In the end, they laid down in the end zone and made confetti angels.
The young men of the 2018 Texas Longhorns football team, who moments earlier defied Las Vegas oddsmakers, ESPN pundits, Internet trolls, adjusted statistical projections, and conventional wisdom by convincingly winning the 2019 Sugar Bowl against the heavily-favored Georgia Bulldogs, suddenly became third graders on a school day cancelled for weather. They lay on their backs on the Superdome turf, extended their arms and legs and moved their appendages back and forth in the fallen confetti to simulate the outline of winged, celestial beings.
After six grueling, punishing months of physically and mentally challenging football and vindication on a national stage, our kids finally felt the burden of the expectations and demands of the University of Texas Football Nation lift from their shoulders like the last rep in an early morning workout session. The first impulse of these kids was just that – to be kids, to be silly, to revel in the moment, to exult in the unhinged joy of simultaneously being young and good at playing a game with a ball, somehow presciently knowing that moments like this are few and far between and rarely if ever come in professional sports, where the contest changes from a game to a job.
Valerie, my wife, had never travelled to Louisiana. Her background is in mental health and social work, so I thought it would be a good match, considering more than half of the Pelican State should be on lithium.
The two things that hit you while driving east on I-10 through southern Louisiana are the bayous and the personal injury attorney billboards. The former are straight out of central casting: stagnant, moss-covered, dark, beautiful, foreboding, and mysterious. The latter are as ubiquitous as a fist in your face from the childhood bully’s game of “Why do you keep hitting yourself?” – and equally useful.
Then I interacted with Louisiana drivers on their highways, and it all made sense. There were so many attorney ads because there were so many car accidents because a significant minority of Louisianans navigatethe road as if they are Uber drivers for Satan.
On a personal note, listen, Boudreaux, if I can’t see your headlights in my rear view mirror, you’re too damn close.
The rear view mirror, Boudreaux. The skinny side-to-side one in the middle of the front windshield.
Yes, Boudreaux, it’s used for seeing the cars or trucks coming up behind you.
No, Boudreaux, I don’t think it’s called the “checkin’ myself out thingy.”
Be sure and keep that lawyer’s number handy, big man.
Fortunately, the Big Easy was a different story altogether.
New Orleans slowly revealed herself as a world of shockingly sharp contradictions: the resplendent, old, historic French Quarter, elegant and ancient, populated with smatterings of homeless men sitting on sidewalks and stoops surrounded by cigarette butts and tallboys. A New Year’s Day breakfast of seasoned pulled pork topped with eggs benedict with a side of cinnamon swirl pancakes at the Ruby Slipper was followed by tiptoeing through the trash, filth, spilled liquor, and vomit being sprayed off the sidewalks by a small army of maintenance workers.The solemnness and dignity of Louis Armstrong Park sat just across Rampart Street from three-story buildings with rotting trim, boarded windows, and faded paint.
It’s an apt metaphor for the Longhorns’ season: success and failure camping comfortably next to each other. As the year progressed, we became a much better football team – a more confident, physical team – but nothing came easy. Losing the opening game to Maryland, barely beating Tulsa by the exact same score as the Georgia game, gutting out too-close wins against Kansas State, Baylor, and Kansas.
Field goals. Injuries. Two-point conversions. Letting fourth quarter leads slip away. Shanked punts. Kickoffs floundering out of bounds. Targeting calls. Linebacker pass coverage. More injuries. Linebacker gap assignments on run plays. The Boyd Tax. Blown DB coverage. Giving up late touchdowns in bowl games.
I can’t off the top of my head remember anything easy about this season.
Not a damn thing.
Everything took effort. Everything was messy. Everything was complicated. Every breath was labored. Every step ached. Every punch landed in another tar baby. Nothing came easily this season, including writing this column.
Joy, pain, excitement, dejection, hope, depression – the 2018 Horns have been through the ringer this year, and dragged all of us along for the ride. Every time I left DKR, I felt like a wrung out washcloth – squeezed, twisted, knotted up in a vain attempt to wring every last drop of fluid out of me.
New Year’s Day was no different.
As Valerie and I sat back in our Superdome plastic seats, we were physically and mentally exhausted, my tinnitus acting up, my throat raw, the small of my back aching from standing every defensive third down.
And I wasn’t actually playing football.
The Longhorn fan base owes an unpayable debt of gratitude to this year’s senior class who, between Charlie Strong’s incompetence, Internet sniping, and revolving offensive coordinators, put up with more crap over the course of their college careers than whoever took Suzanne Somer’s place on “Three’s Company.”
Sorry. Even my pop culture references are strained at this point.
Regardless, the win over a vaunted SEC team leaves us in a good position. The recruiting class looks to be shaping up nicely, with a Bru surprise, and there may be a few noteworthy late additions before the next Signing Day.
Plus, I know what some of you will say: hard times make us appreciate good things even more. Nothing is free in life; you get what you earn through sweat and determination. I get your point; my favorite guitar solos are the ones I had to work the hardest to learn.
The lessons learned by pain – growing and otherwise – will only make next year’s wins sweeter.
Until then, I’ll comfort myself with visions of end zone angels, the one easy, effortless, unforced thing that happened this season. Laissez le bon temps rouler.
A 1986 graduate of the University of Texas, Jeff Conner has held many jobs in his life: husband, brother, uncle, son, oil field roustabout, short-order cook, sandblaster, irrigation pipe mover, musician, retail assistant manager, attorney-at-law, public school teacher, preacher, cartoonist, and writer. While he does have a hot, young wife, Conner is neither as clever nor as good-looking as he believes himself to be. Jeff is currently teaching Algebra 2 and A.P. Statistics at Legacy Early College High School in Taylor, Texas.Conner’s regularly submitted commentary appears in InsideTexas.com and Inside Texas Magazine. The opinions presented do not necessarily reflect the views of the Inside Texas editorial staff.