Bill Little commentary: Big hat
Sept. 25, 2009
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
It was a night practice in Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, and to be honest, I don’t remember whether it was in the spring or pre-season practice in the fall – and it doesn’t really matter. Darrell Royal had walked in with a friend and had joined Mack Brown as the team went through their scrimmage
In the press box, folks wondered who the trim young guy in the jeans and baseball cap was.
“Oh,” I remember saying, “he’s probably one of Darrell’s friends. You know how he loves country music – he’s probably a singer.”
As the scrimmage ended and we went to the field for the team huddle, I looked again at Coach and his friend. Coach Royal caught my eye and motioned me over.
“Bill,” he said, “I’d like you to meet George Strait.”
That was the night Mack Brown first met the country music legend who will join the Longhorns as an honorary captain Saturday afternoon prior to the game with UTEP. In the years that have followed, a mutual friendship with Joe Jamail and Coach Royal and his wife, Edith, have drawn Mack and George close together.
Brown, an avowed lover of music, and Strait, who grew up in a small town near San Antonio where Friday Night Lights meant football in Texas, have shared stories and golf games, and when Mack learned that Strait was performing in Cedar Park on Friday night, he asked him if he would be an honorary captain at the game.
The bond continues a link with country music that Royal started years ago, and the irony of the odyssey of Strait, Brown, Royal and Jamail to Saturday’s appearance is pretty powerful.
In the early 1970s, Darrell Royal was blending his role as one of the nation’s premier football coaches with his love for country music. He formed a friendship with a honky-tonk singer named Willie Nelson. Royal’s belief in him and his encouragement were instrumental in turning Nelson from a Saturday nightclub singer into one of the most recognized performers in the world.
Jamail was already one of the best-known plaintiff lawyers in the country, and when he won the Pennzoil-Texaco suit, he became the richest.
George Strait’s dad was a junior high math teacher, and he grew up in the mid-1960s with roots in the cattle ranch they called home and a love of the rock music of The Beatles.
Meanwhile, Mack Brown was learning to pick a guitar back home in Cookeville, Tenn., and was actually part of a band. So the ESPN commercial where he plays and sings isn’t really much of a stretch for him.
After he graduated from high school, George eloped to Mexico with his high school sweetheart, Norma, and then he joined the army. While stationed in Hawaii in 1973, he auditioned with a country band. When Brown was getting his first full-time coaching job, George was getting his first exposure as the voice of country music.
When George returned to Texas in 1975, he enrolled at Southwest Texas State (now Texas State University), and answered a bulletin board ad for a singer in a band. The rest, as they say, is history.
With his trademark hat, a satin voice and a keen eye for the potential of great lyrics, Strait has gone on to become the most successful recording artist in country music. He has sold more than 67 million albums and has achieved 57 No. 1 singles, the most ever by any artist. He has had 33 platinum and multi-platinum albums – more than anyone in the history of recorded music except the Beatles and Elvis Presley.
Brown’s choice of his friend reflects the direction he has often taken the “honorary captain” honor. The first was Lance Armstrong, who had just won the Tour de France for the first time when he joined the ‘Horns on the field in 1999.
“George has meant so much to the state of Texas,” Brown said. “He comes to a lot of games, but we wanted him to have a special recognition as a part of our tradition. Throughout his career, he has stood for all of the right things. We teach our players that, ‘You have to be consistently good to be great,’ and nobody personifies that more than George Strait. The crowds he draws and the records he sells make that really clear.”
Edith Royal remembers that while Nelson was really popular in the mid-1970s, somebody asked Darrell to come over to San Marcos to listen to this young singer at a local club. Later, he and Edith traveled to Gruene Hall to hear the same young man. Once, after Royal quit coaching Edith says, he had Nelson and Strait as guests at a Cotton Bowl game. The three had been on the field together.
“As they walked through the stands to the press box elevator,” Edith recalls, “people would say, ‘Hi Darrell,’ and ‘Hi Willie,’ and ignore George. Finally he said, ‘I’ll tell you one thing…if I ever go anywhere with you two again, I am going to wear my hat!’”
He was kidding, of course. Of all of the stars who have in some way touched the Texas football program, from Royal to Mack Brown, there is not one who is more humble and down-to-earth than George Strait.
He was kidding, and here’s why: When George Strait puts on his hat, he becomes recognized as one of the greatest entertainers in history. That is WHAT he is. It is not WHO he is.
Those who know him will tell you he is a rare talent, and an even rarer person. And for one brief moment Saturday, he gets to be a small-town kid right in the middle of big-time football. The bonds of friendship and respect have brought him to that space, and earned him the right to be there.
And so it is with all of them, these men who have bonded as friends beyond their natural space. Jamail is recognized as the most feared opponent ever in the courtroom, and yet has one of the biggest hearts known to man. Brown and Royal and Nelson and Strait are the best at what they do, and even better at who they are.
George Strait, as he stands on Joe Jamail Field at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium to represent the Longhorns, is a perfect choice to represent the values Brown seeks. Because the lesson this team is trying to learn is the message he reflects – consistency and excellence. Good, to become great.
It is about being who you are. It never was about the hat.