Bill Little commentary: Understanding the challenge
Nov. 12, 2010
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
It is always an interesting juxtaposition—the intermingling of a high profile college football game with the ceremonies surrounding Veterans Appreciation Day at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. And when Oklahoma State comes in to play the Longhorns Saturday, it will happen all over again.
The quandary, of course, is the reverence of recognizing the great tradition of the legendary stadium with the excitement and purpose of an athletic event that is part of the culture of the university it represents. As Mack Brown has said, “We are in the education business during the week and the entertainment business on the weekend.
And sometimes, the two coincide.
I was thinking about that Thursday as I was driving in to work, preparing to take assistant coach Duane Akina to his speaking engagement with the Austin Longhorn Club. It would be my job to introduce Duane, and it was a double-duty day because Thursday was also Veterans Day, and the weekend’s activities surrounding Veterans Appreciation Day were high on the list of priorities.
Here, too, was a football team that was going through one of those obligatory “learning experiences” that seem to eventually creep into every era and every part of the life of students—or the lives of everybody for that matter.
How do you best define the reality of tough times in an upbeat setting like the anticipation of a Saturday football game? As important as a football game is, it is important to remember what baseball coach Augie Garrido has said about games: “You don’t ‘work’ games,” he says, “you ‘play’ them.
As I thought of the history of Texas and its encounters with veterans whose lives have made a difference for this country, and given that I was about to introduce Hawaii-native Akina, my mind went back to the Longhorns’ trip to the Islands to play the University of Hawaii in 1995. As it turned out, the game happened to be scheduled at the same time as the 50th anniversary of VJ Day—the day World War II officially ended in 1945.
It was a powerful vision—the young football players taking in the sights of the Island of Oahu, along with the aged veterans who were part of what has been called “The Greatest Generation.” President Bill Clinton was there for a speech, and in one of the truly moving moments of the weekend, old sailors and soldiers gathered on the deck of a giant aircraft carrier and threw wreathes into the sea.
“When we are gone,” asked one, “who will be there to tell our story?”
Mack Brown has answered that question for The University. In his travels to the Middle East last year, and in his continued support of America’s fighting men and women, he has made sure the history of the stadium is never forgotten. The heroic efforts of the decorated Army veteran Frank Denius are constant reminders. In freshman walk-on football player Nate Boyer, a former Army Green Beret Staff Sergeant who served nine years including two tours of duty in Iraq, this year’s Texas team has its own up-close-and-personal look at a modern American hero.
But what struck me most of all on that drive to campus was the messages we get from sport, and the messages sport can take from life.
On that trip to Hawaii, former head coach John Mackovic and his staff did a good job of educating the players about history. And the crowning moment of that came when former University of Texas President Robert Berdahl, a noted historian, addressed the team on the day of the game.
“What did you talk to them about?” I asked. To which he replied, “I told them about the Yorktown.”
Those of you who have seen the movie “Midway,” or have studied history at all, know the story of the USS Yorktown. After suffering severe damage in the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Yorktown was restored to limited fighting condition by crews that worked around the clock to get her seaworthy again. When what was left of the US fleet departed for the Battle of Midway Island—an epic encounter which changed the course of the War in the Pacific in World War II – the Yorktown was in the armada.
The courageous effort of the crew led to the ship’s being a factor in the Midway naval battle, but in one of the few Japanese victories in that encounter, the ship was sunk.
Berdahl had told the team of the valiant teamwork, of the inspired effort, and of the dedication of those who fought so hard to get the ship ready to join the battle. I can remember where I was standing in the stadium in Honolulu when I grinned and told him, “Well, I hope you didn’t tell them that it was sunk.”
“As a matter of fact,” he replied, “I did.”
And then he added, “I thought it was important for them to realize what was accomplished, and yet they needed to see that every story doesn’t have a happy ending. Life doesn’t always turn out like you would like for it to.”
As I introduced Duane, and talked about the fact that from his grandmother’s house you could see the check points which the Japanese had used to guide their planes in the bombing of Pearl Harbor, I thought of how much what Bob Berdahl said that day fit with the struggles of a football team fifteen years later.
It was the same message the Longhorns got last year from another veteran, now General Greg Gadsen, who lost both of his legs to an IED (improvised explosive device) in Iraq. His message to the team was that you can’t control your circumstances, but you can choose how you deal with them.
That is why this weekend, Texas will embark on what the Longhorns are calling “a three-game season.”
And that is why, on this weekend, we will remember the past with honor, even as the team approaches its newest challenge with hope.