The Red River Rivalry is college football legend. When it is your first ever, it is to be absorbed.
The nausea seemed to come in waves for our burnt-orange clad friend late Friday night in downtown Dallas. Perhaps he had had one too many, or five. As we approached his staggering frame, he went tumbling down, with his friends stumbling over him, one accidentally kicking him, leaving him bruised and bloodied as we endeavored to throw him in the Uber.
The pressure seemed to come in waves for our burnt-orange clad #11 late Saturday afternoon at the Cotton Bowl. Perhaps he had had one too many hits, or five. As Oklahoma’s defensive line approached his staggering frame, Sam Ehlinger went tumbling down. His overmatched offensive line stumbled over him. It left him bruised and bloodied as the Longhorns unsuccessfully attempted to find the end zone.
All weekend, crimson and burnt orange mingled together, be it at expensive steakhouses, hotel lobbies, or West End dive bars. The tension bubbled up occasionally, as inebriated Okies started the familiar “Boomer Sooner” chant. Their Texan brethren would counter with the admittedly uncreative “OU Sucks!” As we stood in line to enter our first Texas State Fair, the smell of fried everything overpowered our olfactory senses. The shadow of the old Fair Park Stadium loomed in the distance.
Lines for fair coupons that could be exchanged for corn dogs, roller coasters, and beer (but necessarily in that order) stretched indiscriminately. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry. The humidity choked the urgency out of the crowds. We saw a couple of fans beaten down by the mixture of heat and overdrinking, though nobody the morning of the game quite matched the aforementioned UT fan from the night before.
The only “ride” we spent our coupons on was a cable car trip over the fair. We were able to peer down on the madness, floating over families in line for the petting zoo. There were excited twentysomething boyfriends trying to win ludicrously expensive stuffed animals for their girlfriends. Of course there were also old college buddies reuniting over lukewarm beer and the hope of what was to come later that afternoon.
ESPN chose to move the game from its customary 11am local starting time to a more hospitable 2:30pm local starting time, and there was a sense of inertia about the crowd as the morning stretched its legs. Nobody seemed exactly sure what to do about the extra time, and many (including us) simply headed inside the hallowed stadium early. We found our nosebleeds, high above the Texas end zone, and marveled at its beauty. My friend remarked that the field looked small, wondering if maybe it was a smaller field area than is customary. He was wrong, of course, as the Cotton Bowl seats are actually fairly removed from the field, but the giant men did look awfully small from our perch in Section 116.
We took a lap around the stadium at field level. We stopped in the Oklahoma end zone as the Sooners ran out in fully dressed warm-ups for the first time to thunderous cheers from the faithful. Perhaps the most iconic part of the Red River Rivalry is the 50-yard line, where the overwhelmingly crimson North side of the stadium bleeds into the overwhelmingly orange South side. We stopped right there and took in a panorama. It was the last moment of calm we had all day. We returned to our seats and awaited the mayhem.
Oklahoma’s band represented the designated visiting team, and so they performed first. We heard “Boomer Sooner” for the first of what seemed like hundreds of times. While the OU fans on the opposite side of the stadium were loud in their cheers, they were drowned out on our side by the chants of “Texas! Fight!” and anti-Sooner songs.
Following Oklahoma’s respectable band came the massive Texas band. It numbered at least 170 and seemingly swallowed up every inch of the field. The designated home team was given the honor of playing the national anthem. It was played without players present (perhaps a good idea considering the setting and the difference in demographics between players and fans). Curiously, though there was a massive Texas flag covering the Oklahoma end zone instead of a traditional Stars & Stripes flag. I remarked that this was funny, but was quickly assured by the Fort Worth native next to me that it was only because I wasn’t born in the great state of Texas that I thought so. “This is how we do it down here,” she said.
At long last, the game began. And it… was… ugly. Texas picked up a first down through misdirection, then promptly stalled. OU ran at will before Heisman candidate Baker Mayfield lofted a spiral so high into the afternoon sky that it seemed even we could touch it. Eventually, it fell into the waiting arms of wide out Jeff Badet in the Texas endzone. 7-0 Sooners. Soon, it was 10-0, and then 17-0, and then 20-0. The Texas enthusiasm did not dim, per se, but it certainly was replaced by frustration and a sense of helplessness as the Sooners looked poised to roll.
Then, a funny thing happened. Freshman Sam Ehlinger, harassed all day by a dominant Sooners offensive line, began to find receivers. Two Sooners personal fouls aided the Texas drive which ended with a throwback screen to Jeff Porter, and Texas was on the board. The cheers got louder. Mayfield threw his first interception of the season and Texas kicked a field goal to end the half down only 10, despite being outgained by nearly 200 yards. The cheers got louder.
When Texas scored to cut the Sooners lead to 23-17 in the third quarter, the nervousness on the Oklahoma side was palpable. We could feel it even from as far away as we were. The closing stanza of the Texas fight song, which had been sang in defiance earlier in the afternoon, became a rallying cry for the believers: “Give ‘em hell, give ‘em hell, OU sucks!” cried Longhorns in the South end zone. The idea of Texas, a program so flush with money that it has its own network, being the plucky underdog seems silly. I suppose you just had to be in the Cotton Bowl this afternoon.
Texas scored in the 4th to take the lead, if only for a fleeting second. I sensed the inevitable. A tiring defense that had played too many snaps in the first half finally gave way. Mayfield found his tight end Mark Andrews all alone on a 59-yard wheel route to take a 29-24 lead. The reaction from the small number of Sooners around us was at once euphoric and measured. They have been bitten by the rattlesnake that is an unranked Texas team twice in the past five seasons. They knew to not celebrate too emphatically.
In the end, Ehlinger was overwhelmed. He was tremendously athletic all game, running for 110 yards on 22 carries. But, seemingly every scramble was born of desperation, featuring frantic spin moves and sprints to the far side. The defense poured in like flooding river water. The game did not end without drama, as Texas’ circus play featured five laterals and a brief moment where there appeared to be an opening. But the Sooners were too good on this day. They out-gained Texas 518-428, and bossed the game for four quarters.
After the game, Oklahoma continued their newfound tradition of planting the OU flag in the 50-yard line. That received rapturous applause from the overjoyed Sooner fans and boos from Texas fans who bitterly muttered of victories of yore. Baker Mayfield and first-year coach Lincoln Riley took turns donning the Golden Hat that goes to the victor of this game, and the climb down began.
The Cotton Bowl simply was not built, at least not originally, to house the 92,100 it now holds. Bottlenecks occurred seemingly at every turn. It took 25 minutes to exit the stadium, and another 20 to clear the fairgrounds. “BOOMER!” cried out Sooner pedestrians, motorists, and those riding public transportation. “SOONER!” came the reply, every single time.
To the victor goes the spoils, as they say, But, to the neutral, asking for a better atmosphere would have been pure greed. The cacophony inside and outside the stadium was at times overwhelming. The sun was setting over the Texas State Fair. While Oklahoma had won the day, we had also scored a victory just for being there. The only thing missing was former Sooner wideout Malcolm Kelly to wrap the day up with a freestyle rap.
Long live the Red River Rivalry.