On Saturday, September 20, 1980, I stepped into Kyle Field for my first A&M game. Standing with the freshmen on the scoreboard end of the third deck, the game featured a visit from Joe Paterno’s Penn State Nittany Lions. I don’t remember much about the game except that JoePa’s Lions beat our Ags 25-9 behind the power running of one of the best tailbacks of the day, Curt Warner. Before that fall, I had not really followed A&M (or any college) football, so I was not "all in" yet. It was all so new and the result of the game was incidental.
I don’t remember details of the action between the hashes, but I will never forget that day. It marked a turning point in my life, when I stepped out of the selfish myopia of adolescence into something much bigger, and more important, than me. I grew up in abject poverty, had been homeless a few times. Nobody in my immediate family had graduated from college. My parents were divorced at a time when that carried more stigma than it does now. Life was not pleasant for me as a young man. I often felt lonely and a little left out of the so-called American Dream. However, I always had the sense that my luck would change if I could only attend college at an important place like Texas A&M. I had no family ties to the school, no maroon heritage. After getting into the university, one of my first purchases was football tickets, specifically an all-sports pass. I did so because I liked sports, not because I felt any fierce loyalty toward the Aggies.
Before that first game, I had never witnessed that many people in a single location before, except on TV. I didn’t know that much sound could safely exist in one confined space. The sensory overload, baked raw in the hot Texas sun, burnished images in my mind that are as rich today as they were then.
I recall thinking that Penn State had the ugliest uniforms, at the time having no sense of the history by which they had been worn over the years. To me, they were just another team from another state with an ugly little man as coach. Whatever legacy is now forever attached to JoePa, nothing can change his significant presence in my first Aggie football game. Despite his appearance, and perhaps because of it, I knew he had to be someone special, just by the way the gigantic young men in stark white and dark blue uniforms surrounded him and spoke to him on the sideline far below me.
I remember watching, mesmerized, as the Aggie band took the field at halftime. I had heard of them, but never seen them march. As a former high school band geek, I just shook my head at their crisp lines and interweaving, seemingly perpetual motion. Their marching technique was not difficult, simple countermarches for the most part, but the show seemed to flow with a brassy ego befitting their national renown. As Aggies around me caught their breath between the halftime show and the second half kickoff, stealing a moment to sit and rest, I could not. Perhaps I felt that sitting down would disrupt an emerging joy welling up inside me that I had never known.
I humped and yelled with 25,000 other Aggie students all afternoon – and for the first time, I knew I was "home." I belonged. I was the 12th Man; I was Texas A&M. The loss that day did nothing to dampen my joy, my internal transformation. The football team became more important as time passed, but that day gave birth to something so much bigger in my life. That was the day I became a Fightin’ Texas Aggie. Thirty-three years now, and counting. As my oldest child graduates from high school this fall, I want my three children to know that same feeling. To know that they are not the center of the world, they are not the main object of their own lives. Not all three will attend Texas A&M but I hope and pray that at least one will someday stand on that same deck, look down in wonder and know that they – too – are home.