That’s him there. He looks harmless enough, but, if I’m meeting him somewhere, he calls me 7 times in the 10 minutes just prior to confirm exactly where we are getting together. He reminds me over and over to do things that I long since mastered as a quasi-adult. If you’re flying somewhere with him, be prepared to get to the airport between 3 and 4 hours ahead of time. Slightly disconcerting behavior from someone who is literally a rocket scientist.
My dad worked on the both Apollo and the Space Shuttle programs, and did so while holding down his full-time as a professor of aerospace engineering. This is made all the more comical as he is a Luddite of sorts.
I’d laugh at the fact that the clock on the VCR still blinks 12:00 if it weren’t sad that he still relies on his VCR. Sure he has XM in his car, but only so that he can listen to the station that broadcasts nothing but old time radio shows from the Forties and Fifties. I don’t dare try to explain what an mp3 is to him. I marvel that he actually owns a few things on Compact Disc.
What terrifies me is that this is going to be me. I can already catch myself mimicking some of his gestures and habits sometimes. And should I ever have kids I am convinced I will behave in exactly the same way. Except I will torture mine with Pleased to Meet Me not Fibber McGee and Molly.
But there is something that my dad did give me for which I will never be able to thank him even if it does control my life from September through the New Year.
As a professor at the University of Texas he had season tickets to Longhorn home football games. I often attended games with him. He didn’t even like the Horns. In fact, he hated them. He was conflicted as he loved Austin and the University was his employer, but my dad went to Rice University. And for most of his children’s lives, Rice was Texas’ bitch. There was no other way to put it.
The Owls would routinely lose to the Horns by 30 or 40 or more, season in, season out. When the two teams played in Houston, Rice Stadium would be full of people in burnt orange (and by the way, folks, nobody looks good in burnt orange), who came primarily to have a few cocktails in the parking lot, be social, and to see the Marching Owl Band.
The MOB, as it was known, didn’t march but did engage in satire. They were the most entertaining thing of any Texas v. Rice game during my entire childhood into adolescents. Even the MOB was laying down and pandering as they often gained favor with the Longhorn fans by making fun of the Aggies.
I think my dad went to UT games with the secret hope that they would get upset. They did only on rare occasions. These were the Darryl Royal into Fred Akers years for the most part. And when Akers was fired, he had the highest winning percentage of any active coach. He just couldn’t win a National Championship. Such are the expectations at Texas. You’d think for people who act like it’s their birthright, they’d have more than three of them.
As often as we’d go to Texas games, my dad would take us—us being me and my siblings—to Houston and go to Rice games. Reread that: My dad, of his own volition, would actually put the kids in the car—and in the late Seventies this was probably a car without air conditioning, which is important because summer in Texas lasts into October sometimes—and drive across the state to see one of the worst football programs in Division I get beat.
And if Rice didn’t get beat, they still found a way to somehow snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. I think those Rice teams must have averaged somewhere between 2 and 3 wins. If they had been merely bad, they would have averaged 4.
Even better, on the way home back to Austin that night, my dad would usually find the play-by-play for the LSU game on the AM radio dial. It didn’t matter that we were driving away from the signal out of Baton Rouge. More static than game? Just turn up the radio a little more. Buried somewhere in that hiss is the call. In hindsight, it’s a small miracle I wasn’t the only kid at Cedar Creek Elementary with tenitis.
I suppose it was important that my dad had something to engage him and keep him alert for the drive, but shit, I’m nine, I want to sleep.
But it wasn’t just Rice or Texas. Growing up I used to spend New Year’s in Houston for the Bluebonnet Bowl. My dad liked to go to the games simply because it often pitted two teams against each other game he had never seen before.
I remember one time he was giving a lecture at USC and he made sure to schedule the trip around the weekend of the ND – USC game and get tickets as part of the deal. My sister went with.
Oddly enough, I ended up going to college at Notre Dame. And not because of football. Football had nothing to do with my decision.
Basically, I wanted to get away from home. Not because it was bad. Shit I lived in Austin. In the late Eighties and early Nineties Austin was still pretty much a secret. You could get on MoPac at 5 pm and still drive 60 mph. I just wanted an experience I wouldn’t get in my back yard. Plus, I had inherited my old man’s disdain for the Horns.
Oh, and I got rejected by my first choice, which was Duke.
Still, for football, my timing could not have been better. My freshman year, the Irish won the National Championship.
My very first game at Notre Dame stadium? It was the second best college football game I have ever witnessed in person. Michigan’s All American kicker Mike Gillette pushed a 47-yard field goal wide as time expired. ND won 19-17. I never actually saw the kick. But I knew something good had happened when a mass of humanity in the stands behind me dog-piled forward.
A few moments later I was hugging guys I had known for 10 days like we were in need of a civil union ceremony.
To this day, October 15, 1988 is the single greatest sporting day of my life. That rivalry had become so bitter, and so hateful, that even I was sporting a shirt to the game that read “Fuck Miami” on it. And I’m really a nice boy who doesn’t do shit like that (Most people probably remember that day more for Kirk Gibson’s walk off home run again Denis Eckersley in Game 1 of the World Series. I was so drunk by then that when I saw Gibson’s shot in the bar it felt surreal).
Again, the Irish went on to win the National Championship that year, beating West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl. I went. The Mountaineers were one of the four or five worst teams we played that year.
The rest of my undergraduate years were filled with disappointments. We were even better the next year but we lost in Miami when Stan Smagala let a Cane receiver behind him to convert a 3rd and 44. If I ever meet Stan Smagala. I am going to punch him. And I’m a pacifist.
What does any of this have to do with my dad? A couple of years right out of school, I twice drove from Austin to South Bend on the spur of the moment to see Michigan and Florida State games after friends scored last minute tickets. Twenty-one hours each way in the car for three hours of football.
When I lived in L.A. I would go to UCLA games for no reason in particular. When I was living in Chicago, I drove up to Camp Randall because I had never seen the Badgers play in person (and for the Griddle Cakes and Mickey’s Dairy Bar) and to Evanston to see the Wildcats just because it was close.
I have driven more than 6 hours on no less than twenty occasions to see two college teams that I had no affiliation with play a football game. And often on the drives to and from, I scan the AM radio dial looking for a game, any game to listen to. And I keep listening even as the games become more static than play by play. As the ratio of white noise to game increases, I’ll simply turn up the volume.
And sometimes as I do this I realize I am becoming exactly like my dad.
But my dad is the reason I love fall more than any other season. My favorite day of the year is that first day in late August or early September when there is a waff of cool in the air. Okay, in Central Texas it usually takes until late September or early October, but the air, it just smells different.
That is the smell of college football. That and cheap whiskey we smuggle into the stadium.
I don’t even have to be going to a game. I can kill a Saturday watching college football from 11 in the morning until after midnight. I can watch NC State play Boston College and find a reason to pull for one of them. And I’m not just pulling for them, I am emotionally involved. It’s crazy.
My living room is set up with three TVs just so that I can have three games on at once. Every season that’s not fall? The other two never even get turned on. If I go out, have a shitty time at the bars, and call it a night early, that late Pac 10 game on Fox Sports West (or maybe it’s Pacific) is a godsend.
Yes, it’s kind of pathetic. And it’s cost me at least one girlfriend. Probably two. But I don’t care. This is the part of me that I got from my dad. And it makes me happy.
Right after college, I was moving around a fair amount and my dad accepted a civilian professorship at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. In fact if you want to know exactly how irrational the behavior I inherited is, when my dad was at the Academy, he would fly to Austin on weekends of Rice home games. Yes, Rice is in Houston. But he would fly into Austin, meet up with my brother, who also ended up attending Rice, and they would drive to Houston to go to Rice games.
Who does shit like that? It’s Rice. Christ, they cant’ give tickets to their games away.
The point is I hadn’t seen my dad that much since I began college and I hadn’t made the trips down to Houston to see many Rice games because A) I often wasn’t living in any place convenient and B) I really didn’t care to see a crappy Rice team get pummeled yet again.
But I agreed to go see Texas play in Houston in 1994. The game was moved to Sunday night for some reason I can’t recall, but I do remember that it was going to be the only sporting event on the calendar that night. And since ESPN had to show something, they were showing that game.
Texas coach John Mackovic had suspended 3 or 4 players for the game, including standout receivers Mike Adams and Lovell Pinkney. It shouldn’t have mattered. In fact that’s probably why they were suspended for that game. Texas can lose its best players against Rice. Hell, Texas can start its third string against Rice and win. Handily. You don’t suspend players for the OU game. That’s crazy talk. You suspend them against Rice so you pretend like you’re a disciplinarian and still have a cake walk.
But Texas was listless. Rice was inspired. It poured rain. And it was broadcast on national television. It wasn’t a fluke. The Owls controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, rushing for 207 yards while holding Texas to 16 yards. Obviously I had to go look those stats up, but, even now, it doesn’t seem possible.
In fact I still hardly believe any of it happened. The Owls missed an extra point in the first quarter, and when Texas pulled within 2 after a 4th quarter touchdown, you knew, you just knew Rice was going to find away to give Texas the ball back with enough time for them to move into field goal range and kick a game winner.
But they didn’t. And I sat there next to my dad, in a monsoon and in amazement as I watched something I never thought I’d see in the rest of his lifetime or mine. Final score: Rice 19 – Texas 17.
The look on my dad’s face when we were leaving the stadium is something I’ll never forget. It’s just a stupid football game but I had never seen my dad pump a fist in celebration. Again, he was a rocket scientist. How he was even into college football to the degree he was, is beyond me.
It’s one of my favorite memories of my dad. I can’t explain why I was even there for it—just dumb luck, I suppose—but I wouldn’t trade that memory for a million bucks. Not even two. Not even close.
Anyway, I’m sure there are a lot more things about my dad that explain me, and I’m terrified of some of the irritating habits that I’ll inevitably start to adopt. But I’m thankful for all my dad has given me, including my love of college football. And I’m glad for whatever silly set of decisions allowed me to be there for what has to be one of his better memories.
Happy Father’s Day, dad. And thanks for everything.