Longhorns, Fighting Irish, and an Unexpected Friendship
September 21, 1996. That’s how far back I have to go to tell this story. And it seems appropriate that I tell it this week, as the University of Texas Longhorns take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in Austin for each team’s opening game of the 2016 season this weekend. Once again – since Grandma gave me the gift of gab – make yourself comfortable.
Steve and I met in the Longhorn Band at UT. He says we met in 1985, at the Fiesta Parade in San Antonio (LHB traditionally kicks off the parade as the first band); I know better, and actually have proof. We met in the fall of 1984 at a meeting of the LHB Decadence newsletter staff. This was the newsletter that was written by students and distributed to LHB members to read as we traveled to away games. I still have that particular newsletter; I’m surprised Steve hasn’t burned the evidence by now.
But I digress.
I tell that short version of the story to share why Steve and I, once we graduated, bought season tickets to the Longhorn football games every year for 23 years. Being in the stadium was just in our blood, and that blood bled a very boiling burnt orange. Our first seats were well past the end zone, in the sun; eventually, we moved to an area that was under the overhang on the west side, shaded, and filled with characters that we named “Angry Man,” “Headset Man,” and “Hairnet Lady.” Each game was not complete unless these individuals were in their proper seats; only then did we feel at home.
In 1996, we only had one child (Jack came along in 2000), so we were able to invite friends to the game. We had four tickets, and they were stacked two and two (rather than four in a row). This helped us out in that we could easily talk with our guests and explain traditions to them (cue “Angry Man,” “Headset Man,” and “Hairnet Lady”).
At this particular game, we had invited a coworker of mine, Scott Riddles, and his friend John. Each football season, Scott and John, longtime buddies, had a guy’s weekend, when they selected a high-profile football game to attend. This year it was #6 UT v #8 ND, in Austin. The stadium was still known as Texas Memorial Stadium, but had recently undergone improvements, and on this particular day, the seats were filled to capacity. Who could doubt it? This was a big game – Texas, coming in with 2 wins on the season, as did Notre Dame. The two teams met the year before in South Bend, where ND trounced the Longhorns with a score of 55-27. [Quick pause to say that Steve remembers it well, since he was a stones throw from SB at the time, and I made him feel bad about even thinking of attending without me.] Needless to say, the excitement on this night was in the air – and the expectation of payback? We could almost taste it.
The game was great. Many of the fans in our area stood, rang their cowbells, chanted “Texas” and “Fight,” when appropriate. Me? I joined right in, with one addition. Scott and John were sitting on the lower two seats, which meant that Steve and I were on the upper two. This allowed me to stomp my foot loudly on the seat as we cheered and yelled; even better, neither Scott nor John cared that I did. I’m telling you, it was one of those electric environments that only sports venues can provide, and everyone was on their feet, cheering and yelling.
Well, except this one guy. And boy, did he let me know it.
At the start of the second half, the game was very close – 14-17, in favor of ND. (Hey, the internet is good for some stuff like historical box scores). So, as all good Longhorn fans do, we got back on our feet and started yelling and pounding the seats. That is until, in one moment of silence after a play, we all heard a voice, coming from a few seats to our right:
“HEY, LITTLE LADY, YOU MIND BANGING ON YOUR OWN SEAT FOR AWHILE? YOU’RE GIVING ME A HEADACHE!”
Just in case you are wondering, he clearly meant me.
I looked to my right, and saw an older man, maybe in his 70’s, Texas Longhorn cap on his head, glaring at me with what can only be termed a “Get off my lawn!” scowl. My response was somewhat unexpected: completely embarrassed, I turned my head toward the field, and sat down on my seat, silent. (It happens). His words seemed to hang in the air. Scott, feeling my shock, tried to lighten the mood. He turned around from his seat, and casually reminded me, “Well, you could always tell him that technically you are banging on your own seat. And he should try sitting in front of you!”
But not much helped my mood. In fact, his outburst made the yelling from others worse. As you can imagine, the nearby fans more than made up for my missing voice the next two quarters. But, despite a significantly valiant effort, our Horns lost the game, 27-24, in the last-minute of the game. We left the stadium – me, significantly humbled and dejected, other fans more boisterous but equally downcast. And I certainly didn’t make eye contact with the man who yelled at me.
The season continued, and I remained energetic, but quiet. I just didn’t want to get so worked up that I was scolded again. So, there I sat, timidly (don’t laugh), through each of the next two home games.
Then came the last game of the season – the big rivalry with Texas A&M. Nothing compares to a rivalry, and at the time, the Horns had two: The TX/OU game in October in Dallas, and the home/home series against Texas A&M. Always – and I mean always – a great game, when anything can happen. On the field, and off.
As Steve and I made our way to our seats, someone reached out and grabbed my arm. It was him, and I stared, wide-eyed, wondering what I had done now. “Little Lady, I want to make sure we talk before the end of the game. I have something for you.” I looked him in the eye, a little confused, but answered, “OK.” Then I made my way to our seats. He reminded me again at halftime as we passed to go to the concession stand. Steve and I were both curious by this time.
We cheered the entire game (me, still a bit reserved so as not to offend). And our cheering paid off – in what can only be described as a solid thumping, the Horns beat the Aggies 51-15, earning the right to meet Nebraska in the first ever Big 12 Championship game the following week. (The Horns also won that one, something that can never be taken away).
After the game, Steve and I made our way to his seat, and sat down beside him. What happened next was, at best, unexpected. He looked at me and said something like this:
“Young lady, a few games ago, I did and said something that was completely out of character for me, and I want to say I am sorry. It is clear that you are a wonderful fan, and you shouldn’t have to quiet your enthusiasm.” (or something like that)
Then he reached into his pocket and brought out a card, with his name on it, and handed it to me, with a hug:
L. DeWitt Hale, attorney
And such became a wonderful friendship. I learned that day that DeWitt is a former Representative from the Texas House, serving in various capacities for almost 42 years. His heart, like mine, led him to fight for better education and equal rights for all. You can read more about him HERE. Over the years, we became pen pals; we sometimes traded gifts; he grew to love the kids, and showed it by sharing some of his prized coin collection with them. When the Longhorns went to the Rose Bowl for the first time in history (2005), we shared pictures with him; and when the Longhorns won the National Championship in 2006, we had something new to celebrate!
Mr. Hale lost his beloved wife, Carol, in 2008, and eventually, it became difficult for DeWitt to attend the games himself. Our family, too, found that attending all of the games was, at best, difficult, and our time in Austin diminished. When we did attend, I would make sure to talk with DeWitt’s daughter and grandchildren, who were the light of his eyes. When Texas was invited to the National Championship again after the 2009 season, we had hopes that all of us could travel to the game together. However, those dreams became impractical for lots of reasons. Steve and I dropped our season tickets during the 2015 season, finally admitting giving in to the inevitable….we will likely not be season ticket holders again.
DeWitt is still around; no doubt having in-depth and meaningful discussions with his children and grandchildren. It’s funny, I haven’t seen him in years, but he remains in my heart every time we sing “The Eyes of Texas.” I miss that man. I miss the experience of talking with him. He is a wealth of knowledge and widsom. And he made me a better person.
In my last blog post, I wrote about listening to understand, and not to reply (Stephen Covey). That thought applies here as well. Both DeWitt and I have had a chance to listen to each other, after what many would call a rocky start. And by listening, we opened up a whole new route to friendship. We accomplished this not by yelling, but by listening and loving.
Somewhere in your life, a situation requires listening, rather than yelling. Find a way to address it. Apologize. Forgive each other. And always, always, let love be your final word.