By the second Saturday in October of my freshman year: I had gone through Rush week and pledged a decent fraternity (thank you Mark Adams), taken my first round of tests as a college student, thrown up outside of the Sig Ep house in front of my first match date after drinking too much hurricane punch (no wonder I never got another good match date the rest of my frat career), and watched my first Texas game in Memorial Stadium as a college student. Those were defining experiences but the most defining life altering experience of that fall was the Texas-Oklahoma game and OU weekend.
I was in my seat in the first row of the upper deck of the Cotton Bowl an hour before kick-off for that Texas-OU game in 1974. I love the Cotton Bowl. The first time I was there was in early December 1963 to watch the New York Giants play the Dallas Cowboys. My family had moved to Houston from upstate New York by way of Kensington, Maryland in January 1963 and we were Giants fans. The crowd was relatively small and we were able to move freely about the lower deck angling for better vantage points. It was a great time and we were lucky to see the Giants of Tittle, Gifford and Shofner who went on to win their third straight Eastern Conference Championship in 63–just prior to their steep demise. The trip to Dallas for the game had been planned months ahead of time but a few days before the game my older brother Clayton was worried that the trip would be cancelled. He was worried because the assassination of President Kennedy had occurred just nine days prior to the game and he thought my parents might cancel a trip to Dallas for a football game out of deference and respect for the mourning of Kennedy. We went to the game as planned and just before the National Anthem the P.A. announcer asked the crowd to observe a moment of silence for, “Our late President John F. Kennedy. At eight years old I was stunned by the solemnity of the moment.
My second game at the Cotton Bowl was the 1972 Cotton Bowl game between Texas and Penn St. The Cotton Bowl had been upgraded; most notably, the seats were now aluminum with backs in place of the wooden bleachers we’d sat on in 1963. Throughout the game that New Year’s day, I was thinking, “If these seats could talk.” It was the Cotton Bowl where the Cowboys had lost that dramatic, heart breaking 1966 NFL Championship game to the Packers and James Street and the Longhorns had pulled out the last second victory over Notre Dame in the 1970 Cotton Bowl to preserve a National Championship. I felt a reverence for the stadium and considered myself lucky to be there even though the Longhorns took it on the chin to Franco Harris and Lydell Mitchell that day 30-6.
I hadn’t seen nuthin yet.
In the stadium and hour early I watched Texas and Oklahoma warm up. It was sunny and hot, a trade mark of the OU game. Oklahoma looked bigger than Texas and almost invincible in their crimson and white uniforms. I hated them already. Although the stadium was less than half full when I got to my seat, it was 75 % full by the time warm ups were over and The Longhorn band took the field. As I mentioned I had been to a Texas games that fall at Memorial Stadium. But this was different. Oklahoma was our most formidable opponent, the rivalry was our most intense and we were sharing Cotton Bowl with about 36,000 Okies. And they were louder than our 36,000 when they cheered for their team. They were louder still when they booed the Longhorns. I loved every minute of it.
It was during the 1974 OU game when I first appreciated that there was something special about watching a game in the Cotton Bowl. I couldn’t put my finger on it right away. It slowly dawned on me how excellent the view of the game was for me even though I was sitting on the goal line. The seats were angled toward the 50 yard-line and were closer to the field than in any other stadium I had been in including small high school stadiums. And the 72,000 spectators were in close proximity to one another. At Memorial Stadium in Austin, the field and the opposite side of the stadium seem off in the distance. In the Cotton Bowl you were right on top of the field and you could actually make out familiar faces on the other side of the stadium. The cozy Cotton Bowl. And during the OU game beyond the stadium you can see the State Fair’s midway rides running. The Texas-Oklahoma game actually is played in a carnival atmosphere.
When the Longhorn Band played Texas Fight and March Grandioso the Texas fans cheered and my heart was reaching capacity as I blinked back tears and tried to clear the frog in my throat—and we had even gotten to the Eyes yet. I was glad that in the excitement my Sig Ep pledge brothers I was sitting with didn’t notice my condition. I don’t know why I react to these events this way but my reactions have been the same all 31 times have been to this game.
In 1974 Texas was a 17 point underdog to Oklahoma who went on to win the National Championship that year. As the game went on and the Longhorns hung tough with Oklahoma the intensity of the game became wonderfully unbearable. When Earl Campbell rumbled seven yards untouched into the end zone right in front of me, the Longhorns took the lead late in the third quarter. My Sig Ep pledge brother, David Crawford, sitting next to me repeated several times, “We’re going to win this game Frink.” I didn’t say anything but I wished he would quit saying that out loud. Ultimately we didn’t win the game losing a heart breaker 16-13.
For the first couple of hours of the aftermath I was devastated. My devastation slowly numbed into disappointment. I didn’t appreciate the Fair before or after the game in 1974 as I have come to appreciate it, win or lose, in all the years since.
The Texas-Oklahoma game: with the traditions so rich, the rivalry so intense, the teams perennially so excellent, could stand on it’s own without the neutral site of the Cotton Bowl, the parties, and the fair. But with all those elements and more such as the drive up I-35 on Friday shared with all the other Texas fans on the road, the Texas-Oklahoma game and OU weekend stands alone among all the many sports traditions I have celebrated.
For me there was much at stake in the Texas-Oklahoma game in 1974 and the loss was tough to take. I didn’t experience a victory in the OU game until my fourth trip to Dallas in 1977. There was much more at stake in 77 and in many other years than there was in 1974. And there have been many glorious victories unmatched by others in their pure joy and there several disappointing defeats. But since 1974 the sting of the losses to Oklahoma only last for a few minutes. How can you be down for very long engulfed in Longhorn camaraderie, surrounded by close friends and family, while drinking beer from paper cups at the State Fair of Texas? That’s the real beauty of this thing.
P.S to Bob, Molly, and others to whom this may apply,
Some October after I’m gone and you’re ambivalent about going to the OU game. Go and soak up every glorious moment of OU weekend. I don’t know where I’ll be then kids, but I’ll know about it and I’ll be happy.
Okay Okay I’m just kidding….sort of.