Most of all, however, the Texas Longhorns made a game that could have been meaningless something to remember.
Oct. 21, 2012
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
The loudest cheers in the celebratory Longhorn locker room following the 56-50 victory over Baylor in Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium Saturday night didn't come from the words of the coaches and players, nor from the exhilarating presence and comments from Admiral William McRaven or Nike's Phil Knight.
Dwarfed in stature by the large people who play the game, two little boys - ages seven and eight - stood bravely as their stories were told. And the roar came when the players learned that one of them was now free from cancer.
There are those who say some folks can't see the forest for the trees, so let me help you folks. For these kids who had just seen their first football game on this Dedication Day, this was their forest. And they were the trees.
All week, the Texas players had worked to shed the memory of a bad experience in Dallas and replace it with a determination to play this Baylor game for multiple purposes. By their nature, football players and coaches are competitors. It is not a game for the timid or the weak. Redemption comes only with the next kickoff. So in that sense, the game was going to be about pride.
Dating back to his years at North Carolina, Mack Brown has always picked one game where his staff and players would dedicate their week's efforts to someone who has made a special difference in their lives. So when the staff picked this game, team members and coaches chose someone in their lives who had been stricken with some form of cancer. It wasn't hard, as the booming voice of KOKE-FM's Bob Cole reminded the crowd via the public address Saturday, over 105,000 people in Texas - more than the stadium's capacity - will be diagnosed with the disease this year.
So all week as they prepared for the game, the players were asked to call the person for whom they were playing the game and tell them they were dedicating their efforts Saturday night for them. Mack made it highly personal. He would be coaching for his younger brother back home in Cookeville, TN, who is battling leukemia.
Adm. McRaven, who was honored as a Texas Exes distinguished alum, served as the honorary captain. He had spoken to the team on Saturday morning, and brought an insight of the lessons of life that the players were learning with their experiences - good and bad - through the game that they played. The head of U.S. Special Forces and a true American hero, McRaven is a 1977 UT graduate. Knight, a former member of the University of Oregon track team who started Nike by selling shoes out of the trunk of his car, encouraged the team to see the future and grasp the challenge.
"Just do it," he said, using the familiar Nike slogan to the delight of the team members.
Years ago in his younger days before his television show became an American icon, the late Andy Griffith did a comic record where a country bumpkin wanders into a crowd of folks in a stadium and is amazed by what he sees. The title was, "What It Was, Was Football."
Those familiar with the game as it has existed through the years might question that after Saturday in DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium. What is becoming more obvious each week is that the game that we have all known as college football is evolving into something very different. Some have called it "basketball on turf." Saturday, it was more like a tennis match, with teams serving blistering aces and the victor being the one who has a two score lead when the cannon sounds and the Tower turns orange on the big TV screen extending from the Freddie Steinmark scoreboard.
If purists of what the game was are frustrated with what it has become, they are awash in a sea of excitement from the folks who are happily riding the roller coaster of the present. If you didn't have fun at the game Saturday, you are hard to please.
The mark of a competitor is not that they never lose (and sometimes even get hammered), it is what they do about it. Phil Knight told the team about an incident where one of his Nike spokespersons had missed a shot that cost his team a league playoff game. Hours after the contest was over, folks noticed a light on in the film room. And there sat a young player named Michael Jordan, staring at a television monitor. The tape had long since run out, and all that was on that screen was snow. But in his mind, Jordan still saw, and the record shows he went out to fix it.
That was the mantra of Texas last week. Did the team practice harder? Maybe. Did the coaches spend more time trying to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it? Absolutely. Most of all, they did what teams do. They pulled together and played for each other.
And they played for those whom they loved.
The offense reached the balance the coaches have been seeking. The `Horns rushed for 251 yards and threw for 275, for a total output of 525 yards. Six different players, starting with running back Daje Johnson's 84-yard touchdown run on the first play and including five touchdowns by running back Joe Bergeron and the first in the career of freshman sensation running back Jonathan Gray, had rushing yards. Quarterback David Ash completed 19 of 31 passes for 274 yards and one TD, and ten different players caught those passes. Mike Davis led with six catches for 148 yards, including a 67-yarder that set up a score.
One of the unsung heroes of this victory will be punter Alex King, who dropped three of his four punts inside the 20. Nick Rose kicked off nine times, with six of them sailing out of the end zone, and it would be wrong not to mention the placement kick effort led by Anthony Fera, who was rock-solid after an injury plagued early season. And let's not forget the special teams effort which helped D. J. Monroe on his way to a 70 yard kickoff return that set up one of the oh-so-critical answers to a Baylor score.
Defense, where it is battling to win in a shutout or a shootout, always comes down to personal accountability. Perhaps nowhere in team sport is their more of a "mano a mano" atmosphere. It is the defensive back against the receiver, the linebacker guarding the middle, and the defensive line trying to stuff the other team at the line. And in a game where it seemed that no one was going to "break serve" (to use the tennis analogy), it would be the defense which would turn the day.
Late in the third quarter, Baylor trailed 49-43. For one of the few times, the Texas offense had gone three-and-out. The Bears had almost reached midfield when linebacker Steve Edmond knocked the ball loose from Baylor's Glasco Martin and safety Mykkele Thompson recovered at the BU 46.
With Gray and Bergeron doing the pounding, Texas had reached the Bear 15 when Ash hit Davis on a screen pass that resulted in a TD and a 56-43 lead.
Midway through the final quarter, King pinned the Bears at their own six, and the `Horns' young defense fought and scratched and clawed trying to stop the nation's No. 1 offense as Baylor drove 94 yards in 15 plays to cut the lead to 56-50. But though Baylor scored, the defense had held long enough. It took the usually quick-strike Bears five minutes and twenty four seconds to drive for the TD. Still, with 1:57 remaining, it would be up to the special teams and the offense to seal the victory.
They did that, recovering the on-side kick attempt, and running out the clock as the Bears watched helplessly after exhausting their time outs.
Texas had won because it scored more points than the other team. It is standard procedure for the Longhorns to take a win and try to get better after it, so the players expect another week of solid practice. At 5-2, each game is critical in the Longhorns' quest to take another step forward on its way up from the disappointing season of 2010. It is still a very, very young team, and one which has had an inordinate number of injuries defensively.
But the players, the coaches and the staff who fought through the week will not forget their journey. They answered their critics who said they had no heart with a courage and determination within the confines of a game. They showed cynics who said they did not compete that they were not afraid to fight.
Most of all, however, they made a game that could have been meaningless something to remember. It wasn't battle, because they do that in war. It wasn't about overcoming disaster, because sport should never be mistaken for the real definition of that word.
Instead, this was entirely personal - about you and the guy next to you. It was about something that you alone could do that might make someone's day a little better, and doing it in their honor.
And if you missed that, then you really can't see the forest...or the tree.