in a chapel at 3:30 in the morning to watch the game.
No, this game wasn't about a trophy, or a championship, and there is much more season left for both of these outstanding teams. But what Ohio State and Texas gave us for almost four hours on Saturday night, September 10, 2005, was a respite from the troubles that seem to constantly surround us.
Brown said he could coach his team hard this week, because you can do that after a victory, particularly one that had obviously correctible flaws. He brushed aside talk of "National Championship," and pointed out that it is important to look at the journey, not the destination. Each week, he pointed out, will present new and different challenges. To win all the games, you must win the next one.
Ken Rucker, the new Longhorn running back coach who is a veteran of the coaching profession, said what you hope for in a game like that is that it is a place "to grow from."
A chance, if you will, to get better.
And the truth is, that's why we loved the game. Because it gave us a message that if a bunch of kids on a football field can fight through adversity and come out a winner, maybe we can to.
Longhorn golf coach John Fields, who watched the game from the Texas bench, said Harvey Penick would have loved it. It really was like a round of golf.
"You start birdie-birdie-par," he said. "Then you are in trouble with a couple of double-bogeys. And you finish eagle, birdie, birdie."
The heroes were many; almost every Longhorn made a play that made a difference. Limas Sweed clutched Young's touchdown pass in a catch that erased tough memories of past "almosts." Billy Pittman realized the work of the summer could be translated into immense success in the fall as the leading receiver. Drew Kelson dropped a sure interception early, and stripped the ball to seal the game late, and Brian Robison ran it down and fell on it. David Pino both believed, and took dead aim on field goals and extra points that made the difference in the game.
The lines, offensive and defensive, dominated play and Michael Griffin and Aaron Harris spectacularly led a defense that absolutely refused to lose. When Selvin Young went out with injury, freshman Jamaal Charles stepped up. And in perhaps the most unorthodox play of the entire game, Ramonce Taylor couldn't hear his teammate's instruction to stay in the end zone on a kickoff return, and somehow went from a dead stop to a 35 yard return that almost broke for a touchdown.
As Brown took one last look at the Horseshoe, and as the team headed to the airport for a charter flight that would get them home at 5 a.m., it was important to remember what he had told them before the game.
"I want you to enjoy this, because you are going to be a part of history. Years from now, you can tell your grandkids that you played in this game, in this place."
"And maybe, just maybe, you'll have the opportunity to tell them about believing, and the importance of choosing a target.
"And taking dead aim."