"Do you," said the barker at the carnival at the game of pitch and toss, "choose to play?
"Three pitches for a quarter -- get them in and you win the prize."
I was only 14, but it seemed so easy. Especially when the guy changed the game.
"One ball for a dollar. Hit it, and you get all your money back, and you win the grand prize."
Fourteen dollars later, my allowance for the trip gone, I learned a hard lesson. If you choose to play, it is grand to win, but extremely painful when you lose.
Moments after the final gun had sounded and the second of two dramatic late comeback efforts had failed, Mack Brown gathered his team of 2003 in the locker room for the final time.
"You will have days like this," he said. "And it hurts."
You could feel the emotion, the pain in the room. They had come so far. From a mid-season filled with questions, they entered the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl ranked No. 5 in the country, with a chance to move even higher with a win. Trouble was, Washington State had a lot to play for, too.
The Cougars work under the radar of college football. Their home of Pullman, Wash., is over 300 miles from the nearest big city. On a cold day, and there are a lot of cold days in Pullman, the university swells the town's population to 25,000.
Quietly and almost unnoticed, they are the winningest team in the Pac 10 over the last three years.
Sports writers, fans and oddsmakers overlooked them. So much so that a reporter in the post game press conference asked Mack Brown, "do you feel your team underestimated Washington?"
"No," said Brown curtly, "And it is Washington State."
Even in victory, the Cougars had an identity crisis.
Folks in San Diego had labeled this "the Fifth BCS Bowl," and it lived up to its expectations. Despite some quirks in the usually perfect weather, the Holiday Bowl had been as wonderful as ever. Its hospitality is unequalled, and it somehow provides excitement that carries games right to the end. But as hard as they tried and as good a face as they put on, the Longhorns probably never got over the disappointment of missing out on an appearance they thought they had earned in the BCS' Fiesta Bowl. The 'Horns could never capture the momentum they had at the end of the regular season, and though they played hard, they did not play well.
Two years ago, Texas came from 19 points down to defeat Washington, 47-43. It was the largest comeback in school history. Tuesday, the 'Horns almost overcame a 16-point margin.
For most of 60 minutes of football, Texas and Washington State challenged each other in a heavyweight fight. Unfortunately for Texas, the Cougars seized a window of opportunity in the third quarter which turned the game. A perfectly thrown long touchdown pass. A punt return where the return man was stopped by Michael Griffin, only to pull away and turn it into a long gain. And then, a questionable fumble recovery for a touchdown. Nineteen points in the space of a few minutes in the third quarter.
But Texas never quit. As the writers left the press box for the field with five minutes left in the game, the Longhorns were down by 16 points. When they emerged from the elevator, Texas had cut the lead to eight points.
Twice in the final minutes of the game, Texas fought to tie the game. When Roy Williams fought his way to the Cougar 11 the first time, everyone in the stadium thought the game might be headed to the first overtime in Brown's coaching career. The coaches had even selected the two-point conversion try play.
What we know about the game of college football is there are grueling hours upon hours where student athletes and coaches, trainers and strength staffs, work for this moment. And in that space, both teams have prepared as hard and as well as they can. Six o'clock in the morning in Pullman, Wash., is just the same as six in the morning in Austin.
And twice with the game on the line, Washington State's senior-laden defense stopped Texas. The scoreboard, which had been so friendly to the Longhorns in 2001, now was cold and stark. Washington State 28, Texas 20.
In the locker room, Brown had talked about the seniors and their legacy. He spoke again of how teams can use defeat positively. LSU, he said, was in a 35-20 losing locker room to Texas in the Cotton Bowl a year ago, and now will play for a National Championship in a few days.
When he had finished, just as the team was about to break, one more person chose to speak.
Roy Williams knew about defeat here at QUALCOMM Stadium. In his first year, he was part of a Texas team that came up just short of Oregon. He was also part of the victory over Washington, and was the catalyst of the last ditch effort to win this one. In leading a senior class which had become the winningest in school history, he had, more than anyone on the team, come of age.
And Roy had something he wanted to say.
"I want to thank all of you," he said, "for supporting us seniors. You never want to lose your last game, escpecailly when it comes in a Texas uniform. But we have something really good going here. We lost here in 2000, and we came back and accomplished what we have.
"Keep it going. Don't stop now. Keep it going."
With that, the meeting was over, and the team that had done so much left the locker room for the final time. Brown had told them earlier in the week that this moment would come -- the time when you part as a team, and some of the guys you may never see again.
In time, the legacy of this team will be realized, and that legacy is considerable. The statistics will show that it finished with 10 wins, the first time in school history that a team has done that for three straight years.
Most of all, however, what this team did for Texas was never quit. They set as their team goal "Finish," and the finish wasn't what they would have hoped.
But this team did finish, and more important, they fought to the end. What they leave us with is the shining example of the power, and the purpose of resetting goals. After the Arkansas loss, after the Oklahoma debacle, a whole lot of folks gave up on these guys. In that space, the members of this team faced a decision, and their answer to the critics was simple: They never gave up on themselves.
The message Roy and the seniors left this very young football team was one of hope. Sure, defeat hurts in the worst way, especially when you have a lifetime to remember it.
But if we choose to play, we play the game knowing that it is not simply a cliché to talk about the "Joy of victory and the agony of defeat."
So in its final epitaph, may this team be remembered for what it did, rather than what it didn't. History will record it so. At its finish, it could well be the team that best defined a game where spirit is paramount, where will is profound.
And most of all, where pride, heart and togetherness prevailed, all the way to the finish.