The Eyes of Austin (continued)

Updated: February 11, 2011, 4:07 PM ET
Special to ESPN SportsTravel


• Photo gallery: University of Texas football | City Guide: Austin | If You're Going …

In 1996, the university voted to add Royal to the stadium's name, in honor of longtime coach Darrell Royal (1956-76), who led the Longhorns to three national championships.

Royal-Memorial is hyphenated, which means the facility now salutes the longtime coach while continuing to honor the Texas Exes (former students) who served their country. Despite a common misperception, it's not a memorial for Royal.

Royal, 83, still serves as a special assistant to the university president. Even when Royal is not at UT in the flesh, his spirit is there always, in the form of an eight-foot tall bronze statue that looks down on the field from the southeast corner of the stadium.

Royal isn't the only living legend in Austin. In the southwest corner of the stadium a statue of 1977 Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell, now an athletic department consultant, will greet fans and recruits in perpetuity.

Time is a lie. Or so says Texas native Ethan Hawke in Austin filmmaker Linklater's cult classic "Before Sunset."

At a UT football game, at least, Hawke's character could not be any more right. The past and present practically scrimmage one another for attention at Royal-Memorial Stadium.

Quarterback Colt McCoy fends off memories of James Street, and running back Jamaal Charles tries to outrun Ricky Williams, all while aging alums in the stands become carefree undergraduates again.

To make a pilgrimage to Austin for a football Saturday is to visit a program that understands much of what makes college football special is that time is, indeed, a lie.

A rim along the top of the stadium, however, reminds you that the Longhorns won national titles in 1963, 1969, 1970 and 2005, and that Austin is, in fact, operating on Greenwich mean time.

Everything else suggests otherwise.

The Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library rises above the east grandstand, and, watching Texas, it sure feels like LBJ could still be in office. Other than black socks and a block-lettered TEXAS across the front of the jerseys, the Longhorns look exactly like they did during the Johnson administration.

Even the halftime show, which features the Longhorn Band spelling out a script "Texas" across the field, is a low-tech reminder of another time.

Many of the Longhorns' most illustrious football moments – the 2005 Rose Bowl, the 1970 Cotton Bowl win over Notre Dame and 1969 national championship showdown with Arkansas, for example – came away from Austin. Still, those moments hang in the air over Royal-Memorial Stadium, thicker than Texas barbecue sauce, and much more prominent than the two giant construction cranes that are reshaping the facility's future.

Texas boasts one of the great logos and color schemes in college football, and the school's smart enough not to mess with it. Nike outfits the Longhorns, but the progressive company's influence begins and ends with an unobtrusive swoosh off the shoulder.

Texas also has a terrific mascot, the famous live steer, Bevo, who has been in attendance at every home game since 1966. Bevo proves to be a bit of a slacker himself, opting to spend most of the evening sprawled out in the corner of the south end zone.

UT students make up for Bevo, standing the entire game on a set of bleachers behind the south end zone, beneath the Six Flags of Texas, which flutter in an easy summer breeze atop the "Godzillatron" scoreboard.

The six flags represent the half-dozen nations (United States, Spain, France, Mexico, Republic of Texas and Confederate States of America) that have held sovereignty over the land now known as Texas. They were most famously used as the name of chain of theme parks that began in Arlington, Texas.

Godzillatron is a high-definition scoreboard that, while not quite as big as Texas, certainly could double as a drive-in movie screen. The best part is that its operators are not afraid to replay controversial calls that go against the home team. Don't mess with Texas.

Most of the fans don't seem to need a replay to know when a call – or an assignment – has been blown. No sooner has a ref thrown a flag in the Texas backfield, than the 5-year-old to my left stands up and screams, "Roughing the passer! That's an automatic first down!"

To my right sit the two alums that know UT football so well they can call the plays before McCoy runs them. For the record, they don't believe that's such a good thing.

Little wonder Austinites know the sport so well. The night before as I arrived in town looking to keep track of the pennant races, I soon realized I'm clearly in the wrong place. The Rangers and Astros are virtually non-existent here, with local news devoting their local sports segments to high school football scores and UT coverage.

As a steamy, late afternoon turns into a steamy, early evening, the Longhorns will need every ounce of passion and support the locals can muster to help them hold off upset-minded visitors from Arkansas State.

The band does its part, punctuating each third down stop by the Longhorns defense with a sassy, abbreviated version of "The Eyes of Texas." And each Texas touchdown precipitates a thunderous blast ,as four blank, 10-gauge shotgun shells are fired from Smokey the Cannon. Problem is, Smokey is not very smoky on this night.

The 5-year-old to my left can sense his heroes need help and wants desperately to fight for Texas. "Please, Mama," he pleads, "lemme go down there and help the boys!"

They could use him.

An intimidating band, a rapt student body that refuses to sit and a full house might not be enough to steer the 'Horns clear of a monumental upset.

This is not how the Longhorn faithful envisioned the season opener going, and as the game wears on the atmosphere is not nearly as festive as it was earlier.

With the Longhorns leading, 21-13, and just 56 ticks of the clock remaining, Arkansas State is an onside kick, a Hail Mary, a two-point conversion and an overtime away from joining Appalachian State, and pulling the second monumental upset of the day.

When the Longhorns recover the kick, it brings more of a sigh of relief to the stadium than an outright celebration.

It wasn't pretty, but so what. Even ugly wins look good at Texas. In moments, the top of UT Tower will be bathed in orange light, symbolic of a Longhorn regular-season victory, and the Texas student body and alumni will reprise "The Eyes of Texas," this time in victory, while flashing the Hook 'Em Horns hand sign.

Then, many in the crowd will adjourn to Sixth Street, where an eclectic mix of musicians will play in some of the bars and clubs that made Austin's music scene famous.

They'll have a tough act to follow.

Doug Ward is a southern California-based freelance writer.

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