Kaboom! The Texas cannon’s last report blasted late Saturday night. The disastrous KU football game against Texas had ended. After every score, after every extra point, before every kickoff and at the end of every quarter another Kaboom. Finally the one last victory blast. Following each blast someone near me always blurted out, “F— that canon.” Faces were long and drawn on the KU sidelines. Laura’s and my time deep in the heart of Texas needed to come to an end.
Our day had been a real Texas Two-Step. We started the day photographing the Big 12 Cross Country Championships, hosted by Texas A&M in College Station, before driving back to Austin for the Saturday night football game against the Longhorns.
The journey began as usual with a charter flight from Topeka to Austin. Since the football team stays north of Austin in Round Rock, we needed to make sure all the camera gear coming off the plane was held on the tarmac and not stowed under one of the four buses heading north from the airport.
Charter flights deplane far from the main terminal. A rolling staircase awaits the long line of coaches, players and people like me. The Director of Football Operations, George Matakis, is always the first off. Friday, I followed him, ahead of even coach Turner Gill. Gathering our cases, I stood waiting for Laura and the cross country media relations contact, Brad Gilbert, to make their way forward from the far reaches of the Frontier jet.
I kept staring at the very sharp Ford Edge SUV sitting on the tarmac by the plane with doors open, engine running and a comely young woman with clipboard in hand. Our Director of Athletics Sheahon Zenger was not on the plane, but there were many big boosters that would be wined and dined Friday night by our fund-raising group, the Williams Fund. Surely, someone from that group would be picking up their ride. Except they did not.
Finally, I asked if that Ford was being held for me. Unbelievably it was. Boy, we looked big time as we loaded gear and readied to depart. Then things went completely over the top. The pilots strolled over. They introduced themselves and began asking me whether everything had gone well on the flight. I assured them it had, but they insisted that if I needed anything to please let them know. My goodness, they somehow confused themselves into thinking I was the AD. Our real AD would have cringed to see this, and I was so taken aback I forgot to get a picture of this scene. Super way to start a trip with my wife and Gilbert roaring with laughter as we zoomed away.
The Topeka and Lawrence areas suffered greatly from the lack of rain this summer and fall. However, compared to Texas, our area looks lush. Trees were so dry as we made our way to College Station, it seemed a snap of the fingers could generate enough heat to ignite an inferno. Driving through Bastrop, where Laura’s brother once was an assistant high school football coach, charred timber remained from the summer’s raging fires.
In those dried out forests outside College Station, we took Gilbert out for his 23rd birthday to the Koppe Bridge Bar and Grill. The weathered building was home to the “best hamburger in Brazos County” according to recommendations. One review claimed that there were never less than 15 pickup trucks in the parking lot as testament to the joint’s appeal. We did not count, but there certainly were plenty of pickups when we pulled into the gravel parking lot.
The other certainty was that the burgers were very good. The only problem is that even though we all ordered our burger basket loaded a different way, every burger arrived dressed the same. Thankfully mine came as ordered. Laura ditched her cheese. Gilbert cleaned off his jalapenos, but never got his bacon. Sorry.
The next morning, we headed for the country club for cross country. I have testified often to Laura’s great sense of direction and mapping skills, which I love. Laura is also known for her side-seat driving, which I do not always love. With Gilbert in the back seat, I suddenly found myself with another mapper.
As our intern, Gilbert really wants to do things correctly. He was sweating the details of covering the meet and wanted to get there quickly. I really like Gilbert, so I bit my tongue and took directions from them both. No wandering from me today. We arrived well ahead of time and all went well.
The setting was beautiful and fan friendly with the runners making frequent trips around a course based primarily on two large loops. There were only a few bumps on the course to slow the runners. Rebeka Stowe led the Kansas runners with a seventh place finish, the highest a female KU runner has finished in Big 12 competition.
On the drive back to Austin, we drove past the Texas A&M stadium filled to the brim with Aggies. The stadium is monstrous but not a complete bowl. It was easy to see thousands of the fans. I have never driven by a stadium filled on game day. Usually I am inside. What a strange sight. Laura rolled down the windows as we passed just a block away. There really was no sound which shocked us all. When we turned on the radio to find that Missouri was on the way to upsetting the favored home team, we understood why there were no cheers.
Our Ford drove us smoothly to another giant stadium in Austin, but the electronics on the car were infuriating. There were no knobs or switches, just a panel with too many touch-screen buttons. I would need to pull over just to change the temperature if I was driving alone. Swiping your hand past the electronic panels without touching it still meant the volume could suddenly burst our eardrums or light up the heated seats. It was so pleasant to get back home to my little Honda where everything was easily understood and could be adjusted in the dark.
The Texas mystique always amazes me. The biggest and the best is how Texas fans love to think of themselves, but the 2005 National Championship came after a drought that dated back to 1970. Both Nebraska and Oklahoma have far more championships. What Texas has is cash, and cash makes the world of college athletics go round. It made Nebraska jealous, Oklahoma irate and even Kansas envious. Texas and their fans know this and love to flaunt it. I especially love their horn hand signal held high to the sky for an injured player as if Bevo might awaken from his drug-induced state and salve all wounds.
As big as their stadium has grown, the stands trap the press box made up of many small rooms. A small classroom hosts the pre-game meal with school desks as dinner tables, a Texas Schoolroom Depository for the media. Standing on the podium to pile cheese, lettuce and salsa on my soft tacos, I looked out on the crowd of writers and photographers in their school desks. It made me want to write my name on blackboard behind me and announce, “My name is Mr. Abagnale,” from Catch Me If You Can, and call a writer up front to read a few lines. Of course Bob Davis, the voice of the Jayhawks, said in my case I would be writing, “I will not…,” 200 times on the board. Then Laura joked that experts say the little things others find cute and endearing early in a relationship wear off after a few months, but in her case it was about 10 years. Ouch.
There is no way to truly explain what has happened to Kansas football, other than to say “ouch.” Frustration rules, even for Laura and me. Photographing that football game Saturday night was one of the hardest ever. It wears on us, and our stake in all this is so very small. Imagine how hard it is for others with far bigger stakes. Sometimes their best is just not good enough.
By the time we got home, and I finished off the football gallery, the day was 21 hours long. It did not help that we had to drive to Lawrence because our main camera case did not get held back in Topeka as usual. Guess I should have been second off the plane in Topeka, too. Oh well, just another round of two-stepping with my “sweetheart of the rodeo.”