Bill Little commentary: The Christmas time
Dec. 24, 2009
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
The coaches had just put the Texas Longhorns through their final practice before breaking for the Christmas holiday. The players were celebrating the Big 12 Championship and bowl gifts that equipment manager Chip Robertson keeps handing out.
Outside, the morning mist was losing its battle with the sun, and in the team meeting, coaches were reminding the players to drive carefully, and be sure and report in when they reached their homes.
Frank Denius had watched the Texas defense carefully, as he does at almost every practice inside "The Bubble" -- the indoor practice facility on the fields that bear his name. And as he watched Will Muschamp put his young defenders through their drills, Denius remembered another time, and another place.
"Sixty-five years ago today," he would say, "I had a rifle in my hands as we fought to hold the town of Malmedy in Belgium from 100,000 Germans. If we had lost, they could have cut off our troops and possibly won the war. It was cold -- there was four feet of snow on the ground. Less than a week before, 110 U.S. soldiers had been massacred in a field near where we fought -- the snow covered where they lay."
Thirty-five of Denius' comrades froze to death that night. It was three days before Christmas, 1944.
"We didn't know what day it was, all we knew was we had to keep fighting," he said.
Denius and his fellow members of the 30th Infantry held that day, and the next, and the next, until mid-January, when the battle finally ended. Frank, along with West Point graduate Lt. Col. Greg Gadson, have played a major role in teaching this 2009 version of the Texas Longhorns the difference from battles on the football field, and war as it is fought in places like Belgium in World War II and Iraq and Afghanistan today.
And that perspective gives Mack Brown, his coaches and his Longhorns, pause to think about what they are thankful for as Christmas 2009 approaches.
Cleve Bryant, the associate athletics director for football operations, had told the team in their meeting on Tuesday that "The best gifts are not the ones you get, but the ones you give."
If that is true, then it is the gift they have given all of us that has endeared this football team to the people who work with them, as well as the fans and families who have cheered them. It calls to mind something that Red McCombs wrote in the preface to the first "One Heartbeat" book I wrote with Coach Brown in 2001.
He was talking about what sport can do for the psyche of a community.
"Some years ago, when I owned the San Antonio Spurs," Red wrote, "I was speaking to 500 women at a conference in San Antonio. The subject of my speech did not relate directly to the Spurs, so I didn't talk about them at all. During the question-and-answer session, one woman in the audience stood and asked, 'Doesn't it bother you that a pro basketball team gets so much emphasis in this town when so many more important things are ignored?'
"'That's a good question,' I answered. 'I didn't plan on talking about the Spurs today, but since you brought it up, I will. Last night, the San Antonio Spurs played before 16,000 people in Hemisfair Arena, and a nationwide audience heard them on radio and saw them on television.
"'Today, there are laborers and secretaries all over this town who don't work for the team, but who are walking with a quicker step because our little ol' San Antonio Spurs snapped a nine-game winning streak of the big-city Philadelphia 76ers last night. That's why it is important. It gives them something to be proud about.'
"One lady started clapping, and pretty soon all of them were standing and cheering. People who feel good make way better workers than those who don't, and all over this country, sports are that important to people."
When Colt McCoy was speaking on behalf of all of the National Football Foundation's scholar-athletes at the College Football Hall of Fame Banquet at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, he drew a rousing applause when he talked about thanking God for the men and women who have fought and who have died for our freedom -- among those, the freedom to play a game."
Frank Denius and those who serve give us a stern reminder of the price of that freedom, of times then and now where young people have laid down their lives and put themselves in harm's way.
It was against that backdrop that Cleve and Mack talked to the players, and saw them jump for joy as they anticipated their trips home, where they, some perhaps for the first time in their young lives, would be able to give more than they received as they shared the things they had earned as Big 12 Champions, heading to the BCS National Championship game.
I remember one Holiday Bowl when I was talking to one of our future stars from inner city Houston. Standing in the hallway of the plush Marriott Harborview Hotel in San Diego, I asked him if he had had a good Christmas.
"I was Christmas!" he had said.
So as this 2009 football team takes a break from its preparation for the 2010 BCS National Championship game, they head to their homes to celebrate Christmas -- each in their own way. On the night of December 26th, they will return to Austin, ready for three intense practices concentrating on Alabama before breaking again and assembling in California on the afternoon of January 1.
Cleve and Red are right: the operative word here, for all those who are part of the Texas Longhorns community of friends, family and fans, is simply "Pride."
The future, we have learned long ago, is a hope and not a promise. But what we do know, as we embrace a team that has won 26 of its last 27 football games, is that in the tough times that many face in today's world, Texas football has made legions walk with a quicker step, a more certain smile, and with all respect, a little swagger.
Finally, it is about a fellow I once saw on a street in New Orleans, around Christmastime at a distant Sugar Bowl. He was a man of the street, dressed in his black suit and playing his saxophone near the French Market. He was closing up his case when we came upon him, likely heading off to catch the last of the Christmas Eve service at a nearby cathedral.
"How are you today?" I remember asking.
He paused for a moment, looking at the scant change in his tips cup.
And then he smiled and said, "I choose to be happy."
Merry Christmas, may you find happiness in the joy of the season (and you are welcome to put all kinds of meaning in that), and Hook 'Em.