Fun & Games: Where football is church


A disembodied voice originating from the rear of the plane made the announcement ringing through the dark like a mourning bell.

“The Panthers lost,” the man’s voice said. The sound in the pressurized cabin felt compressed, squishy, but all could hear the sad news clearly.

“The Panthers lost,” he repeated, mainly to himself. “Lost the game-winning field goal.”

I shook my head.

“Dammit,” I said aloud, also mainly to myself. “Damn it all.”

Sept. 8 began the 2016 NFL season. The first game represented a new experiment in scheduling, one perhaps never repeated: a Super Bowl rematch.

It was a game I’d waited for half a year with bittersweet apprehension. And I could watch hardly any of it. The worst part might have been that I wasn’t even with my crew.

I was en route to a town without a professional sports team, despite the fact that the city is the capital of a state where football is religion, from Friday lights to Monday nights. I was on the way to Austin, Texas with my mom to celebrate my sister’s birthday.

I got to see only a few minutes of play through the glass storefront of the Stock Car Café in Charlotte Douglas International Airport: a Panthers drive ending with Cam Newton’s record-breaking rushing touchdown. That score, by the way, set the record for most QB rushing touchdowns and most games with both a rushing and passing touchdown.

But as we flew into Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, I realized just how literally football dominates the landscape in Texas, so much more than basketball can mark North Carolina. It even defied one of my favorite travel phenomena.

Whenever I’ve traveled — to New York, Chicago, Boston — I’ve always noticed how many baseball diamonds pepper the landscape of the metropolis I’m visiting. Even at night, they shine through the darkness.

Not so in Texas. No, in the Lone Star State, there was but one bright gem beaming at midnight: the gridiron of Darryl K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, where myths like Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams ran the rock and Vince Young led offenses to unbeaten seasons and national championships. The stadium capable of holding a mind-boggling 100,119 fans is a cathedral devoted to college football, an immense symbol as visible across the UT campus as the Texas State Capitol, and one arguably as important.

I’d never been to Austin, but Hannah has been earning her PhD in rhetoric there for three years at the University of Texas. Yet she hadn’t been to a Longhorns game until Sept. 4, the 2016 opener.

She couldn’t believe the immensity of the crowd; she likened it to Rome’s Colosseum, emphasizing its similarity to nearly blood-and-guts, gladiatorial spectacle.

“I remember being there, and I remember a bunch of yelling,” she said over breakfast tacos. “But I don’t really remember the game.”

“Nobody watches the game,” her boyfriend Reagan said.

Hannah paused to throw some shade.

“Honey, of course they do,” she scoffed.

I figured someone in the stadium paid attention. It was one of the biggest games in Longhorns history — the highest attendance of any home game at 102,315 (over capacity, as close readers may notice), a 50-47 double-overtime upset of the No. 10-ranked University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the glimmer of resurgence by a definitive program that’s seen better days.

The weekend I was there, the Longhorns hosted the University of Texas-El Paso Miners, a cupcake contest especially compared to the opening game.

Football is religion, and it’s on a level bypassing North Carolina’s love of basketball. Sure, 77 percent of Texans claim Christianity as their faith, but Sunday is the Dallas Cowboys’ day or the Houston Texans’ day as much as it is Jesus’ day to them.

And Saturday, typically a day of rest, leaves no break for the weary, especially not in Austin.

You may never understand the hype unless you’re in Texas during football season. Culture revolves around the game. You can access restaurants during prime brunch times because thousands of citizens begin tailgating by 11 a.m. And they tailgate until the game ends — sometimes for a while after. Even attendance of Austin’s favorite watering holes and honky-tonks, from the Hole in the Wall to the White Horse, stays sparse through twilight into dusk.

But when the game ends, the levee breaks and the party continues.

Hannah’s party was just starting. Her friends trickled onto the White Horse’s patio in the early evening hours of Sept. 10, but many more materialized after the Longhorns gored the Miners 41-7.

Hannah’s friend Teddy — a burly east Texas native, huge Longhorns and Cowboys fan — had woken me up that morning to pick up her season tickets and reappeared decked out in burnt orange. We talked football, and conversation inevitably led to the Panthers game.

“It was a joke,” Teddy lamented. “They kept hittin’ Cam over and over, helmet-to-helmet. An’ when Denver realized the refs weren’t gon’ call ’em on it, well, that jus’ set the tone for the game.”

Something hit me then. I was speaking with a fan who’d witnessed Carolina whip Dallas’ ass last Thanksgiving when Thomas Davis re-broke Tony Romo’s shoulder, effectively ending his career. And he was expressing his condolences to the team that threw his offense into chaos.

I’m not sure if I could do the same against, say, Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils. I feel like that kind of respect can only come from someone who wholly lives and truly loves the game.

It’s a respect I may never know.