Sportswriting

casemccoyTEXAS vs. TCU 2013: Stormy night in Cowtown

Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale/ A tale of a crazy game
That started at just half past six/ and ended next a.m.
The mate was the bro of Colt McCoy/ the Skipper on his way
After BYU how would the team react/ to a three-hour delay/

A three hour delay

It was indeed a strange one in Fort Worth last night, the first time I’ve read the New Yorker cover to cover after a game started and didn’t miss a play. Texas was leading TCU 17-7 with about six minutes to go in the first half when the sky lit up with lightning that Fox Sports announcer Joey Harrington originally called a shooting star. And because of all those folks in the past who’ve been struck by lightning at college and pro football games when they kept playing, the game was put on hold.

So instead of watching our suddenly ferocious defense swarm the heavily tattooed TCU quarterback like Tons of Anarchy, we got to watch a documentary about how Mike Tyson used to be bad, but now he’s good. Just like the Longhorns defense. There’s only so long you can watch a man with a tattooed face talk, so I actually switched channels to watch my two least favorite baseball teams try to win some kind of title or championship. But I couldn’t have dreamed a better ending than that one, where one team felt cheated and the other deemed undeserving. Baseball, you blow.

Football is where it’s at, no matter what I read in that New Yorker article on concussions that was so long and detailed, I think I’m ready for my second year of medical school. You know you’re a true fan when your team has a 10-pt lead against an opponent with no offense and you’re afraid to leave the couch for ten minutes during a weather delay because you might miss a play- always a handoff to Gray up the middle for a yard. The kids want a bedtime story, but the only thing you want to read is the scroll to find out which channel on your cable system the game will be moved to when it resumes.2013-10-26_Football_vs_TCU_Elisabeth_Dillon5009

I think we all pegged the Horns as the team that would come out mopey after an additional three hours away from Twitter, but they lost none of the fire they started the game with. Case McCoy has found a favorite third down target in Marcus Johnson (as Harrington glumly crumples all his notes about Jaxon Shipley), who continued his OU streak with a 65-yd bomb on 3rd and 10 for UT’s first touchdown and then caught a 43-yard pass on 3rd and 9 after 3/8 time. (After the delay, halftime was only three minutes, not even enough time to take a Tom Delay.)

The schedule started pretty rough/ The touted team was tossed

If not for the courage of the ’13 Horns/The season would be lost

The season would be lost

On a weekend when their home town became Vince Gilligan’s Island, the Longhorns were up in Cowtown breaking bad habits en route to a 30-7 domination of a Horned Frog team that beat them in Austin last Thanksgiving.

Show of hands, how many of you thought, after the third game, that Texas would now be 4-0 in the Big 12, tied for first place with RG3/Baylor University? Put ‘em down, liars. After being trounced by Mormons in the land of Jazz, and then segregated from the win column by Ole Miss the next week, we were ready to throw Mack Brown under the Earl Campbell. Emergency leak-fixer Greg Robinson looks so much like coach Jim (“Playoffs!?”) Mora that you could hear him incredulously say “Bowl Game?!” This was a team stranded on Joe Jamail’s yacht in the middle of a Mediocre Sea. And now they’re 5-2 overall and 4-0 in conference. In the last four games they’ve avenged three last season defeats, beating Kansas State by 10, Oklahoma by 16 and TCU by 23.

They did lose something kinda big in the TCU game: Tyrone Swoopes’ redshirt. This is the kid from the North Texas DQ town of Wainwright who’s been compared to Vince Young. But unlike our hero #10, who was the number one player in the country out of high school and had a year to mature without burning any eligibility, Swoopes will use one of his four years at UT as the guy on the bench everyone’s gonna yell for when Case McCoy forgets he’s not just throwing the ball in his backyard and serves up interceptions with a wine list. McCoy’s majesty one moment and stumbling the next gives Longhorn games a reality show feel. The second pick last night, an underthrow into double coverage, was one Honey of a Boo-Boo. In a town where “Duck Dynasty” is about a newspaper sportswriter’s tenure, McCoy is the quirky outdoorsman who charms us with his spunk, then makes us scratch our heads over some of his quirks. The emergence of Case McCoy as leader of the streaking, rebounding Longhorns is the story of the year in the Burnt Orange grove.

He was a castaway, ridiculed, doubted, given up on. Except by himself. They say he’s fearlessly positive, that there are no questions in his mind. He’s got the compassion of Ghandi, but also the arm strength. He’s not physically gifted, but he’s got the heart of a champion. We’ll take him.

Next week is Kansas at home. An easy win. Then West Virginia on the road. More revenge. The first real test of these rebound warriors is Oklahoma State on Nov. 16, then Texas Tech on Thanksgiving, leading to the game of the year, Dec. 7 against Baylor up in Waco. I don’t know, I see a possible 10-2 season and a Big 12 championship. The defense, the Daje, the Gray Ghost and Malcolm up the middle. Jaxon, Magic Mike, Kendall, Marcus- some real weapons for Good Case to hit in stride. Don’t know how this season turned, but the biggest play of the year was the call on that Johnathan Gray fumble against Iowa State that wasn’t reversed.

That was the gift that made this season start to feel special. That was some Higher Power stuff that’s thrown out there to see how you handle it and this year’s Longhorns have been playing with a renewed sense of purpose. They were supposed to be all over by now, but they’ve only just begun.

So join us here each week my friends

You’re sure to scream and yell

At 11 men on the field each play

And not one’s John Manziel

 

 

THE QB: WAY BEFORE VINCE THERE WAS JAMES STREET

The QB and the Coach. The scoreboard tells the story.

On a wall in a conference room in the shadow of the state Capitol hangs a painting that freezes the pivotal moment of the Texas victory over Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl that sewed up the 1969 national championship. Senior quarterback James Street is on the sidelines talking to Coach Darrell Royal under a scoreboard showing that it’s fourth-and-two on the Notre Dame 10-yard line with just over two minutes to go and Texas trailing 17-14.

The quarterback known for clutch play and the folksy coach who always played for the win could not have looked calmer. After all, this situation was nothing compared with the heart-stopping fourth-and-three call in the fourth quarter at Arkansas a few weeks earlier. In that Game of the Century, as the contest between the top two undefeated teams was hyped, the power-running Horns uncharacteristically called a long pass to tight end Randy Peschel and went on to win 15-14 with President Nixon in the stands in Fayetteville and a spellbound nation watching on TV. That perfectly thrown pass cemented Street as a Longhorn legend, but the Notre Dame game would seal his legacy.

Under pressure from an Irish pass rush on that crucial fourth-down play, Street rolled left and hit a diving Cotton Speyrer for an 8-yard completion. Texas would score the winning touchdown three plays later on a plunge by Billy Dale. “James Street gave 110 percent on every play,” says Happy Feller, whose extra point made the final score Texas 21, Notre Dame 17. “He led by example, was always positive, and the entire team responded to that leadership.”

Street’s hustle and toughness have also paid off in his business career and are qualities passed down to his sons, including 22-year-old Huston, a star relief pitcher for the Oakland A’s who was named the 2005 American League Rookie of the Year. Sitting in the memorabilia-filled offices of the James Street Group, the ex-quarterback says the painting tells only a part of the story. “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity,” he says, reciting his favorite Royal quote. “We got a lot of good bounces, and the defense came through when it had to.” Now 57, Street is head of a company that specializes in “structured settlements,” giving long-term financial advice to plaintiffs who’ve recently settled wrongful death or personal injury lawsuits. He’ll talk football — twist his arm and he’ll tell you about “The Play,” as the pass to Peschel has been tagged in Longhorn lore — but family and business come first.

“I didn’t want to be one of those guys sitting on a bar stool and talking about the glory days and then realizing, one day, that it was 35 years ago and I was still telling the same stories,” he says.

If Vince Young wakes up Thursday as the quarterback who led Texas to a national title, the only man in Austin who can truly identify is Street, who won 20 straight games in almost two full seasons as UT’s starter. But where Wednesday’s Rose Bowl game against the University of Southern California is an important steppingstone for a quarterback seemingly headed for an illustrious pro football campaign, the Jan. 1, 1970, Cotton Bowl marked the end of Street’s football career. He was the prototype wishbone quarterback, a sleight of handoff wizard nicknamed “Slick,” but they didn’t use the wishbone in the NFL. Also a standout pitcher at UT, with a perfect game against Texas Tech in 1970, Street figured his best chance at pro ball was on the mound. But when that career also didn’t pan out, he spent a year capitalizing on his Longhorn exploits by singing country standards, Elvis covers and “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” in Steiner rodeos all over Texas. He even hung out with Presley, who said he cheered for Texas against Arkansas, for a few hours one night in Las Vegas.

When the Longview product came down to Earth, he took a job as an insurance agent in Austin. “The transition from full-time athlete was difficult,” Street says. “From the time I was 9 years old, I always had to be someplace at 3 o’clock in the afternoon,” he says. “Little League practice. Pee Wee football. Pop Warner. Track. Most kids need to learn self-discipline to survive college, but not athletes. You knew, every day, that you had to be someplace at 3 o’clock. Then you get out of school and 3 o’clock comes around, and you don’t have to be anywhere and you don’t know what to do.”

Street’s first marriage, to Shanny Lott (the sister of Farrah Fawcett’s college boyfriend Greg Lott), ended in divorce after six years of marriage right out of college. Their only son, Ryan Street, 31, is an architect in town who’s designed Lance Armstrong’s homes in Dripping Springs and Spain and the new one in Tarrytown. Street married his second wife, Janie, who like him has a twin sister, in 1981. Huston was born two years later, followed two years after that by twins Jordon and Juston, both 20-year-old pitchers for the Longhorn baseball team. Westlake High senior Hanson rounds out the Streets.

Friends say James Street’s relatively low profile through the years has less to do with an aversion to the limelight than being the father of five active, athletic sons. “If James is not working, he’s coaching kids or watching his sons play,” says Feller, who has remained close to Street, as have most members of the ’69 team.

James Street’s name started popping up in the press again in 2002, when Huston Street became a star relief pitcher for the national champion Texas baseball team. “It’s unfair having to be compared to someone else all the time,” says the elder Street. “Huston had

Huston Street

to grow up as ‘James Street’s son,’ and now that he’s having all that success, Jordon and Juston are going to be known as ‘Huston Street’s brothers.’ That’s tough. But you just have to be yourself and forget about other people’s expectations.” Looking a little like Wayne Newton with graying hair and delivering his “life-isms” with a preacher’s flair for drawn-out storytelling, Street could be one heckuva motivational speaker. But even though he occasionally gives formal talks at alumni functions, he says he prefers to impart “all the wisdom I’ve got from steppin’ in chugholes” in a more person-to-person way, especially with his sons. When Huston played in the College World Series as a freshman, his father pulled him aside and said, “You’re gonna see all those people in the stands, and you’re gonna think, ‘This is the big show — I’ve gotta do more!’ But all you’ve gotta do is throw strikes and get people out, just like in all the other games you’ve played. Here’s what I want you to do: Pick out a stitch on the catcher’s mitt and focus on hitting it. Forget about all those people and what’s at stake. Hit that seam.”

The Longhorns won that 2002 championship in Omaha, Neb., and Huston Street was named the tournament’s outstanding player. Three years later, when he won the AL Rookie of the Year Award, his father, forever the cautionary, ego-checking coach, said, “That award is for something you’ve already done. What are you gonna do next?” Last year, the elder Street watched on TV as Huston walked out to the mound at Yankee Stadium to face Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez in the bottom of the ninth to preserve an Oakland lead. The closer did his job, calmly retired the big bats in order, and on the phone that night, James told Huston he was proud of the way his son was able to concentrate on the task without getting caught in the fanfare. James Street was thinking back to the lesson in Omaha. Huston said, “Are you kidding, Dad? I kept looking up in the stands and all around me, thinking, ‘Oh, my God: Yankee Stadium!’ I was nervous as hell!”

James Street says he’s also a bundle of nerves when he watches his sons in competition. “I’m a lot more nervous during their games than I was when I played,” he says with a laugh. Game of the Century Teammates certainly witnessed no jitters when Street came back in the huddle during that 1969 Arkansas game and relayed the call from Royal on fourth-and-three with 4:47 left and Texas down 14-8. “You’re not going to believe this play, but it’s gonna work,” Street said to the other 10 players, each bearing a reflection of Street’s steely gaze. “It’s gonna work,” he repeated, and then he called the famous right 53 veer pass to tight end Peschel. Almost everyone in the audience was sure the Horns, with the full house backfield of Steve Worster, Jim Bertelsen and Ted Koy, would run for the first down. “Now I’m lookin’ at you, Cotton,” Street said to Speyrer in the huddle, “but I’m talking to you, Randy,” he said to Peschel, trying to throw off any Razorback spies. “If you get behind ‘em, run like hell.” Peschel was covered by a pair of fast-closing defensive backs, but Street laid the ball in perfectly, over the tight end’s shoulder and into his hands.

The gamble paid off, going for 44 yards to the Arkansas 13; Bertelsen ran it in from the two for a TD a couple of plays later. The Game of the Century lived up to its billing, with Texas coming back from a 14-0 deficit in the fourth quarter to win 15-14. Besides having the undefeated No. 1 team face off against the undefeated No. 2 team, in the 100th anniversary of college football, the Texas-Arkansas game gained importance because it came in the midst of so much cultural upheaval. 1969 was the year of Manson, moonwalks, Chappaquiddick, Woodstock, “Midnight Cowboy” and Vietnam. Especially Vietnam. The game took place the same day a young concertgoer was stabbed to death by Hell’s Angels at a free Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway in California. In 1969, America was very much a polarized nation.

“I think a lot of people wanted to watch a football game to get their minds off the other stuff,” Street says. But in the Horns’ jubilant locker room after the game, when Nixon declared Texas the national champion, the timbre of the times became evident when a Horn player thanked Nixon. When Nixon said the thanks belonged to the players for such an incredible game, the Horn shot back, “I’m thanking you because my lottery number was 350!” The government had implemented a military draft lottery to shore up troops in Vietnam just six days earlier.

At Robert Mueller Municipal Airport the night of the big win, about 20,000 fans greeted the team, toppling barricades and running out to the taxiing plane as though it carried the Beatles. Fans clawed at Street’s hair and clothes until he asked one of his burly linemen to run a little interference: “Just give me an opening, and I’m gone,” and he was. All Street ever needed was a little daylight.

The old and the new Street has remained close to the Texas program, and every year, Coach Mack Brown invites the leader of the last Longhorn team to win a consensus national championship to address the team that hopes to be the next one. “The gist of what I tell them is to be prepared for a life that’s completely different from football,” he says. “In football, you know your opponent well in advance. You study his moves. You look for his weaknesses, and if you and all your teammates do their jobs, you look up at the scoreboard and it declares you the winner. But there’s no scoreboard in life. And you don’t always know your opponent.”

Street never misses a home game, nor the Red River Shootout, so long as one of his boys doesn’t have a game the same day. What impresses him most about Vince Young, he says, is the way the people in the stands seem to exhale when No. 10 trots out on the field. “He just instills so much confidence. There’s no panic in that guy.” The same could be said for the man who wore No. 16 from ’67 to ’69.

“I see similarities between Vince Young and James Street in terms of leadership,” says Feller, who owns TeleDynamics, a wholesale distributor of consumer electronics in Austin. “With James at the helm, we just knew we were gonna win. Never gave a second to the notion we might lose. I can sense the same thing happening now.”

Last year, the 1969 Arkansas team invited its legendary adversaries up to Fayetteville for a 35th anniversary reunion, a players-only event Street calls “probably the neatest experience I’ve had as an ex-player.” Street counts Arkansas quarterback Bill Montgomery, now a successful businessman in Dallas, among his closest friends. Players gave testimonials about how The Game changed their lives. Several choked back tears. Street started thinking about what was his favorite memory of the game that will forever define him to many. “I remembered just being spent — emotionally, physically — as I walked off the field, but also completely re-energized because we won,” Street says. “And in the middle of all that pandemonium, I saw (Arkansas Coach) Frank Broyles’ kids run over to him and hug him. He had just lost the biggest game of the year, giving up a 14-point lead, no less, and yet his family was there to support him. It didn’t mean much to me at the time, but that’s what I was thinking about” at the reunion.

“We were kids, just playing a game and living a dream. And then it was over. But the love of your family or your work ethic, or just, I don’t know, teaching a Little Leaguer how to hit — those are the things that really matter in life.”

James Street passed away today, Monday Sept 30, 2013.

– Michael Corcoran, Austin American Statesman 1/1/06

HORNUCOPIA: TEN THINGS THE ALAMO BOWL WIN OVER OREGON STATE TELLS US ABOUT NEXT SEASON

1) Mack Brown still loves his job (shucks). With about eight minutes to go in the game, and Texas trailing 27-17, quarterback David Ash evaded a sack and looked as if he would run for whatever yardage he could get, but then he suddenly bucked up and threw the ball down the sidelines where RB Johna­than Gray snatched it and ran in for a 15-yard touchdown. This happened right in front of Coach Brown, whose look of delirium was one usually found on photos you have to pay for at the end of a roller-coaster ride. Which 2012 certainly was.

2) Barring injury, Ash will start every game at quarterback, not only next season, but in 2014. Can’t see redshirt freshman Connor Brewer, redface senior Case McCoy, or true freshman Tyrone Swoopes pushing a junior Ash for the gig. Kid A has got a cannon, and new offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, a former UT starter at QB, will put everything else in its right place.

3) Unfortunately, Applevanilla looks to be an even more conservative play-caller than Greg Davis. As Brown’s successor-in-grooming, Opie has a lot to lose. But he needs to break the culture of fear over at Jamailville. With all those ineffective quick passes to the flat, which do nothing but pad the QB’s completion percentage, Texas did not convert a single third down in the first quarter.

4) Texas is weakest at linebacker. Even if Jordan Hicks makes it through the sexual assault investigation unscathed and incoming freshman Deoundrei Davis proves beastly, the second line of defense doesn’t look to be much better than in ’12. Even before he went on to correctly prove Leo Durocher‘s adage that “if you can’t get it by midnight, it’s not worth it,” Hicks has been a bust at Texas. This is the top-rated linebacker in the country out of high school, but he seems to be in need of a geometry class. But, then, all the linebackers and DBs seemed to take bad angles on tackles.

5) The Horns are loaded at RB, with Malcolm Brown, Johnathan Gray, and Joe Bergeron. The recent hiring of former LSU assistant Larry Porter as running backs coach can only help.

6) Jaxon Shipley is, next to Ash, the most valuable player on the Texas offense. Must’ve been some labor for Mama Shipley, giving birth to twins seven years apart. Jordan and Jaxon look like they should be chewing straw in a cornfield, but they play like pure born footballers.

7) Texas needs DE Jackson Jeffcoat back out on the field. If his daddy didn’t play for the Cowboys and have some coin, Jacky Jeff might declare for the NFL. He’s got the physical tools, but I follow him on Twitter, and he’s not quite mature enough for that cutthroat world. If Alex Okafor, who got 4.5 sacks against the Beavers and added millions to his NFL guaranteed money, can play as a senior, so should Jeffcoat.

8) Manny Diaz needs to fix the defense or he’s gone. Led by seniors Oak and Kenny Vaccaro, the maligned Texas D came up big when they had to against Oregon State. But yet another RB has a career game against the hollow Horns. Incoming five-star freshman A’Shawn Robinson should start next to the other Malcom Brown, giving the Horns a pair of future NFL players at DT, but Texas needs to cruise the JC ranks for more mean meat.

9) Marquise Goodwin will win the Priest Holmes Award as the next NFL Pro Bowler who was an underused offensive weapon at Texas.

10) The sensationally gifted Daje John­son and Cayleb Jones will sit on the bench, as Shipley and Mike Davis get most of the reps, but Applewhite will try and maximize the time those two natural playmakers spend on the field. The big story next year will be crowd favorite Applewhite’s debut as Texas play-caller. Will the love affair end when he’s calling four-yard passes on third and eight?

Texas 27, A&M, 25: greatest win was almost worst defeat

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It was the second greatest victory in Coach Mack Brown’s 37-year career and it didn’t win a championship or a bowl game. It was bigger than that.

When Texas beat A&M 27-25 on Kyle Field Thanksgiving night, the Longhorns proved that one can be a team of destiny at 7-4. Justin Tucker’s 40-yard field goal as time ran out sent the Horns most hated rival to the Southeast Conference with revenge on their minds, which they might not be able to act on for years. It was like sleeping with your feuding neighbor’s wife the night before he ships off to Greenland to track glacial melting.

The second greatest victory in Coach Mack Brown’s career was very close to being his second worst loss.

That’s how tense it was at 10:59 p.m. on Thanksgiving night when Tucker, who looks like he just stepped out of “Dazed and Confused,” joined Dusty Mangum, Ryan Bailey and Hunter Lawrence as UT kickers that have won huge games in recent years. But Tucker’s true boot was the biggest of them all.

Consider losing to Michigan, Oklahoma State or Nebraska on a missed field goal. Now imagine how Kyle Field would’ve been if Tucker hooked a frozen duck. Nobody rubs it in like those jarhead Aggie fans and the women who can somehow stand to kiss them.

The heart-stopping game made the powers at UT and A&M seem silly for ending such a spectacular annual event that’s almost as much a part of Texas lore as the Alamo. Case McCoy’s magical 25-yard romp with under a minute left, set up the stone that killed two birds: the Aggies and egocentric stupidity.

A come-from-behind victory over A&M, whose players, especially #11, acted like little butthairs all game, made this one of the sweetest wins I’ve ever watched (in complete terror.). Baylor on Saturday will be fun- Thursday’s game felt like life and death.

I own a DVD of the Longhorns 2005 national championship victory over USC, which I’ve watched about three times. I’m already on my fifth viewing of the Texas/ A&M game, though I have to admit that I fast forward whenever Texas has the ball in the first three quarters.

After the first couple times, I’ve been replaying the game with the sound off and music in the background. On iTunes shuffle, Pavarotti’s “Nessun Dorma” started playing one time just as McCoy started engineering the game-winning drive and it was maybe the only song that could match the drama. I almost passed out from the blood rushing to my head when the kick sailed true, McCoy exploded into euphoria on the sidelines and Tucker raced down the field. Kenny Vaccaro horse-collared Tucker and the team piled on jubilantly as Pavarotti’s voice soared further and further into the galaxy.

This team deserved that moment.

Every year TV announcers in October try to build up Texas vs. Oklahoma as an intense rivalry, but A&M has always been Longhorn Enemy #1. It doesn’t matter if they’re both 2-8 going in. A win against the other team makes the season a success.

So, congratulations to the hard-fighting, never-give-up Longhorns, who’ve had some tough games, some devastating injuries and an offense all too well acquainted with “three and out.”

They stuck together like brothers and now celebrate a great season.

They beat the Aggies! While A&M decided to take away 118 years of tradition, the Longhorns left them with something deeply dark that’ll have them coming back. Because what happens on the field is all that matters. People in power will have to do what’s right.

Great game.

 

ROMO NOT A FACTOR FOR ONCE AS EAGLES HUMILIATE COWBOYS 34-7

Has there ever been a worst weekend for DFW sports fans? First, there was the thing with the bats and balls we’re not even going to get into it, then the Dallas Cowboys lost 34-7 to their hated rivals in TV’s Sunday night feature game. Only things that could’ve make it worst would be Dirk Nowizki slamming his shooting hand in a car door and Mark Cuban getting another reality show.

Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles hyped the floor with Rob Ryan’s Dallas defense Sunday night, jumping out to a 34-0 lead by executing with precision, pushing white jerseys around in the trenches and turning LeSean McCoy into Barry Sanders reincarnate.

McCoy gallops likie a colt

“The Cream Team” outplayed Dallas is every way imaginable, making the Cowboys playoff dreams as futile as DPS catching a speeder on Mopac at five o’clock on a weekday. Coming off a bye week, Andy Reid’s Eagles are the 1972 Dolphins, 13-0 and counting. Amazingly, both teams are 3-4, which at this point is like saying that Jeff Beck and the guitar player for Flaccid Nightstick both have 10 fingers.

Before the game, Chris Collingsworth—who rivals Troy Aikman as pro football’s best commentator—remarked that Dallas could very well be 6-0 going in. After the way they were beaten like the Eagles were Jake LaMotta and caught them in bed with his wife, the Cowboys looked like a team that could have just as easily been 1-6. To the credit of players and coaches, the Cowboys kept playing hard, but they just don’t seem to be very good.

Perhaps the greatest testament to Philadelphia’s complete domination was that Dallas starting satyrback (half hero/ half goat) Tony Romo provided zero drama. It was like leaving a movie and saying you didn’t realize Al Pacino was in it. The Cowboys lost and, for once, Romo didn’t trend on Twitter.

“Can you believe that Tony Romo?” are words on paper that tell you nothing about a Dallas Cowboys game just played. You need to see if the person talking has his or her head in their hands or two fists in the air. “Freaking Romo!” Same thing.

Being a diehard fan of a team led by field general Romo is, usually, to have years taken off your life one Sunday, then put back the next week. The jaws of defeat have a love/hate relationship with number 9, not knowing if he’s going to feed them another fourth quarter feast or snatch victory from their chomp in the last seconds. Romo has even helped evolution along, making Cowboy fans hearts grow a protective lining or else the species may start to become extinct after too many more games like the collossal collapse against the Detroit Lions October 2, when Romo unraveled by throwing two INTs that were returned for touchdowns and the Cowboys blew a 24-point lead in the second half.

But Sunday night Romo’s mission was to try and make the loss respectable. He’s been nicknamed the Romocoaster for the way he can bring emotions to deep valleys and soaring peaks, but the only thing last night proved was that, for his sixth season as a starter, this ride ain’t going anywhere near Super Bowl Mountain.

The rout did have a couple of productive developments. Running back DeMarco Murray’s 253-yard game against St. Louis last week proved to be no fluke; Felix Jones can take all the time he needs to get healthy. And, wide receiver Laurent Robinson could be this year’s Miles Austin (who’s been playing like past years’ Sam Hurd). The defensive backs looked confused all game and the linebackers, after Sean Lee left with an injury, didn’t make any plays. Meanwhile, Vick felt more pressure from the handful of PETA protesters when he arrived than from the vaunted Dallas defensive live.

You can’t blame Romo for this one. No, Buddy Ryan’s kid Rob—wearing the Emmylou Harris wig—is the one who mouthed off before the season that his team would beat the All-Hype Eagles and then had to watch Vick and McCoy and Desean Jackson and the rest march up and down the field like the Cowboys were hired by the city of Philadelphia to raise civic morale.

Usually Romo’s meltdowns are late in the season, like in 2007 when the division-winning 13-3 Cowboys were driving for a winning toughdown against the Giants, but ended up losing 21-17, as R.W. McQuarters intercepted Romo in the end zone. The next two years found Romo having All-Pro regular seasons and dreadful playoffs, with the Cowboys losing 44-6 to Philadelphia in 2008 and 34-3 to Brett Favre and Minnesota in 2009.

This season, Romo got all the heart-stopping action going early, which is good because now Cowboys games don’t look like like they’ll mean much late in the year except to see where the Cowboys will pick in the draft. We remember opening night against the Jets at the Meadowlands, when Lassie Ryan was trouncing his twin Footsie for three quarters until Romo flaked big time and gave the game away, .

But the next week, Romo came back in the second half with a cracked rib and punctured lung and led the Cowboys from behind to beat the 49ers in San Francisco. Jim Harbaugh’s handshake after that game was downright demure. In the week three home opener, Tony Hero thrilled the Jerry Jonestown Koolaid crew with an 18-16 come-from-behind victory against the Washington Redskins.

Romo is the greatest Dallas Cowboys quarterback ever when you look at passer ratings (Romo’s 95.5 career rating is number 4 all-time in the NFL), yardage, touchdown passes and hot girlfriends. But Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman won multiple championships, while #9’s Fredo rep goes back to the 2006 season wild card game against Seattle, when he flubbed the hold on a potential game-winning 19-yard field goal.

In the 2007 playoff loss to the Giants, Romo caught fire for going to Cabo with Jessica Simpson during the wild card weekend, but after the game Terrell Owens famously defended Antonio Ramiro Romo, by saying “That’s my quarterback.” Romo choked and T.O. choked up.

But I’m with Owens on this one. I’m standing by Tony Romo, for better or worse. That’s my quarterback. NFL’s greatest drama queen is going to one day win it all and no Super Bowl is ever going to be sweeter. Meanwhile, every time Romo blows a game, he makes Jerry Jones as miserable as a roofer in 105 degrees, so we’ve got that going for us. Win win.

BYE WEEK JITTERS: HALFWAY TO PARADISE OR PURGATORY

by Michael Corcoran

Six games—and three starting quarterbacks—into the 2011 football season and Texas Longhorn fans still don’t know whether they’ve got another 5-7 team or one that goes 9-3 before the bowl game. But you have to worry when a 12-point loss at home last week against Oklahoma State is treated by coaches and fans as a “moral victory.”

That’s such a new term for Texas football that there’s not a homespun Coach Royal-ism about it. “A moral victory?” he could’ve drawled. “Why that’s just a loss in a three-piece suit.” When did “hey, we kinda held our own against a really good team” turn into a rallying cry at Jamail-ville? Around the same time Baylor became a must win game on the schedule.

Oklahoma showed that the “Brick By Brick” Horns forgot the mortar. There’s a Major co-running the offense when UT needs a mason.

During this bye week, in which the defense will register one fewer sack than on an average Saturday, we already know we’re not going to go from worst to first. In the most recent AP poll, Texas (4-2) has fallen from the Top 25 and is ranked a couple notches lower than Southern Methodist in the also-rans. SMU? When did they start playing football again? And when will Texas?

This year started with promise after a nightmare 2010 which began with an appearance in the national championship game and ended in the cellar with Head Coach Mack Brown looking for new offensive and defensive coordinators and wondering what was eating Garrett Gilbert. Hands spent more time wringing, head-scratching and finger-pointing last year than making the hook ‘em horns sign.

This season, questions have been answered by more questions. Some things we do know: The Longhorns’ weakest link is at quarterback, the most important position in all of team sports. You can’t win the Tour de France on a bike with training wheels and unless you’re the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, you can’t win a championship with a QB who gets the starting nod by being the “least ineffective” option.

Like a hothead in a customer service job, Gilbert just wasn’t working out, so after (wink-wink) surgery he decided to transfer. Things started looking up, with Case McCoy and David Ash leading the Horns to a come-from-behind win against BYU and routs of last year’s dream killers UCLA and Iowa State. McCoy to Shipley = happy days again.

But then Oklahoma showed that the “Brick By Brick” Horns forgot the mortar. There’s a Major co-running the offense when UT needs a mason. Oklahoma owned Texas 55-17, but then two weeks later, last night, lost at home to a 4-2 Texas Tech team. How bad does that make UT look now?

Against the Sooners, a bewildered Case McCoy performed like Colt’s nephew, not his brother, so true freshman David Ash, who also played like the scrapings off a zookeeper’s heel, was named the starter by default against Oklahoma State the next week.

Ash took every snap, after which the most positive thing he could do was hand the ball to Malcolm Brown, Fozzy Whittaker or the mysteriously underused D.J. Monroe. The high point of the team thus far is a running attack that calls for reconsidering the Wishbone. Or maybe a variation they could call the Fozzbone or the WishBrown. No, no, I’ve got it: Wishbone Ash! In the past two games, opponents have scored on three long runs due to defensive assignments as busted as Chip Brown’s tail light. Let’s start doing to them what they’ve been doing to us.

It’s time for Bryan Harsin and Major Applewhite to get even more creative with the run. Forget those quick passes in the flat which seem to average about 2.4 yards per completion and start focusing on blowing holes up front. Don’t have the hosses? Then get off your high horses and recruit junior college studs who’ve already proven themselves. June Jones of SMU has made a career plucking JUCO beasts, which is why the Mustangs have rebounded faster than Michael Vick’s image.

Jaxon Shipley and Mike Davis are having good seasons at wide receiver, but so are the guys covering them. So many balls are coming back the other way, Coach Brown’s gotta consider tackling ability when determining starters on offense.

As for the other side of the ball, coordinator Manny Diaz has inadvertently created the lasagne layer defense, with hearty play by the D-line and the DBs using their noodles. Unfortunately, the highly-touted linebackers are the ricotta cheese in the middle, so soft and creamy. Although Emmanuel Acho has played well, against OU he couldn’t cover “Louie Louie,” so why not blitz him every down? Send Kenny Vaccaro, too, for the same reason. Meanwhile, Keenan Robinson and Jordan Hicks have guessed wrong more times than Miss South Carolina playing “Jeopardy” at home. I’ll take gap issues for 20, Alex.

When the other team has a better QB than the Horns do, which was emphatically the case with Oklahoma’s Landry Jones and OSU’s Brandon Weeden, there’s a good chance of that game going into the L column for Texas. The hope is that Ash will eventually stop staring at his intended target like an inmate at a Shakira video.

Although Kansas QB Jordan Webb, who comes to town Saturday, has been putting up big numbers, he’s been a turnover machine. On defense KU is PU, with opponents putting up so many points that a quick glance at the score makes you think basketball season’s already started. Tell your cable provider, Kansas looks like a sure win for the Horns.

But after Texas Tech shocked everybody by beating Oklahoma 41-38, the rest of the way could be dicey. Texas plays Tech Nov. 5, and there’s no way they’re beating the team that showed up in Norman. QB Seth Doege made Mike Leach obsolete and even rubbed it in by hitting Adam “Shackman” James for a 34-yard touchdown. Even those of us who hate Tech with dark intensity had to be impressed with this team’s strut when it seemed the Sooners were destined to overtake them in the fourth quarter. Let’s hope they used up most of their mojo.

The rest for Texas: At Missouri Nov. 12; at home against dreaded Kansas State Nov. 19; at Texas A&M Nov. 24; at Baylor Dec. 3. If the Horns can make some big plays and hold onto interceptions, they might win two of those. That’s a 7-5 season and a bowl game sponsored by a muffler company.

But it’s just as likely that Texas will have to beat RG3 and Baylor to get that once automatic bowl game. The fields of uncertainty were planted last year and all we really know so far about the 2011 Texas Longhorns is that we just don’t know.

 OLD MAN WEEDEN AND THROWIN” OKIES COMING TO TOWN

Brandon Weeden is the Ron “Happy Days” Howard of the gridiron. Both played younger than their actual ages.

The OU game was an aberration, one of those deals where everything goes wrong for one team (always seemingly the Longhorns) and not only do the wheels come off, but someone steals the rims. That game was Renee Zellweger/ Kenny Chesney wrong. The Sooners may be 55-17 good, but the Longhorns can’t be 17-55 bad. Can they?

We will find out on Saturday when Brandon Weeden, the flaming ginger whose 28th birthday is the day before the game, leads the No. 6-ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys against a Longhorns team that was just plain rank last week. Weeden is seven years older than his favorite target Justin Blackmon. Larry King and some of his ex-wives are closer in age.

Garrett Gilbert’s gotta be kicking himself for not working harder on his curve ball. Instead of transferring from UT, he could be playing minor league baseball like Weeden did, then come back to college six years later and compete against minors. It’s kinda cheating. If you got your first kiss after a Goo Goo Dolls concert, you’re too old now to play college football.

OSU coach Mike Gundy once famously took a bullet for a young quarterback by declaring himself to be a full grown man, so pick on him instead. By that criteria, Weeden, who’s heard every leather helmet joke there is, is fair game. It’s a little weird that he yells out “Get off my lawn” to blitzers, but Old Man Weeden is having a sensational year, leading OSU to

national No. 1 rankings in scoring (51.4 pts per game) and first downs (29.6). OSU is no. 2 in total offense (577.4 yards) and passing offense (431.2),

Forget “Three Days Of the Condor,” sophomore CBs Carrington Byndom and Adrian Phillips star in the thriller “Seven Days On the Corner.” From Oct. 8- 15, they’ll have had to cover future NFL superstars Ryan Broyles, Kenny Stills and Justin Blackmon, plus the strong support staff that includes some guy named Jaz who’s a third-and-forever specialist for the Sooners. Those Okies ain’t the Joad Family, people, so our pass defenders need more than some tarp and a few nails to cover them.

They’re gonna need help from the linebackers and safety Blake “Never a Dull Moment” Gideon- something they didn’t have against Oklahoma. Saturday might be a good time to play #33 Steve Edmond, the true freshman linebacker from Daingerfield, who’s been getting no respect from coaches. In limited duty he looks much more fearless and hardhitting than Jordan “MIA” Hicks.

Four-year starter Gideon, who is closing in on the UT record for most press conference appearances, has got only seven or eight more games to redeem himself for “Gideon’s bobble” in the 2008 Texas Tech game. The only way Gideon’s gonna be playing on Sundays is if he takes up steel guitar and joins Austin country band Heybale. But the stage is set for #21 to step in front of that Wes Welker clone Josh Cooper and take it all the way back. Weeden needin’ to make a tackle is a good thing.

Perhaps inspired by the Longhorn basketball team’s free-throw percentage last year, Coach Brown came up with “Brick By Brick” as this year’s football slogan. But then came that Oklahoma tornado to blow the house down.

What happens now? Is it 2010 again? (And if so, I need to find something time-consuming to do on Saturdays.) There are worries about the O-line and the young and the restless QBs, just like last year. Texas recruits the best players each year and sends the most to the NFL, but what’s going on in between?

Horns fans are shellshocked thinking of last year’s 5-7 team. But on Monday, Coach Brown said this team is different. “We’re not going to let one loss beat us twice like we did last year. We used to do that well around here, and last year we got down on ourselves and didn’t play well.” Actually, one loss beat them six more times.

Now that everybody’s favorite scapegoat Garrett Gilbert is gone, most likely headed to SMU to put up Timmy Chang numbers for June Jones’ playground offense, who are the fair-weather faithful in burnt orange going to boo if the game is not to their liking? Mack Brown? For $5 million a year, he can afford a self-esteem trainer (“They’re not booing, they just want you to put in Luuuuuke Poehlmann.”)

You know fans won’t get on their pet Major Applewhite. Some blame Chris Simms for the dreadful offensive game plan against Oklahoma. This may have to be a game where the entitled orangebloods are forced to watch without trying to make some 19-year-old cry.

Call me crazy, but I still think this team is a special group who will bounce back. But even though it’s worked well for Texas in the past, it would be wise to forego last year’s strategy of letting “Choke State” have a 30-point lead early.

What do you say we play ‘em tough for 48 minutes and eke out a 30-28 win? With a Gideon interception setting up the go-ahead FG. Texas beat OSU with Rashaun Woods and Dez Bryant and Brandon  Pettigrew: why can’t they beat ‘em with Justin Blackmon?

We’ve been hearing all about the Longhorns’ 24-hour rule- all wins and losses are forgotten after 24 hours and the focus turns to the next opponent. That’s sometimes easier for players than fans. Watching the Oklahoma game was like being in a car flipping down a hill. You just kept telling yourself that it’ll be over soon.

That shouldn’t happen again on Saturday. But we should all buckle up just to be safe.

RED RIVER REALITY

by Michael Corcoran

A 4-0 start, including revenge wins on the road against UCLA and Iowa State, had some Longhorn fans thinking their team had a shot against mighty Oklahoma on Saturday. But since the game is played in the Cotton Bowl, not the Coddle Bowl, the prized blue chip recruits of Texas didn’t have a chance. This contest was so lopsided that “you know what would make this game better?” called for the bartender at Buffalo Hot Wings to hit a button behind the bar that changed the screens to “Heidi.” (“Whoa! We’re watching the game!” yelled Greg Davis.)

It was over in the second quarter, as the Sooners answered Fozzy Whittaker’s kickoff return for a touchdown by marching down the field in two minutes like they could do it all day long. And they would’ve except the defense kept scoring. It was 34-10 at the half.

There are only three teams who can win the national championship this year: LSU, Alabama and Oklahoma. Sorry, Boise State, but last year’s loss to Nevada is still hurting you. There are three powerhouses far above the rest and on Saturday Oklahoma hoisted  itself to the top of that triangle by beating the No. 11 team in the country 55-17.

Oklahoma is really that good. But are the Horns really that bad? It’s just one game, but the blowout was so complete that the second half felt like a preseason game, a chance to see what some of the other guys can do. It was too late to save face, so Coach Brown worked on saving his season.

Even as the OU defense scored three touchdowns, the biggest difference in the teams was at quarterback. Oklahoma had poised Heisman trophy candidate Landry Jones, doing Sam Bradford like Jimmy Fallon does Neil Young. Jones threw for 367 yards and had enough time in the pocket to also post his personal best Qrank score. Texas, meanwhile, rotated a pair of jumpy kids who, let’s face it, got beat out by Garrett Gilbert at the start of the season. Texas had as much chance of winning this game as a horse with a Samoan jockey finishing first in the Preakness.

Coach Mack Brown recruits players with character, while OU goes for characters who can play. Longhorns don’t shave logos or messages into their scalps. They don’t sport bleached Mohawks; and only a few have tattoos.

Macho Jerks 55, Nice Guys 17.

The Oklahoma game was a baptism by fire, and at the end we’re left with Ash. If seems that Coach Brown was looking for anything positive to come out of this fiasco, so he tapped David Ash, the frosh prince of Bel-ton, to finish out the bloodbath. Texas may have found it’s starter at QB- for better or worse- as Case McCoy just seemed flustered out there. Ash was pretty awful, too, and he really should practice his defensive skills if he’s going to serve up picks. But he seemed to have more poise.

Also on the bright side: cornerbacks Carrington Byndom and Adrian Phillips can really play, Quandre Diggs is coming along and safety Kenny Vaccaro would look like a sure NFL prospect if they still allowed hard hitting in the pros. There’s not much you can do when the quarterback is throwing perfect passes to the likes of Ryan Broyles and Kenny Stills, but this latest crop of Texas DBs establishes Duane Akina as the most consistent position coach at UT. (But Blake Gideon, who still hasn’t redeemed himself for “Gideon’s bobble” in the 2008 Tech game, can’t graduate fast enough.)

After guns started getting a bad rep, the name of this game was changed from the Red River Shootout to the Red River Rivalry in 2005. That new name has catchy alliteration, but the game should be called The Truth About Your Team. Nothing but questions going in.

Can you live with the answers?

Where do we sign to guarantee a 7-4 season this year? Which Horns fan wouldn’t settle for that after the latest Sooner slaughter? That means UT still has to win three more games in a schedule that includes Oklahoma State, Kansas, Texas Tech, Missouri, Kansas State, Texas A&M and Baylor. OK, Kansas is one win. Texas Tech should be another.

But the Texas team we watched Saturday, could very well lose the last four games of the season and end up at 6-6.

As Brent Musburger said on Saturday- ad nauseum, Pardner- they can deep-fry everything at the Texas State Fair. Including high hopes.

 

BRICK BY BRICK
Blaine Irby returns to football one step at a time
By Michael Corcoran

The tunnel was a womb, so heavy was the yearn of a team to be reborn nine months after its previous game. The scene at Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium before the Texas Longhorns took the field against Rice for the season opener Sept. 3 was almost psychedelic in anticipation. As 5-7 became 0-0, players pounded each other’s shoulder pads as if they were flushing out demons as well as creating a raw rhythm of camaraderie.
But no player was looking forward to the new beginning more than Blaine Irby, who suffered a career-threatening knee injury three years earlier in a game against those same Rice Owls.

Nine months is a long time in the life of a college football player (and fans), but three years is forever when you have no feeling in your right foot for 15 months of that time.
Three years of not knowing, but working hard anyway.

It was Irby’s turn in 2008, when tight end Jermichael Finley left school early and took his talents to Green Bay. As a freshman out of St. Bonaventure High in Camarillo, Calif., Irby showed great promise as Finley’s backup. A little undersized at 220 lbs, but he made up for that with speed, good hands and an intensity fueled by a pure love of football. “Once the ball snaps, he turns into a beast,” tight ends coach Bruce Chambers said of Irby, who was poised to be the latest in the line of great UT blocker/ receivers that went from Pat Fitzgerald to Derek Lewis to Bo Scaife and David Thomas to Finley.

Irby scored touchdowns in each of the first two games of the 2008 season and had 10 catches in 10 quarters. No. 19 could play!

But in the third game there were two blowouts. Texas beat Rice 52-10, as Colt McCoy passed for 4 touchdowns. And Irby’s right knee blew up like an umbrella in a wind storm when a Rice safety drove his shoulder into Irby’s right shin on a crossing pattern. The clip of that play soon made it to several of Youtube’s “worst sports injuries” compilations. It made Joe Theismann wince.

As bad as it looked on the field, it was worse in x-rays. There was multi-ligament damage that involved his ACL, LCL, meniscus cartilage, articular cartilage and muscle tendons. Most significantly, however, was a peroneal nerve injury that Longhorn head trainer Kenny Boyd called “limb threatening” if the leg lost circulation.

A void at tight end

Even after three surgeries, doctors rated Irby a 20-1 shot to run again, much less pad up.
He hit the weight room every day and became a player coach who couldn’t play, mentoring younger tight ends like D.J. Grant and Trey Graham who also suffered devastating injuries. But after Irby went down, the TE position went lowercase, as UT went primarily to a spread offense. In the 10 games after Rice, Irby’s replacements Peter Ullman and Greg Smith Smith combined for 5 catches and 22 yards.

While McCoy and his go-to guys Jordan Shipley and Quan Cosby were upsetting No. 1 Oklahoma 45-35 in Dallas on Oct. 11, 2008, Irby was preparing for his first ligament reconstruction operation by team Dr. Carey Windler.

In April of 2009, Irby had the first of two decompression surgeries performed by Houston neurosurgeon Dr. Rahul Nath, who had performed the same surgery six years earlier on Tony Hills, a tight end turned tackle for Texas. During the state semifinals during his senior year at Houston Elsik High, Hills was cut low by a Converse Judson DB and suffered an injury identical to Irby’s
But where Hills’ peroneal nerve started regenerating six weeks after decompression surgery, which removes scar tissue around the nerve, Irby continued to suffer from “drop foot” for another eight months.
”I talked to Tony a bunch of times,” said Irby, who also became close to David Thomas during the ordeal. “And every time he just told me to be patient..”
Then, one day at a tight ends meeting in December 2009 to prepare the National Championship game against Alabama, Irby felt a twitch in the limp foot. It moved about half an inch, which is all this dream warrior needed to see himself suited up in burnt orange again.

“I remember when his nerve finally fired up,” said Irby’s high school position coach Tom Therrien, who got the news from Irby’s father Pat. The St. Bonaventure team had been praying that this day would come for the former all-state linebacker and tight end nicknamed Boogie. “We were all ecstatic for Boog. He’s a special guy.”
But Boyd wasn’t so quick to join the jubilation, knowing there was a long road ahead “to go from feeling that twitch to being able to block a defensive end or run a route, catch and run past a linebacker,” Boyd said at an Aug. 24 press conference that detailed the stages of Irby’s recovery. “There are a lot of steps in between there.”

Head trainer Kenny Boyd

The initial focus was to help Irby walk without a splint. “But as this thing continued we realized there was a lot greater potential,” Boyd said.

Making peace with 27 Naked Ohio

Doctors, trainers, coaches. That’s the chain of custody for a player as seriously injured as Irby.
By the summer of 2010, Irby felt he was 100% healthy and trainers agreed, clearing him to play. But Coach Mack Brown, who has had five knee surgeries himself, tried to talk Irby out of coming back. Just as he had advised Scaife and Jordan Shipley to quit football in earlier seasons, Brown told Irby that it was more important to play with his kids in the back yard some day then to play football.
“Knowing what I know, with my knee, and I told Bo Scaife that, and I told Jordan Shipley that, and they’re both in the NFL,” Brown said.

Coach Brown denied Irby’s return to the team in 2010 but, realizing the kid wasn’t going to quit playing football, offered him some daylight. “I said, ‘Why don’t you run as hard as you can, and push it as hard as you can and do everything you need to do in the fall to make sure you think (your knee is) strong enough, and then come and see me in the spring.”
Spring came and there was Irby, relishing his favorite role: teammate. “It’s hard to explain that feeling you get playing football with your buddies,” Irby said Aug. 24. “I missed the game of football, and it’s one of those deals where I wouldn’t have come back if I wasn’t 100 percent ready.”

Tight ends coach Bruce Chambers

On the second day of practice, Chambers sent Irby into the huddle. “27 Naked Ohio” was the call and Chambers looked at Irby’s face, which had no reaction.
The play, the one that almost ended Irby’s career, calls for him to joust the defensive end, then sprint across the field, looking back for the ball.
“I knew that physically he was cleared,” Chambers said of the player who came back weighing 240, with 20 more pounds of muscle. “I wanted to make sure that mentally there was not a block or flashback.”
Irby ran the play, caught the ball and cut upfield. On the way back to the huddle, he passed Chambers and said “Thanks, Coach.”
He was ready.
“I’ve never seen it where a guy is not supposed to walk again to where he is actually out there catching some pretty good balls right now,” said new strength coach Bennie Wylie, who has only known a healthy Irby.”

With more upper body strength, he’s also getting better as a blocker, a necessity in his role as starting H-back (a hybrid of tight end and fullback.) “One of the things I tried to do early is put him up against (Junior DE Alex) Okafor, “ said Chambers. “I felt like if he can block Okafor then there aren’t many people he can’t block, and he’s done a good job there.”
But to the players who watched what Irby was going through with his painfully slow rehabilitation, it was his mental strength and determination that was most impressive.
“We talk all the time about going “all in” and I think that is the definition of him,” said safety Blake Gideon, Irby’s best friend on the team. “There (was) really no guarantee of any success or goals being reached, and (Irby was) still giving everything he had to it.”
Calling Irby’s comeback an inspiration to the entire team and staff, Coach Brown said “It’s one of the more emotional stories, from a positive standpoint, I’ve ever been around.”

An ode to Tillman

His father was a college football player, and his two older brothers, Brian and Brad, excelled on the gridiron during high school in Tempe, AZ. But there was something special when “Boogie,” the name his brothers gave him at age 3, took the field.
“Blaine was big for his age, and he could run,” said Pat Irby, a sales executive for La-Z Boy. Mother Michelle Irby works as a flight attendant.
The family had season tickets to Arizona State football games at Sun Devils Stadium, where Irby saw the model for the football player he wanted to be in Pat Tillman. An undersized, yet fearless linebacker, Tillman’s game time motor didn’t have an off switch.
He was all about the team and made those around him played better.
When Irby was 8, the 1996 Sun Devils, led offensively by quarterback Jake Plummer, went through the regular season undefeated and ranked #2 in the country before losing a heart-breaking Rose Bowl game to Ohio State, 20-17.
One of Irby’s freshman year highlights was catching a pass against the Sun Devils in the 2007 Holiday Bowl, which Texas won 52-34.
But it was hard to look at the Arizona State uniforms and not get choked up about Tillman, who also played his pro ball in Arizona with the Cardinals. In the wake of 9/11, Tillman turned down a three-year, $3.6 million contract to join the Army Rangers and flush out terrorists. He was killed by “friendly fire” in Afghanistan in April 2004.
Besides his unselfishness on and off the field, Tillman was known as a player with long hair protruding from his helmet. It’s a look that Irby has adopted in homage to his hero. Irby last cut his hair in April 2010.
“That was when Kenny (Boyd) and I were doing some workouts on the track, and he brought up the possibility of getting ready to play football again,” said Irby. “So it’s got a pretty deep meaning to it. I’m kind of growing it out for Pat Tillman. God has given me a second chance to play football, so I’m going to try and play like he did, with the amount of passion that he played with.”

Choosing Texas

Injuries are just a part of football and Irby’s had his share before the big one. In 8th grade he tore his ACL, which caused him to sit out freshman year. Irby played wide receiver his sophomore year at Corona del Sol High in Tempe, but was more highly regarded as a defensive back. A weight room wolverine, Irby bulked up to play linebacker the next year.
But after his father’s job was transferred to Southern Cal. , it turned out that Irby finished his high school career at St. Bonaventure, where he won all-state linebacker and all-region tight end honors.
Oregon recruited him as a linebacker, Michigan gave him a choice to play offense or defense, as did his beloved Arizona State.
But Blaine’s oldest brother Brian advised him to check out Texas before he committed. “Brian had a good friend in Austin and he used to visit a lot and fell in love with the town,” said Pat Irby. “So we contacted (then-assistant recruiting coordinator) Bobby Kennedy and sent him a tape.”
Coach Chambers watched Irby’s sizzle reel and wanted him to play tight end for Texas. On the plane ride home after the visit, Blaine looked at his parents and said, “Did you get the feeling that I got?”
His parents smiled.
“It’s a special place, with special people” Pat Irby said of the UT football program. “You look at what the trainers and the staff have done for our son. They never gave up on him. It’s never been about getting him back on the field, but doing what’s best for Blaine.”

If football happens, it happens.

So here was Irby on Sept. 3, looking like the drummer of Nirvana in a football helmet, ready to take the field as a team co-captain. He’d gone from a tingle to chills.
“I was just so honored that I was named a captain,” Irby said after the game. “I saw my family in the stands, getting teary-eyed and it was a real emotional time for me.”
On the first Texas play from scrimmage, Irby went into motion and settled at the H-back position, behind left tackle Tray Allen, another senior whose career has been marred by injury. The call was a hand-off to Fozzy Whittaker to Irby’s side and at the snap #19 sealed the DE with a pop, then peeled off to hit the middle linebacker.

He was glad to get that first play out of the way. “I’m just a football player now,” Irby said a couple days after the game. “I’m not the hurt football player, the guy that’s coming back. I’m just a football player.”

Irby didn’t show up in the stats that first game- the one pass thrown his way went through his hands- but his appearance was significant nonetheless. “Brick By Brick” is the motto Coach Brown gave to this season of rebuilding and no one embodies that mindset better than the kid from Arizona who had to learn how to walk again.
Blaine Itby knows his reconstructed right knee could blow up again and yet, like Tillman, he’s not going to hold back and play it safe. By example, he’s given his teammates, his brothers, another important creed: play every down like it’s your last.

-Horns Illustrated, October 2011

WEB EXTRA: MEET THE BLAINGELS

Derrick Scott, Jesse Ackerman, Jeff Madden, Donnie Maib, and Lee McCormick- Texas strength and conditioning team

Kenny Boyd. A graduate of University of Florida, Boyd is in his seventh season as head athletic trainer for football at UT. The Fort Walton Beach, Fla. native was a four-year letterman in wrestling in high school. He and his wife, Ellen, have a son Taylor. “I probably had more fun in the training room with Kenny and the staff than I had in a while,” said Irby, who made the best of the situation. ” You just have to take it each day as it comes and enjoy every moment of it.”

Jesse Ackerman. UT’s assistant strength and conditioning coach Ackerman, who previously worked at Iowa State,  did most of the one-on-one work with Irby during the two and a half years of rehab. Ackerman’s background in clinical psychology helped when Irby got in a funk over the lack of feeling in his foot. “I think, when an athlete has an injury like this, initially they look at it as a hiatus from their career or they terminate. It’s actually a grieving process,” Ackerman said. “I don’t think Blaine ever looked at it as a termination.. .When he was feeling down we went back to work, and we went back to work harder.”

Bennie Wylie. Mexia native Wylie was named UT’s strength and conditioning head coach for football in January 2011, when Irby’s rehab was nearing completion. A former strength coach for Tennessee (2010) and Texas Tech (2003- 2009), Wylie and wife Jennifer are parents to five-year-old twin boys Braden and Caden. “I got to come in on the easy part of it, the shine part of it, and just kind of help him get over that mental hump.,” said Wylie, who was instantly impressed by “how upbeat and what a team guy he was, because if most people have that same injury they’re not as team-oriented…”

Dr. Rahul Nath. Houston-based neurosurgeon Dr. Nath was well-known to Texas doctors and trainers after he performed successful surgeries on Tony Hills, who suffered a knee injury almost identical to Irby’s. Dr. Nath, 54, grew up in Canada, but moved to the U.S. to go to Northwestern University Medical School, where he graduated in 1988. He’s been the director of Houston’s Texas Nerve & Paralysis Institute since 2004.

 

GAME RECAP: TEXAS 17, BYU 16

Mack Brown did what he stubbornly refused to do last year, when the wheels started coming off that 5-7 Chevy. But, then, last year a McCoy didn’t have a Shipley to throw to.

After a déjà boo first half against Brigham Young, with 8 yards passing and two INTs, junior Garrett Gilbert, the most decorated passing quarterback in Texas high school history, may have started his last game for the Texas Longhorns.

If Gilbert isn’t yanked late in the second quarter, the crew in blushed orange unis starts the season 1-1 (the same record of Longhorns fans being able to watch the game on TV). But after switching to a rotation of Case McCoy and David Ash, the Horns came back from a 13-0 deficit to defeat BYU 17-16.

At this point, Connor Wood may be ahead of Gilbert on the depth chart.

The Texas defense physically dominated those Cougars like they were a bunch of horny Utah housewives, holding them to 67 yards in total offense in the second half. What a difference from last year, when the Horns were softer up the middle than Cam from “Modern Family” clutching a pillow.

17-16 wasn’t pretty, but there’s no such thing as an ugly win when you watch the game through Horn-rimmed glasses. Every W’s a Kardashian.

You never know what’s going to happen when Texas plays UCLA- or in which quarter the Horns will unravel- but two games into this young and restless season one thing is certain: true freshmen are not just interns in shoulder pads.

Three guys who wore jackets and ties with shorts for yearbook picture day last year, led the Horns to victory against Donnie and Marie’s fave team.

On 9/10/11 it was #8 who had the biggest play. Jaxon Shipley made a sick 20-yard catch between two BYU defenders on third and 9, turning a 50-yard field goal attempt into the go ahead touchdown a few plays later. Then, after freshman DB Quandre Diggs

Malcolm in the middle. Photo by Rodolfo Gonzales

played receiver and got the ball back, Malcolm Brown, such a student of the game plan that his nickname could be Malcolm Xs and Os, sealed the win with a 14-yard ramble on third and 8.

Playmakers, what a concept!

Sorry, Beatles, happiness is not a warm gun, but a Shipley in a Longhorn uniform. Like Jordan before him, Jaxon is just a natural born football player.

That must’ve been some labor for Mama Shipley, delivering twins seven years apart.

The Shipleys are freaks. Off the field they look like they should be chewing straw and guiding a raft down the Mississippi River with a pole. But on game day, the Brothers Ship  are gridiron warriors with deceptive speed and noses for the football.

What do I mean by “deceptive speed’? Is that a racial thing? Norm, tell ‘em what they won! Let’s put it this way: Jaxon Shipley is that rare wide receiver who didn’t name Lil’ Wayne as his favorite musician in the media guide. You’re not supposed to fly past DBs when your top music guy is George Strait.

As quick as Jaxon is, he’s no Marquise Goodwin, a welcome re-addition to the team. Pookie had planned to backburn football for a year to concentrate on track, but after his recent 13th place finish in the long jump at the track and field World Championship, it looks like he’s got the same chance of getting a gold medal in the 2012 Olympics as Chaz Bono winning “Dancing With the Stars.”

Goodwin said he missed football. But maybe he’s trying to get the stench of 2010 out of his doorag.

“It’s like you get to write the story all over again,” linebacker Emmanuel Acho said a few days before the Rice opener. “You have the pen, you have the paper, now it’s how you want to write it.”

There does seem to be a different, backs-against-the-wall attitude with the team this year. The mindset with these players in 2011 is that they’re going to war together. In 2010, it was more like going to a scary neighborhood together, hoping that no one bothers them.

Last year was the hangover year, a season of bad Sunday headaches. The heartbreaking national championship loss to an inferior Alabama team made it harder to get ready for the next season. The cobwebs never cleared last year.

When you wake up with a debilitating hangover, you can either vow to make a change, or take a shot of whiskey.

Anybody who doesn’t feel for #7 is not a true fan of the game. The kid gave all he had and maybe that was the problem. He carried so much weight on his shoulders that it didn’t matter that he has a bazooka for an arm.

Garrett Gilbert, with those gifts that led Lake Travis High to two state championships, could end up being a hero this year or next. He might come in one game and turn things around. Without the pressure of continuing the legacy of Vince Young and Colt McCoy, he might just have some fun.

Texas is 2-0, just like they were last year. But it feels different, doesn’t it? The script has not been completely written, but it’s taken an intriguing turn.

 

THE QB: WAY BEFORE VINCE THERE WAS JAMES STREET

The QB and the Coach. The scoreboard tells the story.

On a wall in a conference room in the shadow of the state Capitol hangs a painting that freezes the pivotal moment of the Texas victory over Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl that sewed up the 1969 national championship. Senior quarterback James Street is on the sidelines talking to Coach Darrell Royal under a scoreboard showing that it’s fourth-and-two on the Notre Dame 10-yard line with just over two minutes to go and Texas trailing 17-14.

The quarterback known for clutch play and the folksy coach who always played for the win could not have looked calmer. After all, this situation was nothing compared with the heart-stopping fourth-and-three call in the fourth quarter at Arkansas a few weeks earlier. In that Game of the Century, as the contest between the top two undefeated teams was hyped, the power-running Horns uncharacteristically called a long pass to tight end Randy Peschel and went on to win 15-14 with President Nixon in the stands in Fayetteville and a spellbound nation watching on TV. That perfectly thrown pass cemented Street as a Longhorn legend, but the Notre Dame game would seal his legacy.

Under pressure from an Irish pass rush on that crucial fourth-down play, Street rolled left and hit a diving Cotton Speyrer for an 8-yard completion. Texas would score the winning touchdown three plays later on a plunge by Billy Dale. “James Street gave 110 percent on every play,” says Happy Feller, whose extra point made the final score Texas 21, Notre Dame 17. “He led by example, was always positive, and the entire team responded to that leadership.”

Street’s hustle and toughness have also paid off in his business career and are qualities passed down to his sons, including 22-year-old Huston, a star relief pitcher for the Oakland A’s who was named the 2005 American League Rookie of the Year. Sitting in the memorabilia-filled offices of the James Street Group, the ex-quarterback says the painting tells only a part of the story. “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity,” he says, reciting his favorite Royal quote. “We got a lot of good bounces, and the defense came through when it had to.” Now 57, Street is head of a company that specializes in “structured settlements,” giving long-term financial advice to plaintiffs who’ve recently settled wrongful death or personal injury lawsuits. He’ll talk football — twist his arm and he’ll tell you about “The Play,” as the pass to Peschel has been tagged in Longhorn lore — but family and business come first.

“I didn’t want to be one of those guys sitting on a bar stool and talking about the glory days and then realizing, one day, that it was 35 years ago and I was still telling the same stories,” he says.

If Vince Young wakes up Thursday as the quarterback who led Texas to a national title, the only man in Austin who can truly identify is Street, who won 20 straight games in almost two full seasons as UT’s starter. But where Wednesday’s Rose Bowl game against the University of Southern California is an important steppingstone for a quarterback seemingly headed for an illustrious pro football campaign, the Jan. 1, 1970, Cotton Bowl marked the end of Street’s football career. He was the prototype wishbone quarterback, a sleight of handoff wizard nicknamed “Slick,” but they didn’t use the wishbone in the NFL. Also a standout pitcher at UT, with a perfect game against Texas Tech in 1970, Street figured his best chance at pro ball was on the mound. But when that career also didn’t pan out, he spent a year capitalizing on his Longhorn exploits by singing country standards, Elvis covers and “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” in Steiner rodeos all over Texas. He even hung out with Presley, who said he cheered for Texas against Arkansas, for a few hours one night in Las Vegas.

When the Longview product came down to Earth, he took a job as an insurance agent in Austin. “The transition from full-time athlete was difficult,” Street says. “From the time I was 9 years old, I always had to be someplace at 3 o’clock in the afternoon,” he says. “Little League practice. Pee Wee football. Pop Warner. Track. Most kids need to learn self-discipline to survive college, but not athletes. You knew, every day, that you had to be someplace at 3 o’clock. Then you get out of school and 3 o’clock comes around, and you don’t have to be anywhere and you don’t know what to do.”

Street’s first marriage, to Shanny Lott (the sister of Farrah Fawcett’s college boyfriend Greg Lott), ended in divorce after six years of marriage right out of college. Their only son, Ryan Street, 31, is an architect in town who’s designed Lance Armstrong’s homes in Dripping Springs and Spain and the new one in Tarrytown. Street married his second wife, Janie, who like him has a twin sister, in 1981. Huston was born two years later, followed two years after that by twins Jordon and Juston, both 20-year-old pitchers for the Longhorn baseball team. Westlake High senior Hanson rounds out the Streets.

Friends say James Street’s relatively low profile through the years has less to do with an aversion to the limelight than being the father of five active, athletic sons. “If James is not working, he’s coaching kids or watching his sons play,” says Feller, who has remained close to Street, as have most members of the ’69 team.

James Street’s name started popping up in the press again in 2002, when Huston Street became a star relief pitcher for the national champion Texas baseball team. “It’s unfair having to be compared to someone else all the time,” says the elder Street. “Huston had

Huston Street

to grow up as ‘James Street’s son,’ and now that he’s having all that success, Jordon and Juston are going to be known as ‘Huston Street’s brothers.’ That’s tough. But you just have to be yourself and forget about other people’s expectations.” Looking a little like Wayne Newton with graying hair and delivering his “life-isms” with a preacher’s flair for drawn-out storytelling, Street could be one heckuva motivational speaker. But even though he occasionally gives formal talks at alumni functions, he says he prefers to impart “all the wisdom I’ve got from steppin’ in chugholes” in a more person-to-person way, especially with his sons. When Huston played in the College World Series as a freshman, his father pulled him aside and said, “You’re gonna see all those people in the stands, and you’re gonna think, ‘This is the big show — I’ve gotta do more!’ But all you’ve gotta do is throw strikes and get people out, just like in all the other games you’ve played. Here’s what I want you to do: Pick out a stitch on the catcher’s mitt and focus on hitting it. Forget about all those people and what’s at stake. Hit that seam.”

The Longhorns won that 2002 championship in Omaha, Neb., and Huston Street was named the tournament’s outstanding player. Three years later, when he won the AL Rookie of the Year Award, his father, forever the cautionary, ego-checking coach, said, “That award is for something you’ve already done. What are you gonna do next?” Last year, the elder Street watched on TV as Huston walked out to the mound at Yankee Stadium to face Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez in the bottom of the ninth to preserve an Oakland lead. The closer did his job, calmly retired the big bats in order, and on the phone that night, James told Huston he was proud of the way his son was able to concentrate on the task without getting caught in the fanfare. James Street was thinking back to the lesson in Omaha. Huston said, “Are you kidding, Dad? I kept looking up in the stands and all around me, thinking, ‘Oh, my God: Yankee Stadium!’ I was nervous as hell!”

James Street says he’s also a bundle of nerves when he watches his sons in competition. “I’m a lot more nervous during their games than I was when I played,” he says with a laugh. Game of the Century Teammates certainly witnessed no jitters when Street came back in the huddle during that 1969 Arkansas game and relayed the call from Royal on fourth-and-three with 4:47 left and Texas down 14-8. “You’re not going to believe this play, but it’s gonna work,” Street said to the other 10 players, each bearing a reflection of Street’s steely gaze. “It’s gonna work,” he repeated, and then he called the famous right 53 veer pass to tight end Peschel. Almost everyone in the audience was sure the Horns, with the full house backfield of Steve Worster, Jim Bertelsen and Ted Koy, would run for the first down. “Now I’m lookin’ at you, Cotton,” Street said to Speyrer in the huddle, “but I’m talking to you, Randy,” he said to Peschel, trying to throw off any Razorback spies. “If you get behind ‘em, run like hell.” Peschel was covered by a pair of fast-closing defensive backs, but Street laid the ball in perfectly, over the tight end’s shoulder and into his hands.

The gamble paid off, going for 44 yards to the Arkansas 13; Bertelsen ran it in from the two for a TD a couple of plays later. The Game of the Century lived up to its billing, with Texas coming back from a 14-0 deficit in the fourth quarter to win 15-14. Besides having the undefeated No. 1 team face off against the undefeated No. 2 team, in the 100th anniversary of college football, the Texas-Arkansas game gained importance because it came in the midst of so much cultural upheaval. 1969 was the year of Manson, moonwalks, Chappaquiddick, Woodstock, “Midnight Cowboy” and Vietnam. Especially Vietnam. The game took place the same day a young concertgoer was stabbed to death by Hell’s Angels at a free Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway in California. In 1969, America was very much a polarized nation.

“I think a lot of people wanted to watch a football game to get their minds off the other stuff,” Street says. But in the Horns’ jubilant locker room after the game, when Nixon declared Texas the national champion, the timbre of the times became evident when a Horn player thanked Nixon. When Nixon said the thanks belonged to the players for such an incredible game, the Horn shot back, “I’m thanking you because my lottery number was 350!” The government had implemented a military draft lottery to shore up troops in Vietnam just six days earlier.

At Robert Mueller Municipal Airport the night of the big win, about 20,000 fans greeted the team, toppling barricades and running out to the taxiing plane as though it carried the Beatles. Fans clawed at Street’s hair and clothes until he asked one of his burly linemen to run a little interference: “Just give me an opening, and I’m gone,” and he was. All Street ever needed was a little daylight.

The old and the new Street has remained close to the Texas program, and every year, Coach Mack Brown invites the leader of the last Longhorn team to win a consensus national championship to address the team that hopes to be the next one. “The gist of what I tell them is to be prepared for a life that’s completely different from football,” he says. “In football, you know your opponent well in advance. You study his moves. You look for his weaknesses, and if you and all your teammates do their jobs, you look up at the scoreboard and it declares you the winner. But there’s no scoreboard in life. And you don’t always know your opponent.”

Street never misses a home game, nor the Red River Shootout, so long as one of his boys doesn’t have a game the same day. What impresses him most about Vince Young, he says, is the way the people in the stands seem to exhale when No. 10 trots out on the field. “He just instills so much confidence. There’s no panic in that guy.” The same could be said for the man who wore No. 16 from ’67 to ’69.

“I see similarities between Vince Young and James Street in terms of leadership,” says Feller, who owns TeleDynamics, a wholesale distributor of consumer electronics in Austin. “With James at the helm, we just knew we were gonna win. Never gave a second to the notion we might lose. I can sense the same thing happening now.”

Last year, the 1969 Arkansas team invited its legendary adversaries up to Fayetteville for a 35th anniversary reunion, a players-only event Street calls “probably the neatest experience I’ve had as an ex-player.” Street counts Arkansas quarterback Bill Montgomery, now a successful businessman in Dallas, among his closest friends. Players gave testimonials about how The Game changed their lives. Several choked back tears. Street started thinking about what was his favorite memory of the game that will forever define him to many. “I remembered just being spent — emotionally, physically — as I walked off the field, but also completely re-energized because we won,” Street says. “And in the middle of all that pandemonium, I saw (Arkansas Coach) Frank Broyles’ kids run over to him and hug him. He had just lost the biggest game of the year, giving up a 14-point lead, no less, and yet his family was there to support him. It didn’t mean much to me at the time, but that’s what I was thinking about” at the reunion.

“We were kids, just playing a game and living a dream. And then it was over. But the love of your family or your work ethic, or just, I don’t know, teaching a Little Leaguer how to hit — those are the things that really matter in life.”

– Michael Corcoran, Austin American Statesman 1/1/06

 

VINCE YOUNG AND THE LONGHORNS’ REDEMPTION SONG

Vince Young led the first group of African Americans to win a consensus national championship as members of the Texas Longhorns. This story was published two weeks before the win.

Before the Big 12 championship Dec. 3 in Houston, some sports pundits were quick to remind fans that Texas had thumped Colorado in the 2001 regular season, only to lose to the Buffaloes 39-37 in December of that year. Crazy things happen in the Big Dozen ‘ship.

But the Horns slaughtered the Buffaloes like sadistic cavalrymen in the Old West. 70 to 3 in the third quarter? Where was boxing ref Mills Lane to stop this thing? Second-string quarterback Matt Nordgren has done more mop-up duty this season than a Marine recruit with a smart mouth.

As the minutes ticked mercifully away for the overmatched boys of Boulder, the well-rested Texas starters were hanging all over each other like the posse in a Lil’ Flip video and shouting out an echo chant from Notorious B.I.G.: “We’re goin’ goin’ back back to Cali, Cali.”

Same colors, different day.

Like the advent of bebop, this is a new, adventurous breed of Horns. Led by a Houston homeboy who’s been signing autographs since Bobby Brown had hits, the current teammates are swaggering products of the hip-hop culture, and embraced by Houston’s “Dirty South” rap community as the vintage Horn teams of Tommy Nobis, James Street and Earl Campbell were the faves of Texas-bred country singers.

“In Houston, we’re always underdogs,” says rapper Trae, from the same south-side environs that hatched VY. “We ain’t New York or L.A., so we have to come stronger, harder, to get respect. Vince is goin’ to Cali to tear ‘em up, to show ‘em who the real Heisman winner is.”

Having fielded the last all-white national championship football team in 1969, Texas has long been thought of as the vanilla team, with its earliest black players taunted as subservient pawns. Raymond Clayborn, who would become a star defensive back in the NFL, was one of only six blacks on UT’s varsity in 1973.

“When I was younger,” he said in the book “Bleeding Orange” by the American-Statesman’s John Maher and Kirk Bohls, “I always favored Oklahoma because they had all the blacks.”

In the ’70s and ’80s, Barry Switzer allowed flashy players to let their personalities shine and attracted some of the best black candidates from Texas. Miami was another school that earned a reputation for letting players exploit the full range of their athleticism instead of rigidly conforming to the Xs and Os.

Meanwhile, the storied Texas football program hunkered down for two decades of mediocrity. Low point: The orange got burnt badly at home in 1989, losing to Baylor 50-7, as unthinkable an outcome today as reports that Jessica Simpson left Nick Lachey for DeLoss Dodds.

The main plot line for the current Horns campaign is that a freakishly gifted athlete spends hours in the film room, studying how to break down defenses, while his tightly wound coach with a rep for needing a Heimlich maneuver after big games learns to loosen up and jam to some 50 Cent.

“Chest bump me, coach,” Young asked Brown after the Big 12 Championship victory evicted one simian residing between his shoulder blades.

“I’ve come a long way,” the Gatorade-soaked coach said, “but not that far.”

No quarterback since Michael Vick has gotten his swerve on like Vince, whose name has been cropping up in raps by artists such as Paul Wall (“I rep for Texas like Vince Young”) and Z-Ro. Burnt-orange jerseys, once the symbol of stodginess, have suddenly become hip, according to Trae, who rolls with the Guerilla Maab.

“It’s Houston’s time in rap and it’s Vince’s time in football,” says Trae, who promises to bust a few freestyle rhymes about No. 10 on Friday at the Back Room, when he headlines the Streets of Texas Tour, featuring S.L.A.B., Point Blank, MC Fatal and other children of DJ Screw.

Houston’s child

When VY placed second in Heisman voting to USC’s Reggie Bush, he hung his head and was slower to congratulate this Bush than Al Gore was the other one. Some in the media questioned Young’s maturity, even after he explained that his show of sadness was for all the people back home in Texas that he had let down.

But Ralph Cooper understood. “You can’t underestimate just how much Vince has meant to Houston, and vice versa,” says Cooper, the sports director at Houston’s KCOH radio station. “His athletic ability has been legendary since eighth grade at Dick Dowling Middle School. We’ve all watched and cheered this respected young man, knowing the price he’s had to pay to get to where he is.”

Abandoned by his father (currently in prison on burglary charges) at age 3, Young became man of the house in a hurry, watching over his mother and two sisters. He was tempted to join a gang in the seventh grade, but when his mother found out she came down on him hard, making him rake the yard and then emptying the bag of leaves when it was full to make him do it again. Vince got the point and glided through trouble traps like he did through the Oklahoma State defense earlier this year.

But the hard-core rap that put Houston on the map, first with the Geto Boys in the early ’90s and then the slowed-down “screwed and chopped” stuff that sounds like the rappers are underwater, was unavoidable. Many of the current stars of Houston hip-hop knew Young at an early age.

“He used to come to these high school dance parties I threw at the Brasewood Inn,” says Wall, who says he’s gone from Longhorn fan to fanatic since Young’s arrival.

But no rapper is tighter with Young than the kid whose Gib & Izzy duo is new to the scene. UT basketball star Daniel Gibson shares not only a human sexuality class with Young, but a whole lot of hometown memories. “When you’re both reppin’ Houston,” Gibson recently told Sports Illustrated, “you tend to get a lot closer.”

Both were highly recruited superstars from Houston high schools, but where Gibson, two years younger than Vince, had T.J. Ford to lead the way, Young was entering relatively unchartered terrain. “There was some apprehension,” Cooper says, when Vince, the nation’s top prep player, chose Texas over Miami out of Madison High.

“The perception was that Texas wasn’t a good fit for a black quarterback. We were afraid that they would try to turn Vince into a wide receiver, like they did Donnie Little,” Cooper says of the first black quarterback to play for the Longhorns.

There was also the cautionary tale of Donovan Forbes, a former high school phenom from the Houston area who rode the Longhorn bench from 1986 to 1989, starting only one game, when Peter Gardere was ailing. Beaumont’s James Brown became UT’s first standout black quarterback in the mid-’90s (and also caused several near-coronaries with the infamous “roll left” pass on fourth and a fingernail against Nebraska in 1996).

Cooper points to running back Ricky Williams as helping to change the image of Texas as the Gerald Ford of football programs. “He was a free spirit with his own personality,” Cooper says. Those dreadlocks pouring out from under his helmet showed high school prospects that you could let your hair down, so to speak, at the school black students used to call “Mr. Man.”

Although Williams easily won the Heisman and set the NCAA career rushing record with a spectacular TD run against Texas A&M in his final college game in 1998, his importance to the Longhorns was nothing compared with Young’s — on, and especially off the field. This is VY’s team as much as it is Mack Brown’s, and you have to give the coach credit for allowing Young’s leadership skills to flourish.

Two big games last season set up this charmed championship run. The first was a 12-0 loss to Oklahoma in October ’04. Afterward, Young sat in his dorm room with the lights out for a week, harder on himself than a booth full of yelping ESPN second-guessers. He also played poorly, tentatively, the next week against Missouri, going 3 for 9 passing, with two interceptions in a game the Horns were lucky to win 28-20.

Then came the notorious heart-to-heart, recounted ad nauseam in every Longhorn football game whose actionless (read: Vinceless) second half needed to be filled with trivia from the talking heads. “Let me be me, Coach,” the beleaguered quarterback pleaded. Vince wanted to loosen up the troops by leading “flow sessions” of dancing and jawing in the locker room before games. He wanted the freedom to create on the field without being chewed out for deviating from the plan. He wanted to talk some trash Friday night at dinner, instead of eating in silence, which was the rule on the nights before games. Vince wasn’t having fun and it was affecting his performance.

And then Brown earned a coach of the year nod by saying just two initials. OK. Young’s personality, unleashed, became the team’s.

This season began, in earnest, in the Horns’ final game last year, when they came from behind to beat Michigan 38-37 in the Rose Bowl, in one of the greatest games of all time. Young was magnificent, otherworldly, basking in the limelight like George Hamilton in the sun. With four spectacular touchdown runs and one through the air, the legend of Vince was born.

Last year’s team came into this season with a focus that seemed to inspire the slogan “Take Dead Aim” instead of the other way around.

“Rose Bowl’s over, y’all,” Young told the team before spring practice, challenging his receivers to meet him after practice to get extra work in. They all showed up.

Horns history on the horizon

Don’t assign light terms like cockiness to this team’s absence of fear and complete unwillingness to lose. The secret to being a good street fighter is to not worry about getting hit, and where previous Horns teams, laden with golden boys, seemed to be pulling back while throwing air-schwoosing hooks, this group of hungry Horns is gonna hit you harder than you hit them. This is new to these parts.

Someone, who obviously hadn’t seen this year’s Horns, asked Young if the Horns were intimidated, just a little, about going up against a team going for its third consecutive championship. “Intimidated by what?” the QB said. “We have guys on this team who are gangsta. You see their guys (talking trash) to other teams and the other guys aren’t talking back. Our guys will talk trash from beginning to end.” This team takes the code of the street to the gridiron like no other Horn team before; what pleasure to finally side with the bad boys.

It’ll be a win-win situation for UT, but also lose-lose in the Rose Bowl. If they beat USC, the national championship trophy comes back to Austin, but the Horns will most likely lose Vince to the NFL’s mega-millions. Kid could be playing for the Houston Texans this time next year. If Texas loses, we’ll have another year of watching Vince in our own backyard — not a bad consolation. Best case: we win and Vince stays, but even though VY says he’s coming back, there’s some doubt he will if UT wins.

What’s important is that the Horns are still tippin’, as they call cruising in the south side of Houston, still going for that dream that moved into the zip code of reality at the Rose Bowl a year ago. And the city of Houston — everyone from hard-core rappers to grandmas who remember that nice boy Vince — will be cheering them on.

If the 2005 Texas Longhorns prevail against USC, they’ll make history. The Heisman means next to nothing when you realize that Vince Young has the chance to be among the first African Americans to win a consensus national championship for the storied University of Texas football program.

Let that sink in.

The Horns are going to be playing for Julius Whittier, the first black player to letter in football at UT in 1970, and for Roosevelt Leaks, the first black star, who used “Uncle Tom” slurs as an incentive to knock would-be tackles on their rear ends. They’re going to be playing for Donnie Little, who was stunned when he entered the game against Rice in 1978 and heard the announcement that he was the first black athlete to play quarterback for UT. He had no idea.

And the Texas team will be playing for their boys back home, whether that’s in Cameron or Belton or Port Arthur or Mesquite or deep in the down south side of Houston where the bass shakes and bakes like a 6-foot-5 quarterback who just may be destiny’s child.

But most of all, the Horns, this family of soldiers, this brotherhood of competitors, will be playing for themselves and each other.

Who’s gonna stop ‘em? As the Geto Boys, the grandaddies of Houston hip-hop once said: Bring it on!

– Michael Corcoran 12/05

GAME ON: ABC NETWORK TAXES TEXAS FANS: TWO PARTS

Published Oct. 2, 2005

It’s not likely that I’d fly out of my seat in the third quarter of a 37-13 Texas rout on a play where the magic man Ramonce Taylor was not involved. But when ABC’s John Saunders announced that the network would be switching from Texas-Missouri to “a better game,” Michigan-Michigan State, I became livid.

Leaving the Horns with two minutes to go in the third quarter to show a more closely contested game is like Donald Trump turning away from a mirror to watch another mogul on TV with better hair. You don’t switch Texas viewers from a Horns game. I don’t care if it’s 83-0 and Mack’s dragging the bottom of the depth chart like he’s looking for bodies. Don’t care if DeLoss Dodds is returning punts. Luckily, ABC’s transgression lasted only about a minute and a half, and it was back to the drubathon that the refs tried to keep closer with their constant littering of yellow cloth. At times the field looked like the floor of Lance Armstrong’s laundry room and the Horns were flagged as if they’d mistakenly been told that Missouri is “The Grab Me State.”

Meanwhile, Aaron Harris was yanked by the collar on Missouri’s first touchdown, and there was no call. And what’s the point of instant replay if you’re not going to review what looked to be a legitimate touchdown by Brian Carter, who went up and snared a fade pass like Spud Webb on an alley oop. Vince Young is apparently not a morning person. Even though No. 10 put up some decent numbers before noon and showed that the Horns have a third-and-30 answer in the playbook, Vince Yawn didn’t look himself in the early going, fumbling snaps, showing cloudy decision-making and getting downright grouchy when the typically conservative Horns ran out the clock in the first half with only an 11-point lead. I’m a little mixed on pre-noon kickoffs. I like not having to check my watch about 9,453 times before an evening game (I got repetitive stress injury in my wrist before Ohio State), but coffee and football seem to go together like Red Bull and yoga. And someone should suggest that the Horns D-line switch to decaf. They were jumpier than Lee Corso auditioning for the lead role in “The Dick Vitale Story.” Three offsides in the first four minutes keeping Tiger drives alive.

 



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