The week before Thanksgiving, in 1999, the Texas A&M Aggies and the Texas Longhorns bonded in a way that they had never done before and never could again. Twelve sons and daughters of A&M had died in the collapse of the 59-foot-high Bonfire, a hands-on Aggies tradition in which students had been participating annually since 1909.
The visible sympathy of the Texas players and students had been a healing touch. In Austin, thousands gathered on campus for a candlelight ceremony; the Tower chimes rang out in tribute, and the band played The Spirit of Aggieland.
Before the game in College Station, 12 white doves were released and circled Kyle Field before flying away, and four F-16 jets, piloted by A&M graduates, did a flyover in the missing-man formation. At halftime, the Longhorn band played Amazing Grace, and the game ended the only way dramatic license could allow, with a 20-16 Aggies' upset of a Texas team that would win the Big 12 South. The result wasn't sealed until the final 23 seconds, when linebacker Brian Gamble swept up a Texas fumble. Then, in front of the A&M sideline, he fell to his knees, raised both arms and pointed to the heavens.
In more than a century -- Texas and A&M first played in 1894 -- the rivalry did not always rise to this level of life-and-death emotion, although on a football scale the teams surely tried. Now here we are, a dozen years later, bracing for the last encounter in the state's oldest and most storied football series. A&M is bound for the SEC next fall, its defection a response to Texas's iron-fist ruling of Big 12 politics and the school's landing a $300 million deal from ESPN to launch the Longhorn Network. Where to place the blame -- Longhorn greed or Aggie envy -- hardly matters. But what the game has meant to the fans of the schools and to the public passions matters greatly.
Texas will remain in the Big 12, for now, counting its blessings -- and its money. A&M athletic director Bill Byrne wants to continue the series in nonconference play, but his counterpart at Texas, DeLoss Dodds, has told Byrne, thanks but no thanks; the Longhorns' schedule is full through at least 2018.
Across the Lone Star State, reactions have been angry, sad, disappointed, even dumbfounded. "I'm bitter," says Ivy McLemore, former sports editor of The Houston Post. "It's all about money. How do you kiss off 100-plus years of all that history?"
Most Texas exes have stayed true to their school, but admit to being disturbed. "You can't explain this rivalry, you have to experience it," says former Longhorns running back Chris Gilbert, a College Football Hall of Famer. "But I'm like anyone else. I can't imagine Thanksgiving Day without the game."
To the purists among us, and those fluent in Latin, it is tempting to ask, "Et tu, UT?" And the same can be said, of course, for the Aggies. When they fled hand-in-hand to the Big 12 in the mid 1990s, the state's football addicts gave those programs their devotion, their hearts and their coin, buying bobbleheads and replica jerseys. They wished them packed stadiums and television dollars that fell like raindrops upon their heads. They wished them happy trails. They accept the reality that this is sports in the 21st century. It looks suspiciously like Big Business. They feel betrayed. Frank Merriwell doesn't live here anymore.
For one last time, those who attended neither school will be drawn into the drama on this Thanksgiving doomsday. Ranked No. 8 in the preseason, A&M has been a bust in its farewell tour of the Big 12. The 6-5 Aggies have emerged as the best five-loss team in America. They blew double-digit leads in the second half to Oklahoma State, Arkansas and Missouri. They outscored Oklahoma, except for giving up 28 straight points in the third quarter. They fell in four overtimes to Kansas State, 53-50.
Meanwhile, Texas is 6-4 after consecutive losses to Missouri and Kansas State. On Thanksgiving there will be little at stake in terms of national importance, and yet there will be everything at stake: the right of one to lord it over the other. The shelf life of these bragging rights used to be one year. Now the winner of the last one can gloat forever.
You marvel that the vendetta has retained its intensity, given that Texas has won twice as often over the years (75-37-5.) As early as the 1950s, A&M coach Paul "Bear" Bryant was asked why the 'Horns had been so dominant, and without hesitation he replied, "Texas hates us more than we hate them."
The Bonfire tragedy tempered that animosity, but the teams and their faithful have continued to bleed for a win and feel diminished by defeat. Some of the insanity disappeared when Texas put together long stretches of wins, and those shootouts against Arkansas took on a higher meaning. And there was always Oklahoma. The Aggies only had eyes for Texas.
The source of that, some would call, obsession dates to the creation of both schools. In 1876, the state constitution required the Legislature to establish a "university of the first class." Read: the University of Texas. Meanwhile the "Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas" was constituted as a "branch" of the main university. From its birth, A&M was raised as the maroon-headed stepchild to its big brother in Austin, a mindset that has stuck with the Aggies ever since.
At first, the schools attracted different students. A&M drew from rural parts of the state while Texas enrollees came from more urban areas. Over time Aggies liked to tease these snooty intellectuals from "Texas University," more commonly known as t.u., as "teasips," a nickname that those from A&M use to this day. Every good Longhorn, meanwhile, grew up hearing and retelling Aggie jokes. (How many freshmen Aggies does it take to change a lightbulb? None. That's actually a sophomore course at A&M.)
What the Thanksgiving game did was bring into focus the yearnings of a state measured by oil and football. The schools represented what divided the state and what made it strong. The Aggies were a little bit country, and the Longhorns were a little bit rock 'n roll.
Much of those divisions are gone now. As the state's complexion morphed from rural to urban, the schools' student bodies began to homogenize. At no point have the students at the schools shared more in common than they do today.
Yet the burning desire to "beat the hell outta t.u." or say "goodbye to A&M" remains.
No matter which side had the upper hand, the game had the power to spoil Thanksgiving Day -- or make it more joyful. Meals were scheduled around the telecast, and many an argument and occasional divorce resulted when dad or granddad wouldn't be dragged from the set in the fourth quarter.
Need proof? Pick a year. Before anyone knew it was a rivalry, Texas won the first seven meetings, all shutouts. After the opener, the Austin newspaper described the Aggies as "nice gentlemen, but they were outclassed." The Aggies scored in 1902 and prevailed, 12-0.
In 1939, their great fullback, Jarrin' John Kimbrough, led A&M to a 20-0 victory in a season that ended with a national championship. The next year in Austin, a circus catch by Texas's Noble Doss set up the game's only score, knocked the Aggies out of a second straight title and ended their winning streak at 20 games.
In 1948, a winless A&M squad tied Texas, 14-14, saving its season. But the Longhorns lost only once from 1940 until Bryant arrived from Kentucky before the '54 season to pull off the most notable salvage job of his career.
The Aggies were unbeaten in 1956, but Bryant was wary of playing the 'Horns in Austin. In a departure from his usual tactics, he told the press that he had the better team and if his charges played up to their ability Texas had no chance.
Before the game, the Bear was playing it safe. He refused to bring his team out of the locker room until after the Longhorns had played their alma mater, The Eyes of Texas. He was not going to have his players blasted with it as they hit the field.
The kickoff was delayed five minutes until the Texas band struck up The Eyes, after which the A&M team appeared. The Aggies jumped out to a 13-0 lead and were on their way to a smashing 34-21 win.
The relationship between the schools could be angry, mean, respectful and strange. Coaches on occasion crossed the line. Dana X. Bible produced five SWC champions for A&M from 1917 to 1928. He eventually moved to Austin and engineered superb squads in the '40s -- featuring the flamboyant Bobby Layne, the program's most famous quarterback until Vince Young toppled USC in the Rose Bowl. Emory Bellard installed the wishbone for Darrell Royal in '68, launching a national trend, and then moved to College Station in '72 to turn the Aggies back into winners.
This maneuvering sometimes had fascinating back stories. Ed Price resigned as the Longhorns' coach after the 1956 loss, and an early candidate for the job was a young Royal, a onetime Oklahoma quarterback/defensive back, then coaching at Washington. Royal had asked Bud Wilkinson to recommend him, and his former coach said he would. Then Royal called Bryant for an endorsement, and Bear told him, "Hell, no, Darrell. I don't want you coming in here and whipping our ass."
The Longhorns hired Royal. Later, he remembered walking across the campus with Bible, who had become athletic director, and asking how much Wilkinson's support had to do with his getting the job. "What do you mean?" said Bible. "Bud didn't call on your behalf."
Royal did a double-take. "Then who recommended me?"
Bible was surprised he didn't know. "Paul Bryant."
Royal's first team, in 1957, upset the fourth-ranked Aggies in College Station, 9-7.
The rivalry between the teams spilled over to other venues. Bryant initially had doubts about the toughness of Jack Pardee, who played end his sophomore year and was one of his famed Junction Boys. Pardee was skinny and shy, and his temper did not seem to reflect his red hair.
In the spring of 1955 a few of the Aggie players drove to Austin to cheer for the baseball team in a game against the 'Horns. A brawl broke out between Pardee and Texas all-conference tackle Buck Lansford, who pounded and pummeled each other from one section of the ballpark to another.
Years later, an Aggie teammate revealed what started the ruckus. "We were in the restroom in the concourse behind home plate, and as we left the urinals some of the Texas players walked in," he recalled, "Pardee brushed past Lansford, and Buck said to him, 'Didn't they teach you at A&M to wash your hands after you pissed?'
"And Jack said, 'No, they taught us not to pee on our fingers.' The next thing we knew they were throwing punches. Of course, we all thought Pardee won."
Coaches on both sidelines were fired for losing this game, or hired to win it. Jackie Sherrill was a lightning rod in his seasons on the Brazos River, but he changed the Aggies' mindset. A&M regained its swagger under Sherrill and successor R.C. Slocum, beating Texas 10 games out of 11 between 1984 and 1994.
After Royal, Texas had its own revolving door, during one stretch moving from David McWilliams to John Mackovic and finally Mack Brown.
Farmers and teasips -- you know who you are -- shared the fellowship of pain for 117 years. So did their diehard fans, including two who were governors of the state: John Connally, a onetime Texas student body president, and Rick Perry, an Aggie yell leader.
As governor in the 1960s, Connally received four box seats on the 50-yard line. When Lyndon Johnson was president, he frequently called Connally at noon to invite himself to the game, along with Lady Bird. But Connally complained that LBJ talked politics throughout the game, distracting him from the action on the field.
On Thanksgiving Day, Connally made it a point to leave the mansion at 10 a.m., and the extra seats remained empty. Now, barring government intervention -- which the current governor strongly opposes -- or perhaps divine intervention, the state's most revered football feud will end on Nov. 24, 2011. And all the fans and former players can take their places next to Connally's empty seats.