Eight years ago, I was approached with a generous opportunity: a free trip to the Cotton Bowl against Tennessee. I thought about it for a moment and then said "no." I had no faith, and was soon glad I didn't. The Vols destroyed us to the tune of 38-7, and I got to watch several other great games on TV at the same time. I somehow knew this would happen, but was ashamed of my pessimism at the time. Slowly, over the next few years, this pessimism stagnated into a sort of resignation that any time we began to turn the corner, we would choke away any momentum we had gained on the national stage. I saw it unfold time and again: the Holiday Bowl against Cal in 2006 after a 9-3 year in which we beat Texas for the first time since '99, The Cotton Bowl again against LSU after Von Miller's senior campaign. I personally witnessed the Alamo Bowl against Penn State and the Independence Bowl against Georgia. All four games were disappointing losses after we jumped out to early leads. It battered me.
This year I was afforded the exact same opportunity, and I immediately jumped on it. This team was different. There were a lot of factors at play: a chance at redemption against the old neighborhood bully, the chance to see the Heisman Trophy winner play his first game after getting the hardware, the chance to go inside an actual spaceship, etc. etc. But driving me most of all was that I had regained my faith in the team. I knew that this coach would have them prepared, and that even if we did not win, he would keep it close. I got to see Manziel's very first game this year against Florida, and I hadn't been that encouraged by a loss in a long time. That's saying a lot, considering all the moral victories we've had to settle for in the past fifteen years or so. We packed up our luggage and optimism and headed for Jerryworld.
We park in the Rangers' Lot A, between the baseball park and Cowboys Stadium, with the parkland river in-between. We get there around three hours before kickoff, and slowly meander through the parking lot towards the sidewalk bridge that would lead to the...other parking lots. There are several hundred tailgates. The crowd is pretty well-behaved. There is the occasional "Boomer....Sooner" chant or the "Hullaballoo, Caneck Caneck" drummed out on a dumpster followed by several "Whoop"s. The aura is still civil, but it is not outright friendly like it was when we walked through the tailgates before the Florida game. There's an undercurrent of supreme confidence and resentment. Like we know we're going to finally get back at these guys after so long.
We stop briefly at the pavilion, and it resembles a circus: tents, bad music, and lines. There is a display where people are waiting over an hour for the chance to take a picture with the Heisman Trophy. I'm convinced that Jerry Jones is making money off of even this somehow, watching from a secret window high above. Then we move on to the tailgates immediately next to the stadium to meet up with thacktor.
I have never talked to him in person before, but we've collaborated on several GBH pieces (Ken Burns, the Christmas Album, etc.) and work well together. It is good to finally meet him in person and talk football over a beer. We agree in our sense that Sumlin has this team prepared like no other we can recall in modern history. He points out some of the things to look for inside the stadium, we say our farewells, and I head to the entrances right as they open.
My immediate sense is that of entering a carefully-crafted ecosystem. It's like a Jurassic Park for sports fans. The temperature immediately jumps 30 degrees to a meticulously-established room temperature, but it somehow doesn't smell like it's indoors. There's almost a sort of faint haze near the ceiling, as if the building contains its own atmosphere. The fading light outside is shining through the countless thousands of square feet of glass and gives the sense of being in a comfortable beach house with giant plate-glass windows as the sun sets. Feeling contentedly rube-ish after some pictures are taken, we head to our seats.
We are in 433, just on the Aggie side of the Oklahoma-emblazoned end zone. We can see everything. It's like watching a game from a low-flying blimp, with two of the largest TVs in the world directly at eye-level in front of us. I blow $20 on a bucket of popcorn and an MGD a few minutes before kickoff because I do not wish to leave my seat during the game. And I don't.
The Gatlin Brothers do a great job on the National Anthem as the giant flag is unfurled on the field. The Gus Johnson clips have been played, we have been beaten down by the generic, tinny pop music, and finally it is time for kickoff. We win the toss and decide to receive. Kevin Sumlin is already not playing it safe, and I am strangely encouraged.
I admit I was worried in the first half. Several times. We move the ball well at times, but sputter as well. It seems the refs are against us, calling borderline stuff against us and letting OU get away with everything, at least in the mind of a fan at the game amidst countless others. A certain TD bounces off of Malcome Kennedy's hands and is intercepted in the end zone. We give up a TD late. We're up by a single point at halftime, 14-13. I am fighting the familiar feeling of dread that has become so ingrained over the past several years, despite my faith in the team and the staff. It's an internal struggle. I find myself jittery and constantly tapping my heel against the ground.
And then the third quarter happens. This is the quarter that lifts the black cloud that has haunted our teams for so long. This is the quarter that finally buries the stigma that had still been lingering from the 2011 season, when we had blown so many halftime leads in the second half. This is the quarter that proves finally that Mark Snyder is not only capable, but outstanding. This is the quarter where we force four straight punts by OU and outscore them 20-0. This is the quarter that officially resurrects Aggie football.
I am starting to get giddy in the fourth as we continue to stop them. When we get the ball back up 34-13 and Sumlin still has Johnny in the game, I am thrilled. This is not running it up. This is big boy football. And if anyone else understands this, it's Stoops. I know he will not take umbrage because he has patented this attack, beginning when Sumlin was his protege. It's up to him to stop us. It's a challenge of wills between the old and the new; the mentor and the teacher. It's time to see who's really better. And we did.
When EZ catches the bomb along the left sideline for the touchdown, he is right below us. When he drops to both knees to celebrate, you can tell how emotional he is, and suddenly I was emotional as well. You knew he had given his all for this team, despite his up-and-down senior year. I'm happy for all the seniors who played their hearts out in this game: EZ, Swope with another hundred-yard performance, McNeal with the perfect pass to Evans on the trick play, Lewis out there leading the offense, Porter with the big sack late, Harris with the pick, Terrell out there making great tackles, Stewart taking Millard out of the game, Epperson pinning OU deep late in the second half, Nealy getting in the backfield, Mathis batting down passes at the line...and all of the other guys who made this team better just by sticking with the team and embracing the new coaching staff. I feed off EZ's emotion, and it spreads. It was not just a single football game for me. It was an eradication of doubt. It was a resumption of faith long dormant.
I remember after the Alabama game this year the feeling of soreness in my cheeks from having a permanent smile. The cold numbed this on Friday, but it was still there. I remember the OU fans being subdued, but not really shocked. There was a respectful silence between us. It took us forever to get out of the parking lot and back on the road to the hotel, but that was the fastest longest hour-and-a-half I can remember.
I will not be going back to Jerryworld for any of the Arkansas games in the future. It is a distilled, corporate place not suited for a regular season college game. But for this game it worked. It was a farewell, and an appropriate one. We have rapidly become the premiere team in Texas, and will soon become the most stable when Mack Brown leaves. We took on the team that has long been filling its coffers with Texas talent and obliterated them in their most fertile recruiting grounds. We gave an emphatic farewell to our old conference, and we, despite not needing to, showed that Johnny's Heisman was not a fluke. We set ourselves up for a great run in 2013 against a pretty favorable home schedule, and we gave ourselves yet another boost in an already incredible recruiting class.
We beat the hell out of Oklahoma, and I got to see it live.