State Highway 21 runs from Interstate 35 in San Marcos into deep East Texas. It’s one of the main feeders into the Brazos Valley for those of us who live west of the main corridors of the state and it’s a drive I’ve made a hundred times over the past two decades. Saturday morning before the game, my mind was in the usual turmoil: trying too hard to let go of the banality of work, wondering what in the living hell the football team was going to look like, and inevitably getting sucked back into the past as I inched northeast back to College Station.
The one thing that overwhelmed me on the drive up was how much things had changed: developments leaking eastward from the interstate, new and shiny service stations dotting the landscape where before there were empty fields. Elm Creek Cafe has closed down, and so has the RV Park office that the building was turned into. The entire stretch between Cedar Creek and Bastrop is a mangle of stoplights and new neighborhoods. Buccee’s, the giant beacon of Texas travelers, has set up shop at roughly the halfway point of the drive.
Twenty-four hours later, driving southwest out of Aggieland, it was the opposite. I noticed all the things that were the same. The old ranch signs hanging rusty on their hinges. The pipe fences coated thick with paint and the ramshackle corrugated tin barns in the fields. Occasional drill rigs and pumpjacks. Fat black cattle in the cloud shadows dotting the rolling swales of pastureland. The stock tank with the catfish feeder rigged up that has stood untouched forever. The dappled sunlight as the highway rolls through the swells of the Lost Pines. The past is a tangible touchstone, but it’s also a place in our minds. It’s always there, even when the future has surrounded it.
Kyle Field twenty years ago was a stark and intimidating mountain of concrete obelisks, more a fortification than a place of leisure. Thin rimes of lichen lined the danker corners of the shadowed concourses and bats and moths swarmed indiscriminately in the cool autumn nights when the lights stood out like a beacon in the emptiness that surrounded the stadium. It was utilitarian and unapologetic and it scared the hell out of opposing teams.
Today there are vast caverns of opulence within the walls of the structure that would humble a Saudi prince. The scale of the grandness and dedication to building something so overwhelmingly made to impress cannot be overstated. You can sit behind a fully-stocked bar in a vaulted-ceilinged room walled with hewn limestone and never guess that there was a football game going on a stone’s throw away, and not an army of henchmen ready to fend off 007’s latest infiltration attempt. Kyle Field has features that are almost unimaginable now, and were completely unthinkable twenty years ago.
But the bones of the place are the same. In the fourth quarter, chewing my nails, and staring fixedly at the place on the field where I wanted something big to happen, it was the same. Willing the defense to make another play. Yelling until hoarse. Erupting when Kentucky’s quarterback was sacked again. Utterly deflated when the offense’s ineptitude kept the game in doubt. In that fourth quarter you could put your hand on any surface of the stadium and feel that ancient primal vibration that has always been there when tens of thousands of Aggies are losing their collective minds and vocal cords, hoping for nothing but joy and elation.
The dedication of the team’s homage to 1998 was perhaps a bit too complete for comfort.
- The QB went 18 for 30 with a couple of turnovers
- The top two receivers were the TE and the RB
- The featured running back carried the team with 200+ yards from scrimmage
- The WR corps combined for 7 catches and a number of awkward drops
That’s 1998 as hell, folks.
- Had a slow start but held Kentucky to 66 yards after the first quarter
- Held the opposing offense to under 180 total yards
- Had 6 sacks
- Did not allow Kentucky to run a play in A&M territory for the entirety of regulation
That’s also 1998 as hell, but this time in a good way. It’s all about perspective.
In 1998 I spent a significant portion of my time in Duddley’s Draw. Being 20 affords you that luxury: your mind is only barely beginning to expand, while your body is capable of withstanding unholy amounts of degradation being visited upon it. Being a student during that season and experiencing the crescendo of excitement as the team went on their 10-game win streak was a very special time, and Duddley’s was one of the centerpieces of that year. Saturday, I went there with a good friend (from 1998 and before) for lunch and we ended up staying for the entire afternoon. We kept bumping into old friends, some of whom we hadn’t seen in a decade or more. The decor has changed very little since 1998, and it’s basically a dead zone for cell coverage. It was an unabashed homage to our time there as students, and we spent the entire afternoon as completely at ease with each other as we would have back then if we’d just been meeting up in the afternoon after classes. It was one of those rare pockets of unforced reminiscence that makes friendships and experiences special, and piled on top of the spectacular nature of the game’s emotional fluctuations, it all combined to make this game one of the most memorable in my lifetime. College football is just a game, except for those times when it is much more to you for reasons of your own.
There is great comfort in the past, just as there’s great comfort in knowing that your life now is more complete and stable than it was back then. It’s fine for the two to co-exist in the same reality. Football today is a much more complicated and intimidating endeavor than it was in 1998: the Internet has seen to that. But it’s also still essentially simple at it’s core: be tougher than your opponent, impose your will, and don’t make mistakes.
Late in the fourth quarter, Trayveon Williams hurt himself trying to make a tackle on the sideline as Kentucky’s Darius West was returning a Kellen Mond fumble for the tying score. He had been the workhorse all night, basically the entire offense, and still had the drive to go full out and sacrifice his body to try to make amends for the offense’s mistake. He had to be helped up and limped tenderly to the sideline.
When the Aggies got the ball in overtime following Kentucky’s missed field goal, Jimbo Fisher gave the ball to Trayveon Williams. He got 9 yards. Then he gave it to him again. He got the first down. He gave him the ball again. Four more yards. He gave him the ball for the fourth straight time, and Williams hit the hole at speed, broke through an arm tackle, made a cut, and launched his exhausted and battered body over a pair of Kentucky defenders at the goalline for the winning score.
This is the toughness and dedication this team needed to draw from the 1998 team’s legacy this week. We don’t have to keep everything about 1998 the same, but this kind of hard-nosed football should be a weekly staple. And so should the uniforms and helmets.