Friday August 26th, 2016

Even now, more than 10 years later, when people come up to me on the street, they always want to talk about the game. The 2006 Rose Bowl. The moment that defined my football career. It’s hard to blame them, really. A perfect season. Beating USC — the squad that many were calling the greatest college football team of all time — in the national championship game. Scoring the game-winning touchdown in the final seconds.

For lots of college football fans — and University of Texas fans, specifically — that game still rates as one of the best that’s ever been played, and for me, the memories will never get old.

In many ways, my playing for UT was probably a foregone conclusion. My high school coach impressed upon me early on the notion that playing football could serve a greater purpose. He taught me that how you carry yourself on and off the field can have a huge impact upon the community, and coming from Houston, that meant a lot to me.

When most of the other highly touted players were leaving for Miami, LSU and Arkansas, my goal was to stay home. Texas didn’t heavily recruit me until my senior year, but my mind was pretty much already made up. I knew that if I could be a part of something bigger — back then, Texas schools didn’t get the same kind of national recognition as other big programs — I would have a chance to help make history in our state. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams. Those guys are gods in Texas, and I was set on making my mark; on being remembered like they were.

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The thing that people need to understand when it comes to football in Texas is that the sport is really all about family. It seems weird to say about a game where people are trying to take each other’s heads off, but it’s true.

It starts at a young age with Pop Warner and continues through middle and high school. Players of all ages and skills levels aren’t just members of their teams, they are part of a larger community, where everyone is invested in the culture of game. Parents take care of other parents’ kids. Older players look out for and guide younger players. Coaches, teachers and entire neighborhoods rally around the sport—not because those who play it are talented athletes, but because they are people. 

This is why there is a connection to what happens on the field. Texans truly care about their players, and as a result, players from the state really care about Texas football. Even with the rise of other college programs around the state, there’s still an aura and richness about the burnt orange and white.

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The enormous football culture also helps prepare you for pressure. They say that everything is bigger in Texas, and that goes for expectations, too. Luckily for me, I dealt with them from the very beginning — both good and bad. Growing up, I was bigger and faster than other kids, and that led to unexpected consequences. I had to bring my birth certificate with me to games to prove I wasn’t gaming the system. On the flip side, having so many people watch me (and quite a few doubt me) at a young age prepared me for what was to come when I attended UT years later.

As such, I never felt any additional pressure to perform as a Longhorn because I already had been raised to meet and exceed expectations before I ever stepped foot on campus. That’s exactly why I never worried about those who criticized my throwing motion or said I was too much of a “run-first QB” to be successful. I had already found success at every level, and the doubters only motivated me to work harder and be a better leader for my teammates so that we would collectively succeed.

Entering that 2005 season, there definitely were expectations, both from the fan base and our locker room. We had a pretty good idea that we were going to be dominant. Actually, deep down, we knew it after having beaten Michigan in the Rose Bowl the previous January. That 2004 season was bittersweet; we had gone 11–1, but losing to rival Oklahoma in the regular season ultimately put the national championship out of reach, and our failure to get it done left every single coach and player with a bad taste in his mouth.

Making matters worse were the whispers coming from some fans and members of the media. These guys are too soft. The Longhorns just can’t finish. Coach Mack Brown and his strength and conditioning staff need to go. That stuff had been floating around long before I came to UT, but it persisted nonetheless. 

Make no mistake: We heard everything that was said. That’s why the team’s leadership — myself along with defensive end Rodrique Wright, safety Michael Huff, running back Selvin Young and guard Kasey Studdard — took it upon ourselves impress upon our teammates how serious we needed to be about the upcoming season. Coaches don’t play; players do. So, we took the initiative to ensure that none of the program’s shortcomings would be attributable to coach Brown. Not on our watch.

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The reality is that players for big-time college programs face all sorts of distractions. The attention, the women, the temptations — it’s very easy to forget what you’ve been granted an opportunity to accomplish, both on the field and in the classroom. When players slip up, things get magnified, and that can often have a detrimental impact upon the team. That’s what makes UT football so unique, in my opinion. The family dynamic in the program (in the state, really) has the focus on doing the right thing — on and off the field.

Heading into the 2006 Rose Bowl, we had huge respect for USC. We knew how talented the players were, how respected the coaching staff was and the experience their entire program was bringing to the fight. But in the end, none of that mattered. That national title game was all about us, and what we needed to do to succeed. It didn’t matter who we were facing; we simply needed to keep doing the things that had brought us to that point. 

We just needed to be prepared, to execute the coaching staff’s game plan, and everything would take care of itself.

And it did.

As for those people who come up to me on the street? They tend to ask me about the game-winning play, but their reaction is usually priceless when I tell them the thing I remember most about that TD run. I was honestly nervous, and I thought to myself, MAKE SURE YOU DON’T DROP THIS SNAP! 

I had no idea I would score before the ball was hiked. The play called for me to get the ball to tight end David Thomas or wide receiver Brian Carter — to get a first down. But when I saw that blitz coming, instinct just took over. I took off, and did what I had been doing all season.

That was it. Game over, season over. National champions. A team effort that Texas will never forget. 

AP file

It’s crazy to think that I have been out of the game (as a player) for five years already. It certainly doesn’t feel like that much time has passed. I’m staying busy, trying to give back to the local community and contribute where I can. Nowadays, fellow Texans remember me as the guy who got it done at crunch time in a big spot way back when, the guy who sometimes gets brought up when the conversation turns to Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams.

But there is one other thing people always ask me when they see me around town in Austin.

Vince, how are our boys gonna do this year?!

“UNDEFEATED,” I always tell them.

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And while that might not be a popular prediction for this year’s Texas Longhorns, anything is possible if the team is in the right frame of mind. As with any other family, I will always be there for this crop of players and the ones who follow them. Whether that means mentoring them in the locker room, working out on the practice fields or in the gym, texting them with advice/pics/videos based on what I see while working for the Longhorn Network — whatever it takes to help them achieve their best.

The most important thing, however, is for the focus to be on them — not me. My time in the Texas spotlight ended a long time ago. This is their time now, and like any proud member of the Texas family, I’ll be there to cheer them on.

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