Far below in the vast auditorium, the Preacher was talking of Christmas. The choir and the soloists had reminded everyone of the season, and through the net screen, you could see the trees and the valley that leads to the river. The sermon came from a scripture in the Old Testament and it was about what you can give God for Christmas.
Six rows from the top of the main level of the amphitheater, Rick Nabors sat with his arm around his wife. His hair is thinning now. In fact, it is darn near gone and his solid but still-in-good-shape frame carries a few extra pounds.
However, as Christmas Day nears and the Longhorns' trip this year to the Cotton Bowl for a New Year's Day game against LSU approaches, somewhere in the photographs hanging in the chambers of the mind, he had to remember.
Thirty-three years before, on a bitterly cold day in Dallas, Nabors became a significant actor in a human tragedy acted out on the highest-profile stage in college football.
Every Longhorns football player in the Mack Brown era knows the story. It is about the courage of a little guy named Freddie Steinmark, who started at safety in the 1969 National Championship season. The week after Texas beat Arkansas for the National Championship in early December, Steinmark lost his leg to bone cancer. A year-and-a-half later, he was gone. His courage is one of the bench marks of Longhorns football that Brown refers to as he talks of the pride of the past and the courage to face challenges.
The nation (an incredible 28 million fans had watched the Arkansas game) was spellbound when Steinmark, on crutches and missing his left leg that had been amputated at the hip, entered the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1, 1970. The day was gray and the field was a mud bog from a week of cold, rainy temperatures. Prior to the coming of the current bowl system, the game was probably the most significant bowl game in modern history. UT had won the National Championship by closing the regular season with a 15-14 victory at Arkansas. Notre Dame brought exceeding glamour to the game by making its first bowl appearance since the famed Four Horsemen played Stanford in the 1925 Rose Bowl.
All of that we know in legend, but the secret to the game of football is that it is a team sport, and when somebody goes down, somebody has to post. That is where our story begins.
Nabors was a junior on the team. The son of a former star at Texas Tech in the days of the Border Conference, he had grown up in Austin. After graduating from McCallum High School, he had gone to junior college and joined the Longhorns in fall 1969. As the backup safety in a season where the Horns crushed a lot of opponents, he had registered five interceptions and a bunch of playing time.
Midway through the fourth quarter of the Arkansas game, Chuck Dicus, the Razorbacks' All-American receiver, had gotten behind Steinmark. Realizing he was about to give up a touchdown that would have meant almost certain victory (Arkansas led, 14-8), Steinmark intentionally interfered with Dicus at the UT 10-yard line. A pass interception in the UT end zone stopped the drive, and as every faithful orange-clad follower knows, the Longhorns went on to take the lead with less than four minutes remaining.
No one could have known that defending the pass to Dicus would be the last football play Steinmark would ever make. That heart-wrenching story was yet to be told, but Texas still had a game to win and Darrell Royal still has a vivid memory of his conversation on the sidelines with his trusted assistant and defensive guru Mike Campbell.
"I don't know what's the matter with Freddie, but he's lost a step and just can't seem to keep up," Campbell said. "I am going to have to make a change."
So it was at that moment in the Cotton Bowl Classic on the first day of the 1970s, Nabors became the starting safety at Texas.
"He came in and did his job," Royal said. "He was a good, solid player. He never asked for any credit. He just stepped up when Mike called his number."
In the 33 years since that day, Nabors has lived his life the way he played the game, solidly and dependably. He started at safety for Texas during the next season as the Longhorns extended their winning streak to 30 games. He took a short look at becoming a coach but chose instead to enter the field of animal research. Thirty years later, he runs a state-wide network of animal disease laboratories, testing for toxics that might appear in the foods that we eat.
He's got a wife and family now, and on Sunday mornings, you will usually find him at about the same place at the early service at Riverbend Church as he was for Gerald Mann's Christmas message this past Sunday.
As the sermon painted a picture of how to live life, Nabors came to mind. A lot of people know the story of Steinmark, but Nabors' story is just as important. Freddie's is a story of bravery and courage and Rick's is the story of the value of a person who is willing to take the challenge of life, even if the spotlight is somewhere else. Simply put, do whatever it takes to make a difference.
The message on Sunday talked about "doing justice," which translates to doing what is right. It talked about being merciful and that was obvious when Nabors' eyes glistened as he talked about seeing Steinmark for the first time in the dressing room, knowing that his friend would never play the game he loved again or walk on his own two legs.
Most of all, however, the message was about humility, of being humble and doing a job regardless of who gets the credit and of giving of yourself so that those around you will be a little better for it.
In his time, Steinmark gave us all a message of courage against odds and he left us way too soon. Somehow, as the bright sun sparkled against the morning chill, Nabors reminded us all that "what is," is just as important as "what might have been."
The real message of Christmas is that life is a gift. Each of us, through our own journey, faces challenges and choices. Our job is to give back, make the necessary adjustments and play the game.
Merry Christmas and I wish you well.