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Why We Come Back

St. Darrell's Cathedral.
St. Darrell's Cathedral.

Excuse me while I do my best Bill Little, not in jest but in earnest.

Football may be played by young men (please, stop calling college students "kids"), but it's because of old men that they play it in front of the world, instead of in dusty lots, unseen. People too old to risk life and limb, or like me who never played the game, or rabid college football fans who certainly are not men (truly precious), all pour millions of dollars into the arena every year. Every year, it gets bigger. Why?

Foreign academics, when they visit or come to work on college campuses in the US, are often shocked by the scale of stadia and the pull on students, deserting lecture halls the Friday before OU, camping on campus, chanting at night beside administration buildings. Why?

Chances are, you yourself don't know why it's so important to you, and wouldn't bother to ask. That's not a poor reflection on you. This is what you love, and love is blind. This is what you know, and you wouldn't have it any other way.

Testosterone rises, naturally, in the fall. The outdoors are slightly less hellish, promising real twilights sometime soon and an opportunity for outdoor beer drinking that is more lingering than recuperative, and we content ourselves with the idea that our drought is nearly over. No, not content. We roll it over in our minds, like the night before Christmas or the last few minutes before a booty call. Young people flood the campus and its environs at the end of August's blast, clogging traffic and spilling amateur drunks reeling down sidewalks, through bushes, and into People who never took a class at UT are aware of the change and the season. How good will the team be this year? Will they beat _____, finally? Decisively? Dare we hope, definitively?

No, that last is neither possible nor desirable, and I will attempt to show you why.

The shorts are so short this year that I fear an e-coli outbreak. College women are taller than I remember, and thinner, too, now that the advice of 80's cardiologists, to eat as little fat and as much carbs as possible, is blissfully forgotten. Thighs pivot by as high as an elephant's eye, and if "Brazilian" is no human tongue, hopefully it is never far from one. There are fewer "blondes," but more South Asians; less makeup, but more athletes. Together with the young men at UT today, who thankfully are growing out of their V-neck T-shirts, they are no more nor no less clueless than they were over thirty years ago, when I first saw the 40 Acres, no more than you would expect from people whose lives are rearranged three times a year, drowned in formulae, texts, inscrutable profs, and a tide of booze. You remember this time because you know you were lucky ever to have had it.

UT is exactly as you left it. And it is utterly different. Many of the dotty brick buildings that you remember, reeking of bat shit, are gone, replaced by glass and steel and bearing the luminous surnames of donors, generous even in hard times. If modern architects have devised bat-excluding geometries, they are beyond my ken. But I hope they haven't. Our bats eat as much as 9.07 metric tonnes of insects each night (being Mexican Free-Tail Bats, they're on the metric system), so as far as I'm concerned, they're on my team. Also: mammals.

UT's landscaping continues to change every few weeks, either to burn what's left in the budget before it reverts at the start of our artificial "year," or because it's run by an amnesiac. They've finally discovered a variety of burnt-orange flower and planted them in quantity at the north end of DKR. Ask your wife what they are, because I certainly don't know.

The Drag now spreads west in fingers, threading through strangely tall towers of in-fill, whose lofty tenants must be serviced by shops and stands where you remember sleepy, sagging, pier-and-beam houses that could be leased for little more than air. Construction is constant, traffic is throttled, and 24th & Guadalupe still courses with the most beautiful women on earth every minute. Same, and different.

But how will you know? Your memory is a liar. Ask yourself to recall Bubba Jacques' special teams fumble return that sealed the humiliation of a superior Sooner team. Then go look at the video. The uniforms haven't changed, technically, but they're different. You remembered it wrong. Recall Ricky running free for a TD and the record. It's probably not the way you remember it. Facemasks were slightly different. Linebacker's builds were different, as were their pads. Looks weird, huh? Remembering means telling yourself a story with the words that you have now. An indifferent eye, however, would show you how strange the world was, now. Photos show you perms, Cosby sweaters, a stadium with an Olympic track stalked by a jalopy. But tomorrow, they'll kick off a whole new unknown, and whatever happens will lend its colors to your memory's palette and bleed through the pages one by one, even if the brownwater you smuggled into DKR rolls your hippocampus like a sailor on Fleet Week by the end of the third quarter.

You're not finished, you're not satisfied, and you're not even on the team. There's never been a truly perfect season (OK, except for that one), and even that will never satisfy you. That's why the most rabid fans' devotion is born in a hard loss, like an aggie's inferiority complex or Scottish nationalism. It keeps you coming back, year after year, for redemption.

Sucker. It's never going to be enough. There's a loss that stomped a hole in you, chances are, that you'll never fill, not even with a decade of straight wins over whoever it was. Maybe it happened when you were little, grownup bodies in the bleachers suddenly upthrust around you in anticipation, but then silent in a way that told you: doom, without even seeing the field. Maybe it happened when your buddy in the student draw office snuck you a pair on the east 50, before the upper-deck, and you blacked-in from your pre-game sacrament of Jäger and Beast, just in time to see Gardere piss it away, loosening from you an upcheck of invective that blew your chances with that freshman, you know, the one with the Guess-jeans ass? Maybe it was after you graduated, when UT finally turned the damned program around and had a shot at it all, only to blow it in a rematch with Colorado.

The fall is too short, especially in Texas, and there are so few games that each means all, Russian roulette with thirteen chambers in the cylinder, held up to your heart. But pulling the trigger is what it means to be alive.


Now: think of that idiot you used to know, the one who wrapped his dumb ass around a tree back in '92, and all the things he's missed, being dead and all. When that canon goes off tomorrow, you grow another layer and are thus marked among the living. You'll hang your own personal timeline, births, deaths, marriages (especially those scheduled by non-football fans on fall weekends) on names, games, and bowls, your own burnt-orange memory palace. This is how a football fan counts his rings. It's only over when we are, which is why we always come back.