Why the Texas Longhorns Must Lose This Weekend
Fathers, children, and when glorious runs come to their ends
My Dad was a successful businessman, a mama's boy named Billy Bob who matured into a Bill. A guy whose constant traveling probably cost him his marriage. The two years after the divorce were a whirlwind of change: my mother's remarriage, the move out of state with me and my three brothers and two sisters in tow, the death of my stepfather in an automobile accident, and our crash landing back in Austin. I was a bruised little boy when my father, in an effort to reconnect, started inviting his kids, one by one, to University of Texas football games. I didn't know it then, but he was sharing his passion.
I was too little to understand the game, but I remember the woodsy smell of his pipe-smoking business partner, the polite excitement buzzing around us as the band streamed out around the track and burst into The Eyes of Texas. The beautiful twirler in sequins. The players gliding down to the end zone for another touchdown, another win. There was always another win. My first game was in 1968 at the start of a glorious run for the Texas Longhorns on their way to titles in 1969 and 1970. I didn't understand the rules, but I gawked at the scoreboard as the touchdowns piled up. I examined my Dad's smile. I let the warmth of the crowd hold us together.
Soon I was the only sibling going to football games with my Dad. The fall outings held us together during the silences that can creep up between men and their sons. Oddly I wasn't with my Dad the day Texas won the Cotton Bowl to claim that championship. I was at a friend's house for a sleepover, and his father drove us down the Drag. The faded blue sedan crawled down the street as the entire town seemingly jumped up and down and yelped for joy. I'd make the same drive myself many times in years to come: as a drunken high schooler celebrating Earl Campbell's Heisman Trophy year and as a proud fan when Texas beat legendary Nebraska. The Texas Longhorns couldn't lose. Never. Ever. At least not for a few years, and never witnessed by me in person until my Dad took me to Dallas for the annual Texas-Oklahoma matchup. The Okies were a sea of blood red; the Longhorn brethren were quieter, less ostentatious. The Selmon brothers, led by scary Lee Roy, destroyed my Horns 52-13. I hung my head on the way to the car as we walked through the throng of gleeful Sooner fans, but my Dad never said a word about the loss. No muttering under his breath. No blaming the refs' bad calls. No excuses during all of the losses, football and otherwise, that were to come. On the way back to Austin, we stopped in Waco and watched the Baylor Bears and Arkansas Razorbacks battle it out. I don't remember who won, but I remember my Dad's joy at packing one more football game into the day.
In the coming years, the Longhorns began to make a habit of losing. Baylor beat them. TCU, too. I watched in horror as North Texas came within a hair of upsetting my Horns. Each loss was a crushing blow. Somewhere in the swirl of this agony, I found the football candle at my neighborhood 7-Eleven. It was a clump of brown wax vaguely shaped like a pigskin. I bought the candle for my Dad, the man who passed on the football obsession to me, as many fathers do to their sons. It was a good-luck charm, a talisman to hold back the losses. It sat on a shelf over the doorway to the room where he watched football from dueling televisions as his developing gout made trips to Memorial Stadium less frequent.
Basketball great Michael Jordan readily admits he's a loser. "I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career," he once said. "I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, Ive been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed." That's what my Dad and the Longhorns ultimately taught me. My biggest fall was when I lost my Dad himself. When he died I rescued the football from its perch above his doorway. But I never lit it, never thought to, until the Horns won the title again. Until Vince Young improbably glided into the end zone to act out every young boy's dream. Finally. Barely. The dust took a moment to burn away, then the flame flickered to life. It was a glorious night when failure had to wait in the wings and the football candle juju was aglow.
Now with my first child growing inside my wife's belly, I've resolved to light the football candle again the night the Longhorns finally lose. Will it be against top-ranked Ohio State this weekend? Perhaps Oklahoma will creep up on them. The opponent doesn't matter as long as a grown man can remember what it means to be a son long enough to pass that lesson on.