It was my first year as a season ticket holder.
I remember the surge of pride when I received my season tickets and how I would take them out of the crisp envelope that housed them to lay them across my coffee table in sequential order, fanned out like a peacock's plumage.
Their glossy substantial feel on my fingertips pleased me and I liked their heft. For the Rutgers game I had placed them along the edge of my bathroom mirror, like baseball cards in the spokes of a bicycle, so that I could look at them while I shaved on game day. I decided that this was a game day tradition that would continue after we blew out Rutgers in our opener 48-14. When not being gazed upon and fondled, my tickets were carefully placed in my copy of Athlon magazine, marking the Longhorn section, where I had carefully scrawled a series of Ws and Ls which, when tallied, predicted a 10-1 regular season and a loss to Nebraska in the Big 12 title game.
The $600 I had invested in Longhorn glory was a massive expenditure for a kid fresh out of college and I felt like a grown-up for having made this prudent and sizable commitment to my school's athletic future.
We were coming off of a 1996 season with an improbable Big 12 Title win against a powerful Nebraska dynasty and though we had graduated a number of quality players and been shellacked in our bowl game against Penn State, we had a preseason ranking of #11 and the dispatching of Rutgers in our home opener confirmed that Longhorn football was back. The humiliations of the last decade were about to be cleansed with a special season and everyone in the city could feel it. We had James Brown at QB, Ricky Williams at RB, an experienced OL, and there was a buzz about a converted RB named Wane McGarity with sprinter's speed at WR.
Sure, the defense wasn't great, but I chose to focus on Casey Hampton and Chris Akins at DT along with LB Aaron Humphery instead of a secondary comprising anonymous bystanders and a number of other guys who wouldn't make Muschamp's three deep.
I invited my older brother to accompany me as I didn't want to be distracted by a date and the weather was impossibly perfect. Hot, humid, clear blue skies, and a palpable buzz that carried us all the way into the stadium. We debated joyfully. Who was the better Heisman candidate - Ricky Williams or James Brown? Would we beat Texas A&M by 20 or 30 in College Station? Oklahoma football was done forever - no way they ever recover from John Blake. The power in the league was in the Big 12 North and we knew we could play with the Nebraska dynasty, mighty Colorado, and upstart Kansas State.
This was the rhetoric as we entered the stadium, perhaps wearing one Longhorn item each - anyone who dressed in all orange for a game was a rah-rah nerd to be greeted with sarcasm and a raising of eyebrows - and we gazed across the track and the expansive empty meadow in the North end zone and knew that today we would have an intimidating game environment. I had been in the stadium the day before running bleachers (the stadium was, of course, open access for anyone and everyone and I used to play tackle football there with high school friends and run sprints with fighters from Lord's Boxing Gym) and I remembered thinking how big it looked when it was filled to its 78,000+ capacity.
I saw UCLA warming up and they looked loose, seemingly oblivious of the beating they were about to take. Surely the soft powder blue kids from Westwood would melt without cooling ocean breezes, surrounded by a hostile crowd that treated football like a religion instead of a goddamn past time.
Cade McNown? An unknown with a weak arm.
The UCLA defense? Soft California swishes decked out in chick colors, let's be honest.
Skip Hicks? No Ricky Williams.
UCLA was coming off of a 5-6 year and little was expected of them.
Except that we had a problem. Our charismatic, trash-talking QB James Brown was injured and backup Richard Walton would be taking his place. No problem, we thought. Feed Ricky the ball, play defense, and we'll be just fine. Besides, Walton had been a highly regarded recruit and everyone knew he had a big arm.
We opened the game on our 20 yard line and Walton threw for a 17 yard completion to Derek Lewis and a 8 yard completion to Wane McGarity. We applauded Mackovic's intelligence in getting Walton off to a good start and the crowd began to rock when Ricky Williams notched consecutive runs of 12 and 11 yards, trucking a UCLA defender at one run's conclusion. Four plays. 48 yards. The rout was on.
Oh, was it ever.
UCLA did something that turned the game completely. They lined up in an offset front, with three down linemen on our weak side, their LBs and a safety offset strong. A simple junk defense. I had seen this defense as a high school senior and it took us a quarter to adjust, gouging it for big runs on counter plays. And we had sucked.
Walton was sacked. Two incompletions followed with Ricky then stuffed for a 4 yard loss.
The game was over and we didn't even know it. We would never adjust on offense and the UCLA offense began to have its way with our weak defense, usually set up by a short field turnover.
We would turn the ball over 5 times in the first half, UCLA scoring 38 points in its first five possessions. There were 8 turnovers in all.
It was 38-0 at halftime and it could have been worse.
I remember the UCLA players trotting off of the field in ecstatic disbelief at what they were doing, whooping and hollering, their fingers pointed at the crowd. My head was reeling like I had just taken a left hook to the temple. A betrayed fan base that could barely process what it had seen began to boo. Lustily. John Mackovic. DeLoss Dodds. The team that was giving up. Our futile helplessness. Our own embarrassment that the place we loved and identified with had become a loser. At all of the humiliations of the last ten plus years. At our own delusional false expectations.
A man next to me muttered that he was going to pay DeLoss Dodds a visit with a baseball bat. I remember an attractive woman in her 40s screaming out, "We're playing like goddamn pussies!" and then looking around guiltily, shocked that she'd voiced her inner monologue. Had our head coach or athletic director walked down the concourse, I'm confident they would have been pelted with garbage like William Wallace's execution scene in Braveheart and some drunk would have taken a swing at one of them. To call it an ugly crowd would be a lying minimization.
This was a dangerous crowd.
I stood silently, my arms folded. My brother did the same. Neither one of us would boo, because we won't boo Texas. My eyes were welling up, as if someone had popped me in the nose. I shook my head, trying to reorient myself, like a dumb draft animal besieged by biting flies.
The stands began to thin. Several fans gazed back at the field before the exit, and waved at the green in dismissive disgust in a way that you only see in badly overacted movies.
I pronounced stupidly, "We're not leaving."
My brother smirked and rolled his eyes, as if to say, no kidding, we're not leaving, Captain Obvious.
Neither one of us could leave, because our Dad had taught us that you can't leave, win or lose, until you sing the Eyes of Texas. I remember standing with him through a brutal 50-7 win by Baylor in Austin where, when the game ended, the stands had cleared like we had showed up to the game on a Tuesday. We stood by ourselves, sang the Eyes of Texas, and walked to his car wordlessly, some martyr's part of me proud that I was in a family that didn't quit on our school. I consoled myself by picking up forty plastic cups scattered around the stadium, hosed them out, and presented them proudly to my mother like a labrador retriever with a dead squirrel carcass.
We kicked a field goal to make it 45-3 and the crowd cheered sarcastically, the bitterness of the fake enthusiasm tasting like bile. I joined in on that one. I didn't feel better.
Marty Cherry entered the game for Walton and was hit so hard on one of UCLA's seven sacks that he quit football for modeling.
When it was 59-3, my brother and I nodded wordlessly and walked towards the exit. We knew we could time it so that we would leave the stadium grounds just as the final gun sounded and we could still hear the Eyes of Texas. It was cheating and the only time I've left a Texas game early.
It was a short drive to my apartment in Westlake, since the game day traffic had dispersed over two quarters. I was supposed to host a post-game party, but I cancelled it. The first thing I saw when I entered my apartment were my season tickets, neatly displayed on my coffee table. I grabbed them, stared at them, muttered like a madman, paced around, walked out on my balcony, and set them on fire with a cheap plastic lighter, holding them until the flames singed my fingers. As they curled up into carbon detritus, I placed the ashes in an envelope.
I scrawled a Bellmont address in my messy handwriting, placed a bluebonnet stamp in the corner, and walked to the mailbox.
The next day, some secretary in Bellmont would open the letter and briefly wonder what it meant, the dark ash scattering across her desk.
But she knew. We all did.