Friday, September 4, 2009

Family Ties

Ever since I was young, my parents have stressed to me the importance of family. With my dad’s side based in Dallas, they routinely piled my brother and me into the car for the four-hour drive from Houston, so we could spend time with that portion of the family tree.

Fortunately, when it came to my mom’s relatives, distance wasn’t an issue, as nearly everyone was a Houstonian. So whether it was going to our weekly Sunday night dinners or having the biggest cheering section at my tee ball games – including my great-grandmother, high heels and all – I was constantly surrounded by love.

It was special to have so many people I cared about serve an integral role in my daily life. Sure, like any family, we dealt with the usual disagreements and flare-ups of tension. But whenever someone’s feelings were hurt or the pot roast was not sliced to specification, there was one common bond that could always bring us back together:

Texas Longhorn football.

The University of Texas at Austin has one of the most successful, tradition-rich football programs in the country, boasting more wins than Oklahoma, Alabama and Notre Dame. It has produced two Heisman Trophy heroes, four national championships and countless exciting moments.

And my family has lived and died with nearly every one of them.

The obsession started with my grandfather, Lou “Pop” Marks, who graduated from UT. A brilliant, charismatic salesman by trade, his true passion was football. So when the opportunity presented itself, he got involved with the program, lending a hand wherever he could.

When the Longhorns hired a bright, young assistant coach named Fred Akers, they asked Pop to help him get settled in his new environment. The two bonded instantly, and through recruiting trips, late-night film sessions and dinners on the road, they became the closest of friends.

In 1977, Akers was named the successor to Darrell Royal – the winningest coach in school history, and the man whose name would eventually be put on the front of the stadium. Trying to replace a legend, Coach Akers needed all the support he could get.

So my grandfather stepped up, traveling to road games and staying in the team hotels. He used his business savvy to promote the coach’s radio show, and he established a weekly breakfast that re-engaged the alumni with the program.

But above all else, he was a confidant, someone the coach could count on amid all of the chaos that encapsulates the world of college football.

It’s no wonder, then, that hanging in my grandfather’s office is a signed photograph from Coach Akers with a dedication that reads: “To my right arm.”

Pop’s love for the Longhorns was contagious. My late grandmother, Mom, was the sweetest, most kind-hearted woman who ever walked the earth, and growing up, she didn’t know anything about football. But after being married to Pop for 41 years, she was cheering for the good guys and cursing opposing coaches.

This passion permeated the entire family. My mom, my aunt and my uncle all have degrees from UT. And when grandchildren came into the picture, Pop had a new audience to mold.

So once we were old enough, Pop started teaching us about the sanctity of Texas football. He took us to practice, where we met the coaches and played catch on the sidelines. He filled our closets with burnt orange apparel, so we didn’t have to wear any shade of red (the color of the Horns’ biggest rivals). He impressed upon us that sending a college application to another school could be grounds for disownment.

And when we were lucky, he took us with him to Austin to see the Longhorns in person. Riding shotgun, we’d cruise the backwoods, two-lane roads Pop preferred (interstates are for grandmas), flashing the “Hook ‘Em Horns” sign to everyone we flew past.

As if attending the game wasn’t enough, Pop would let us go with him down to the locker room afterwards, where we’d get to high-five and take pictures with our favorite players.

It was a thrilling experience – except for one, small issue…

A football locker room is like a nudist colony, with all of the guys getting undressed and cleaned up before heading to the bus. And because we were so short, we had the unfortunate vantage point that gave us an up-close look at what exactly was and was not covered by a jock strap.

That can be a traumatic encounter for a 9-year-old.

In hindsight, it’s probably why my brother, Brian, eventually stopped following the team and became a rabbi…he had to purify his soul somehow.

But not all of us were jaded.

With just two months separating us in age, my cousin Andrew and I were born under the same burnt orange moon. We are both equally insane, spending countless hours obsessing over the team – studying depth charts, scouring message boards for inside information and watching recruiting reels to identify the next Texas star. After an exhilarating win or a devastating loss, he’s the one person out there I know who is experiencing the same range of emotions that I am.

So it was only fitting that we were together on January 4, 2006 to see the Horns play Southern Cal for the national title. Every trip we’d taken to Austin, every humiliating defeat we’d survived, every lesson Pop had taught us – they had all led us to this night.

The game was a rollercoaster ride, with two talented teams trading punches for the full 60 minutes, and it was a test of our sanity.

Nataly, Andrew’s fiancée (now his wife), was there, but she just tried to stay out of the way. As I was screaming at the big screen, and Andrew was fiddling with the TV volume to find the optimum karmic level (yes, superstitious rituals, such as adjusting the sound or switching seats, can affect the outcome of a sporting event), she had to be asking herself:

What kind of family am I marrying into?

When Vince Young scored the winning touchdown, securing the Longhorns first championship in 36 years, it was almost too much for Andrew and me to handle. Like two little boys, we fell to the floor and rolled around on top of each other.

Somewhere, Pop was smiling.

I often question why I invest so much time and energy into something as trivial as a college football team. Looking at it rationally, it makes no sense. There are no problems being solved or discoveries being made. There are no diseases being cured or lives being saved.

At the end of the day, it’s just a bunch of 18 to 22-year-old boys playing a game.

But the truth is that UT football is in my blood, and it’s something that keeps me tied to my family, like a second religion. Just seeing that burnt orange uniform, just hearing the “Eyes of Texas” reconnects me with my roots, and the memories come flooding back.

I think about finishing Thanksgiving dinner in time for the kickoff against A&M. I think about Pop throwing me passes in the Astrodome as the team practiced for their bowl game. I think about tailgating on Rosh Hashanah with matzo ball soup in the stadium parking lot.

It’s just part of who I am. And no matter what I do or where I go, Fall Saturdays will always be about watching the Longhorns play.

Hook ‘Em Horns!

1 comment:

  1. I have witnessed Brent's love for the horns....having a small tv on hand at a BMW event in New Orleans comes to mind. Also the drive from TN accross state lines into GA (closest place that would have the satellite feed for the games)to watch the TX (and Illinois)game on one of our only off weekends. We spent an entire Saturday at a sports bar and were so happy to watch our teams. He is definitely dedicated.


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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?