College football in Texas
It was when the well-spoken fifty year old Texan woman, her hair permed in deference to the sensibilities and social requirements of the Deep South, grabbed the bag of cheap wine offered to her, drank long and hard and then slapped the bag, that I knew we had entered a very different world.
We were in Austin at what is described as ‘a tailgate party’, a massive drinks and barbeque warm-up for a college football game.
We had come to the city to experience the culture and, even in the vast land of Texas, nothing is as big as this sport.
In Texas, religion is faith and sport is religion. There’s a fervour that takes control of people and possesses them when it comes to their local teams.
And for this afternoon, we were pulled into the cult and together we all worshipped at one of the largest temples in the land.
We had found the tailgate party in a park on the way to the stadium. The shaded green grass is divided up at the start of the year and different groups reserve their regular spot for the season (for a cost).
One of the groups organised by Jon and his family invited me and the other three Australians I was travelling with to join them, offering us beer, burritos and hospitality.
Everyone was wearing the orange of the Texas Longhorns and we were pleased we had stopped at a pharmacy on the way to the game to buy some Longhorn shirts ourselves.
Through the park and spilling out into the street was the kind of festival atmosphere you get in the lead-up to a big music concert (or at a Republican convention, I imagine).
The gatherings before the game are a chance to socialise before the focus becomes the sport, eat some lunch together and drink a lot of beer (the stadium doesn’t serve alcohol because it’s on a university campus).
After doing the trifecta with our new friends, we eventually joined the crowds walking towards the stadium. If the excitement at the park hadn’t given us an indication of how big this was about to be, the size of the crowds on the streets should have been a pretty big hint.
As we passed each cross street, more people joined the throng. A river of orange flowed towards the stadium.
Austin’s football stadium
And then we saw it. The stadium. Ahead of us was a colosseum larger than anything we have in Australia.
From the outside you could see the stands rising up to the sides and, as we later found out, there were more than 100,000 people in there to cheer.
At this point, do I need to remind you that this is a college game on the campus of a university?
After going up eleven floors on the escalator, we got to our seats. Beside me were Tommy and his son Eric, who come along to every home game.
I asked them why there was so much support for the college league and he put it simply, in his Texas drawl – “The NFL is just full of big money cry babies”.
While the professional NFL players can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year (and then complain about it not being enough), the college players are required to be amateurs.
They get scholarships from the universities and there are occasionally scandals about houses or cars they’ve been illicitly given, but ultimately they do it for the love of the sport (…of course it’s got nothing to do with the fame and the women that come with the job).
The fans, as Tommy put it, like the game because it’s grassroots… except that grass is tended by a team of gardeners bigger than the MCG and SCG’s combined!
There’s also no doubt that the fans come along to the games for the atmosphere.
The screams of a crowd that size is deafening, there’s a cannon that’s shot every time somebody scores, a huge brass band plays modern songs (I definitely heard the White Stripes at one point), and the players are outnumbered by cheerleaders who dance and flip consistently.
It was a blisteringly hot day to sit in the direct sunlight for four hours, but the crowd never tired. Support requires commitment and these people have it.
After the game, the festivities continue at the bars throughout the city.
Texas didn’t win this game, beaten by Oklahoma State, which was the favourite going in to the match.
It didn’t really affect the mood, though, because people are not there to celebrate a win. They’re there to rejoice in being part of a group that brings the community together.
It’s the religion that accepts everyone, as we discovered… as long as you’re wearing orange.