Somewhere beyond the sea, in a land where little kids dream and the heart overrides the mind if only for a minute there is Christmas.
It may come on a lonely battlefield, or in a hospice, or it may come down the chimney with trees and lights and presents. In the space of a moment, it is there. And what you learn is, Christmas is not a date or a time. It is a feeling.
And so it was that the Texas Longhorns gathered on Christmas, 2003. They began with a practice in the rare rain which came in the morning, and celebrated the afternoon with a lavish buffet and fun sketches and even a visit from old Santa himself.
"What you learn," Mack Brown had said, "is that as you get older, your family expands. We are really lucky here to have two families -- our original family, and our football family."
Christmas in San Diego has become a Texas tradition, just as the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl has become a great option for Big 12 teams in bowl seasons. Not even the light drizzle of the morning could dampen the good feelings and good will offered by this city by the sea.
With the bowl game still six days away, the Christmas Day practice was like a Monday practice of game week. And it took some quick adjusting to make it work. The good folks at La Jolla High School offered the 'Horns their artifical grass stadium for the day's practice, and like an army shifting camps, managers and trainers and film guys quickly moved equipment from the facility at the University of California-San Diego.
What they found 15 minutes down the road was a stunning setting, even in the gloom of the clouds. Just beyond the field to the west was the Pacific Ocean, and the surface of the stadium was the same on which the Longhorns work in their indoor facility back home.
Brown cut the practice short because of the rain, but Texas still got in a good day's work.
"We finished and had the guys sing Christmas songs," said Brown. "And then we had them run one lap so they could say we made them run on Christmas day. That'll give 'em a chance to tell folks back home how tough life is."
To underscore his message about family, Brown asked his players to be sure they had called their folks back home. And then he reminded the guys that the skits they had planned for the afternoon dinner should be "G" rated, given an audience which will include coaches' families and several players' wives.
As the Longhorns left La Jolla High and headed back to UCSD and the buses wound through the homes and vistas of one of the prettiest settings in America, the gentle rain continued to fall in the canyons and on the hills. The needed moisture was a blessing to county scarred by tragic wildfires this fall. The evidence of the disaster is not visible in the areas the Longhorns have visited, but the impact on the city has been immense. One of the "red coats," the volunteers who help so much with the bowl, lost his house in the fires.
More prevalent in this town in this Christmas season is the pride, the patriotism and the natural apprehension evidenced by the thousands of military personnel stationed here.
Of the almost 8,000 Holiday Bowl tickets sold to UT fans, over 650 were purchased by Texas fans to be given to Marine and Navy personnel. That is a message that has not been lost on Brown, or his team and staff. Keeping the troops in their thoughts and prayers has been a readily accepted assignment for this football team.
The tickets, by the way, are still for sale. In 2000, Texas sold almost 8,800 tickets. In 2001, after the loss to Colorado suddenly thrust Texas here at a late date, only 5,500 were taken. This year's response, considering the Longhorn fans had made other plans prior to the Big 12 Championship game, has been remarkable.
Still, at $44 a ticket, Assistant AD Mark Harrison feels Texas will surpass the 2000 mark in sales, and he is hopeful that sales on Friday and Monday when the Ticket office is open will take this year even past the 9,000 sold for the 1996 Fiesta Bowl.
The gift to the troops on behalf of the Longhorns has had a groundswell of support, and Harrison hopes the Christmas season will bring more.
As the Longhorns headed to their Christmas buffet, they could look across San Diego Bay to the great ships of the US Navy. On Saturday, they will visit one of those ships.
For now, at Christmas, it is important to remember that men and women stand in harm's way so that all of this can happen in freedom.
There, in a land far beyond the sea, in constant vigils here at home, and in the warmth of the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego, it is Christmas Day.
And wherever you are this day, may it bring you hope, joy and love.
All of those things, after all, are not about a place or a date. They are about a feeling.