Oct. 5, 2008
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
BOULDER, Colo. -- It would have been easy for young freshman kicker Justin Tucker to be excited about the opportunity to blast the football into the thin night air of the mountains as the Longhorns kicked off against the Colorado Buffaloes Saturday.
Kickers and punters love the elevation at the base of the east range of the Rocky Mountains. Colorado often uses it to remind opponents that they are supposed to struggle with the thin air. It may be the only football stadium in America where a pre-game video board contains the message: "Welcome to Folsom Field, home of the University of Colorado Buffaloes. Elevation, 5,330 feet."
Climb to the top of Folsom Field, and you understand what they are talking about. The mountain air can take its toll on the unsuspecting visitor. Play golf in the mountains, and you drop down about three clubs. "Two-hundred yards? I believe I'll hit a nine-iron...."
So when Justin approached that ball to start the game, he had every reason to be thinking about himself and the kind of distance he could achieve. Every reason, that is, but one.
On the freshman's forearm was a white arm band with a single word scrawled on it.
"Tolly," it read.
Such was the back-story of Texas's impressive 38-14 victory over the Buffaloes. The Longhorn family this season has learned a rare lesson in the generation of personal gratification in sports. It may sound trite, but this team has played with the emphasis that this game is not about "me," it is about "us."
Mack Brown has always had a "dedication game," where players have dedicated a game or a season to someone particularly meaningful in their lives. And like all teams, it is not unusual to have fun times where game balls are given to staff members with ties to certain schools. Colorado, for example, was a stopping place for Assistant AD for Strength and Conditioning Jeff Madden and Athletic Trainer for Football Kenny Boyd, and assistant coach Bobby Kennedy grew up in Boulder.
But for the kickers and the defensive tackles in particular, and the team in general, this game would be about the coach they affectionately call "Tolly."
Mike Tolleson, who has responsibility for the Longhorn special teams, as well as the defensive tackles, missed practice on Thursday to attend the funeral of his 83-year-old father in Anniston, Ala. While Tolly was gone that day, burying a World War II and Korea veteran who had proudly played on Anniston's 1942 state championship football team, Mack Brown and the team decided to give him a game ball from the Colorado game Saturday.
That is why Justin wore his name on his wristband, and why the dressing room erupted with chants of "Toll-eee!" after the game.
And it was in no small part a reason for the inspired play of the interior Texas defensive line, where Roy Miller and his cohorts continue to just get better and better.
This was a dangerous game on paper for the Longhorns. For a team that has suddenly been thrust into the limelight on an unexpected trip from being out of the preseason predictions to a No. 5 national ranking, this young team had every reason to stumble on the way up the mountain.
Instead, it was deadly with its efficiency. While not perfect, it rode its "consistently good" mantra right through the Buffaloes to a 28-0 lead, and never looked back. The coming-of-age defense shut down a Buffs team that had shown signs of excellence in an upset win over West Virginia. Colt McCoy found a new "running buddy" in an old hand, as senior Chris Ogbonnaya rushed for 71 yards on nine carries and caught six passes for 116 more.
Despite being under pressure from constant blitzing all night, Colt McCoy completed 23-of-30 passes for 262 yards and two touchdowns.
And punters John Gold and Trevor Gerland took advantage of the light air for high, well placed kicks which limited the dangerous Josh Smith to just nine return yards on two attempts.
Hunter Lawrence remained perfect in extra points and field goals, with a 46-yarder, and Tucker did what he came to do, kicking off into the end zone.
When the team got back to Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium about 3:30 a.m. on Sunday, I watched as the tired unit gathered their bags and headed for a few hours of sleep. Some of the coaches went directly to their video machines to break down the game in preparation for next Saturday's Texas-Oklahoma meeting in Dallas.
I dug out my notes from a column I had done a few years back on Mike Tolleson, where he talked about his career, and his dad.
"Along the way," he had said about life, "you are gonna hit some pot holes. But my dad, when I was real young, used to always talk to be about, 'Don't be a braggart,' be humble, put in a day's work. He talked about hard work, and how you deal with those things determines who you are," Tolly had said then.
And then he said this: "It gets back to the fact that we care about our players, we love them and we want them to be successful. I tell them all the time, I'm not in it for Mike Tolleson. My personal trophies that I sit back and ponder are the kids...are my players."
The next weeks will determine how the record of this team will be remembered. But for the coaches, the staff, and the players, there is a depth here that is unique.
And as night fell and the long shadows cast from the Rocky Mountains down toward Folsom Field, it revealed again the basic truth of the mountains. With each peak, there is another that is higher, just beyond.
It's that way in football, and it is that way in life.
Mike Tolleson said one more thing back there in that interview after the Longhorns had won the 2005 National Championship.
"All a good coach is, is a good teacher. You can't be one, without the other."
And now, he's got a game ball to prove it.