It was at a shitty pizza place in south Austin that I first realized sports dreams come true sometimes.
I was 17 that afternoon in 1996, sitting at Double Dave’s on South Lamar with my best friend and his cousin, watching the unranked Longhorns beat #3 Nebraska in the first-ever Big XII championship. The 8-4 Horns were three touchdown underdogs against a Nebraska team that was undefeated in the peak of the Tom Osborne era, when they were every bit what Alabama is today.
They were giants and we – mighty, filthy rich Texas – were all but lost in the football wilderness, still clinging to that last championship back in 1970, perennial underachievers suddenly cast in the role of giant killers. By the time “James Brown and 4th down” happened, and tight end Derek Lewis streaked 61 yards to the Nebraska 10 yard line to seal the game, we were already high-tailing it down to the Drag, knowing that’s what you were supposed to do at times like that.
It’s a haze from that point on. The Drag was a teeming mass of disbelieving UT fans, savoring the greatest thing you can ever be as a sports fan – the victor who never dreamed he could pull it off. I remember seeing frat boys in the bed of a pickup tearing down 24th street next to the Tower Records waving corn husks in the air and honking their horns as students streamed out of every corner of west Campus, their numbers swelled by old school Austinites from Crestview, Allandale, south Austin, and all those other neighborhoods that seemed a bit more Texas than Austin back then.
That’s how I remember it and it’s hard to fact check nostalgia anyway. Nostalgia – one of the main local industries in Austin – paints everything about the Longhorns for me, everything about the city, every facet of growing up in the 90s in a college town on the cusp of becoming an actual city.
That Big XII championship remains my sweetest sports memory – in some ways even more so than the national championship in 2005.
Maybe that’s because it feels like 1996. It feels like being 17, like end zone tickets on game day at Randall’s for $8 (were they really that cheap?). It feels like Austin when it hadn’t yet been fully “discovered”, when it was a cool – if boring and provincial –town known to freaks across Texas, maybe even as far as Louisiana. The Drag (that I remember) was still gutter punks, runaways, and stoner kids doing Acid and playing arcade games at Le Fun all day, with the Scientology Center, Tower Records, and the Hole in the Wall the biggest landmarks on the strip.
The most popular club in our part of town (and probably all of Austin) was still Dallas nightclub on Burnet, and down the street the Denny’s on Anderson was your best bet in north central Austin at night because it was open 24/7 and you could smoke inside. We weren’t cool and we weren’t sophisticated, but we were still a city where at 2am at a gas station on I35 you had a pretty good chance of being offered shrooms by the guy behind the counter.
It was an overgrown college town without a pro team, and we were a bunch of lost kids adrift deep inside Texas, with a mediocre football team that was still coasting on the fumes of past glory.
Almost twenty years after that victory over Nebraska, on September 6th this year, the unranked Horns beat a no. 10 Notre Dame team 50-47 at home in Austin. It was another classic upset and I drove to the Drag like I’d been taught to do. Forty-five minutes after the clock ran out in Royal-Memorial Stadium I drove back and forth on Guadalupe, the only guy honking his horn on a street that was far from grid-locked. I circled through West Campus and parked in the lot of Oat Willie’s – one of the places that most makes me think of Austin and/or my pop – listened to Longhorns radio and took it all in. The Horns were still undefeated (at 1-0) after pulling off a major upset in front of a record-setting crowd, the perfect start to a season that held so much promise and ended with such despair.
The victory over Nebraska in 96 was also a short-lived moment of triumph.
Less than a month later Texas would lose to Penn State 38-15 in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day and a year later Head Coach John Mackovic was fired following a 4-7 season, which included the infamous 66-3 drubbing at the hands of UCLA. Months later the Mack Brown era began and the following season, Texas again beat Nebraska against all odds, and Ricky Williams won the Heisman and broke the all-time NCAA rushing record on a 60-yard touchdown run against A&M that I watched with my brother and my dad from the upper deck of Royal-Memorial Stadium.
Things were turning around, though we were still far from rejoining the elite of college football.
A few years after Mack Brown was hired I moved to Israel permanently, and spent the better part of 14 years watching the Horns from the other side of the Earth – when I could get a game at all, which was usually about once a season. It was the same drill on many a Saturday over those years – I’d call my pop pre-game to get the scouting report, then again at halftime and after the game if it started early enough to accommodate the 8 hour time difference.
The sweetest of all was in January 2005, when I saw the Horns beat USC – again despite the odds – staying up all night talking to my parents during and after the game, which kicked off just hours after then Israeli Prime Minister and icon Ariel Sharon suffered a catastrophic stroke that plunged the country into uncertainty.
There was the time I streamed an OU game on my phone from a memorial rally for slain Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin, trying not to cheer as we stomped the Sooners. I caught another OU game a few years ago at an expat bar on the Tel Aviv promenade (“Mike’s Place”), the only place in the city showing the game. There was a group of Longhorns fans I found at a table across the room, but they seemed creeped out by the old guy from Austin who pulled up a chair. I figured their cold reception meant they may have studied at UT but definitely weren’t actually Texans – even though they’d already told me they were from Houston. There was also the OU game I caught on the hotel TV in Taiwan while on a press junket a month after my father died. I was jetlagged and tipsy and for a minute there it looked like Tyrone Swoopes would pull off the shocker, pushing the unranked Horns past #11 Oklahoma and sending me out to the streets of Taipei to celebrate alone at 5am (he didn’t).
All those years as a Texas fan have come into perspective these last few months, as I’ve had the privilege to watch an entire UT season in real time from Austin, week after (dreadful) week, for the first time in well over a decade.
Living abroad, you tend to seek out things that remind you of home, something that isn’t too tough in Israel, because so much is already so Americanized.
More than anything else though, it was college football that reminded me of America. Probably because it may just be the most uniquely American thing there is, at least in sports. You can get at least three NFL games on TV in Israel each week, the NBA seems to always be on, and baseball is there on TV if you want it.
But NCAA football? Bowl Games on New Years Day? The Red River Shootout? The Biggest Cocktail Party on Earth? Don’t count on it.
College football was pure distilled Americana that was always distant, unattainable, and something almost no one around me could relate to. Even other expat sports fans I met didn’t seem to understand – they tended to be from the northeast or the West Coast, not Texas, the south, or those other parts of America where college football is something bigger than religion. A rare exception was the cashier at a kiosk on Dizengoff and Ben Yehuda in far north Tel Aviv who I used to buy jachnun from every Saturday in the winter, and who’d follow the games every week like me.
NCAA football made me think of playing catch as a kid on the turf at Memorial Stadium (back when they left it open on the weekend, before it became the natural grass, behemoth money factory it is today). It reminds me of the time Earl Campbell visited my brother’s elementary school, getting our soccer and t-ball uniforms at Rooster Andrews, and our quiet street in Allandale in Austin, where just a few doors down lived Randy Peshel – the wide out who caught a 44-yard pass from James Street in the 4th quarter of the “Game of the Century” in 1969, to help no. 1 UT come from behind and defeat no. 2 Arkansas in Fayetteville.
More than anything else though, college football reminded me of my father and of Austin. He was a UT alum (he was a student in ‘63 when they won their first national championship) who grew up in Beaumont and Houston. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of NCAA and Texas High School football (along with far more erudite subjects) and a real passion to root for the underdog –which helps when you pull for Houston teams and UT.
This connection between my father and UT football became more visceral in August 2014, when he died suddenly just two days before the opening game against North Texas. That season was the first without my father, and even darker than the 6-7 record would suggest. Every week, without fail, I’d predict victory – that the Longhorns would win one for ol’ Lee Hartman – and almost every week we’d get stomped, mercilessly.
I wasn’t alone in this fool’s errand, and my closest friend back in Austin was the perfect partner in crime. Every week we’d text from Austin to Israel, both of us calling a resounding UT victory, such as the “Yom Kippur Miracle” against Baylor (UT lost 28-7), “The Shocker in Manhattan (Kansas)” on October 25th (#11 K State blanked UT 23-0), and “The Thanksgiving Miracle” in Austin (TCU over UT 48-10). Noah never faltered, and each week swore he put money on the Horns, but I couldn’t fact-check that either.
It was delusional and fruitless, but if you don’t think you have a chance of winning why even watch the game? The Longhorns we grew up with rarely ensured victory, but you watched anyway, and never let the sense of impending doom discourage you. Pulling for your team – just like believing burnt orange and Oilers powder blue are great colors – isn’t an objective, rational thing, it’s just what you’re supposed to do.
I got a chance to take part in this parade of delusion this year one Saturday at a time on Central Standard Time in Austin, for the first time since college.
At seasons’ end Charlie Strong was fired just three years after becoming the first black head coach at Texas, the University in “liberal” (and very white) Austin, with the dubious distinction of fielding the last all-white national championship team in 1969. His firing followed a loss to Kansas (in football!) and the worst three-year record in UT history. It clearly wasn’t just racism that doomed Charlie, but no one can tell me it wasn’t a factor – I wasn’t born in Texas yesterday and there was too much “coded language” that welcomed him from day one on the 40 Acres.
Up close watching from Austin you see a lot of the baggage and mental gymnastics that come with being a Texas fan and sometimes, pulling for UT can be like pulling for the Empire in Star Wars. We have more money than some UN member states and see ourselves as a power program second to none – no matter what the record books say.
We are Yankees fans – just without all the championships.
Texans aren’t known for modesty and have a self-indulgent obsession with our state that isn’t always rational. This is just as true in football, where we’ve never seen a program we don’t feel superior to, a problem we can’t throw a pile of money at and still fail, a defeat we can’t snatch from the jaws of victory.
Being a Texan and a Longhorns fan reminds me a bit of that scene “In the Name of the Father”, where some inmates break out a jigsaw puzzle world map soaked in LSD and Daniel Day-Lewis says “just don’t give me Northern Ireland, I don’t want to have a bad trip.” Texas can be a bad trip but there’s no use fighting it, you just got to ride it out and wait for the peaks.
These past 14 years, New Year’s Day was always the time I wanted most to be teleported back to Austin for 24 hours, to watch the bowl games with my pop, when the weather’s cold outside and the Horns just might be playing for something.
A week or so ago on New Year’s Day, as college bowl season started coming to a close, I was rifling through old letters my father sent to my grandmother in Houston when he was a young man in Austin, adrift like the rest of us.
I grabbed one postmarked December 8th, 1969, with the return address a building on Avenue A in Hyde Park, just a few doors down from where I’d live in college 30 years later.
He’d written it the morning after “the Game of the Century”, shaking off the hangover from the night before, several hours after the pass from Street to Peshel that sealed the national title and pop and his friends charged the Drag, and later, joined thousands swarming the team plane at the Austin airport.
He writes “Well, last night was a big night in Austin. From the end of the game Saturday afternoon till after 3am this morning Guadalupe St. was a Carnival scene – street dancing, horns honking, etc. You couldn’t really avoid the enthusiasm of the moment.”
I never have, and don’t see any reason to stop now.