|The ride of a Sooner lifetime|
By Kieran Darcy
NORMAN, Okla. -- A shade after 7 o'clock on Saturday morning, the Oklahoma sky has just begun to burn blue through the morning mist. Four men open the back door of their Jeep, pick up their shotguns and march into the middle of Adams Walker Mall, an open green lawn surrounded by several freshman dorms. All four point their 12-gauges into the air.
"Hey freshmen! It's your wake-up call!" one yells. "It's ... Game ... Day!"
The Ruf/Neks are the University of Oklahoma's all-male student spirit squad. At an OU basketball game 88 years ago, a group of football players was cheering loudly and creating a ruckus, causing an elderly female fan to exclaim, "Sit down and be quiet, you rough necks!" The name stuck, although the spelling was changed. They've been the Sooners' chief supporters ever since.
The Ruf/Neks perform several duties at Oklahoma, particularly on home football Saturdays. Last Saturday, I tagged along as the Sooners played Texas A&M.
Rousing the freshmen is their first Game Day duty -- and the first of many occasions when the Ruf/Neks fire their guns. They own more than 20 shotguns altogether and give each gun its own name, like "Mad Dog" and "Big Buck." Other than the police, they're the only people in Oklahoma allowed to own these shotguns -- but they're required to attend safety certification classes and submit to individual background checks.
The Ruf/Neks get their guns at a local Wal-Mart. To avoid being red-flagged by the FBI, they can only purchase three at a time.
"I'm sure we're all on the FBI watch list, anyway," current Ruf/Nek Pat Shaddox says.
Next, we head for Memorial Stadium to meet up with the rest of the Ruf/Neks for some breakfast burritos at the Ruf/Nek Alumni tailgate tent. There, I catch my first glimpse of another Oklahoma tradition, the Cecil Car. It's a red and white, 1923 Model-T driven to every game by the Sooners' biggest fan, Cecil Samara, until he died in 1994.
The car is now owned by his daughter, but the Ruf/Neks are its primary caretakers. It has been at every OU home game since 1950, and has made trips as far away as the Orange Bowl. The Ruf/Neks drive it and park it by their tailgate tent before every home game.
During the week, though, the responsibility for the Schooner lies with Bill and Linda Warren, two more tremendous Oklahoma fans. They keep the wagon and the ponies on their ranch in Sapulpa. On Friday nights before OU home games, the Warrens pack everything in a trailer and make the two-hour drive to Norman, where the horses are housed in stables for the night. Saturday morning, the Warrens drop the trailer off with the Ruf/Neks.
When it comes to the Schooner, some weekends can be more stressful than others. Every year, the Warrens bring it to Dallas for Oklahoma's annual tangle with arch-rival Texas at the Cotton Bowl. On the way to Dallas this year, the trailer derailed. The Warrens had to walk the ponies away from the highway to a nearby ranch, while the Ruf/Neks, who had already arrived in Dallas, scurried to find another trailer and drove through the night to pick up the Schooner and get it to the game in time.
When the Sooners play a big rival like Texas or Oklahoma State, the Schooner needs to be protected from pranks plotted by opposing fans. A couple of weeks back, the Ruf/Neks caught wind of a plan hatched by some Oklahoma State fans to spray-paint the ponies orange on the night before the OU-OSU game. The Warrens hid Boomer and Sooner at an undisclosed location, and the Ruf/Neks kept a 24-hour watch.
Things are calmer on the morning of the A&M game. The Ruf/Neks need only a few minutes to assemble the Schooner and harness and hitch the ponies to it. A couple of them spray-paint the horses' hooves white, and then add red OU logos. Several others stand by, petting the ponies affectionately.
With the Schooner all set, it's time to pick up the Queen. Each year, 20-30 girls try out to be the Ruf/Neks' Queen for the season.
"Basically, we get to hang out with hot chicks for two weeks, and then we never see them again," Ruf/Nek Ian Schaper says. The Queen is picked up by the Schooner before every home game; she rides it to the stadium, and then rides it every time it runs onto the field.
We arrive just after 9 a.m. at the Gamma Phi Beta house, where this year's Queen, Megan Moore, lives. One of the Ruf/Neks, with a bouquet of red roses in one hand, rings the doorbell. Moments later, he escorts the Queen, clad in a red dress with tiara atop her head, to the Schooner.
"Queen, our Queen!" the rest of the Ruf/Neks shout when she comes through the door. Then ... BANG! A five-shotgun salute.
The Queen hops on board and into the Schooner's passenger seat; and soon, the rest of the Ruf/Neks are jogging ahead of the horses through the streets, blocking off traffic and clearing a path to the stadium. They break into song on several occasions, belting out "Boomer Sooner", the famous Oklahoma fight song. And all along the way, adults and children alike wave, or honk their car horns, or simply smile. Fifty-year-old eyes sparkle at the sight of the ponies and the wagon, as if they're five and on their first visit to the zoo.
The rest of the Ruf/Neks run onto the field. There are about 25 members this year, including 12 first-year pledges. The Ruf/Neks are very much like a fraternity -- each fall, approximately 100 students turn out with an interest in joining. From that group, a select few are chosen to be in the pledge class. Some pledges are selected to be future Schooner Drivers; others train to be Keepers of the Guns; and still others work to become Keepers of the Cecil Car.
"They have to bring something unique to our organization," current Ruf/Nek president Jim Allred says. "And they have to demonstrate a deep love for our university."
The Ruf/Neks have their own unique uniforms: maroon corduroy collared shirts, white utility pants and sneakers, with some form of Oklahoma hat. The senior members also carry personalized wooden paddles that they use to wave to the fans and at opposing teams. Unlike the regular Oklahoma cheerleaders, who are covered up under slick warm-up suits on this chilly, drizzly Saturday, "we wear the same exact thing, rain, snow or shine," Allred says.
For the hour that remains before the 11 a.m. kickoff, the rest of the Ruf/Neks warm up the crowd with their shotguns. The pledges load the guns with shells of black gunpowder, and have them ready whenever the senior Ruf/Neks call for them. Then the pledges pick up the shells when they're done.
"Basically, they do all the crap we don't want to do," Schaper says. The Ruf/Neks also fire their guns after every kickoff during the game and after every Sooners score -- in total, they usually fire about 1,000 shots per game.
Just before 11, Allred leads the Sooners onto the field, sprinting ahead of them and holding the giant OU flag -- it's one of the perks of being the president of the Ruf/Neks.
"That's my favorite thing," Allred says. "Leading the No. 1 team in the nation out on the field, in front of 85,000 fans, is a rush you can't get anywhere else."
After the opening kickoff, Allred informs me that it's official: The Ruf/Neks are going to give me the ride of a lifetime, atop the Sooner Schooner after Oklahoma's first score of the game. I'm still absorbing this incredible atmosphere, when suddenly, less than four minutes in, Sooners quarterback Jason White connects with wideout Mark Clayton over the middle. Clayton makes a move; and a moment later, he is in the end zone 40 yards away. Touchdown Oklahoma!
My body freezes for an instant. Luckily, I have a few seconds to compose myself -- the Schooner doesn't make its ride until after the extra point is kicked. In fact, back in the 1985 Orange Bowl, the Schooner received a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when it charged onto the field after an Oklahoma field goal. The Ruf/Neks didn't see the penalty flag that had been thrown against the Sooners.
There are no flags thrown on this touchdown. So I peel off my black ESPN fleece, uncovering the red Sooners shirt I'd bought at the bookstore the day before. The Queen climbs down, I climb up; and seconds later, the ponies are sprinting onto the field.
It all happens so quick. The Schooner shoots like a cannon out to midfield, and then circles around to head back. The crowd is going crazy, though I'm sure many are wondering, Where's the Queen? I'm not sure what to do. I want to get up and pump my fist like a real Oklahoma fan. But I hesitate; and in the end, I just hold on to the rail and enjoy the ride and the adrenaline rush amidst that red sea of 80,000 fans.
I'm lucky to get a ride at all. Due to the damp conditions, the Ruf/Neks decide to shut the Schooner down after Oklahoma's third touchdown of the first half ... probably a good thing, as the Sooners destroy A&M 77-0. The ponies probably would have collapsed from exhaustion.
But what is most special, even more special than my Schooner ride, is what happens when Oklahoma wideout Travis Wilson takes a big hit on a pass interference penalty and lays motionless on the ground. I turn to my left, and then to my right; all the Ruf/Neks have dropped to one knee, heads bent in prayer or reflection.
Minutes later, Aggies punt returner Evan Carthey also stays down after taking a huge hit. The Ruf/Neks repeat the gesture.
Both times, I get chills. Watching the Ruf/Neks makes me remember how wonderful college athletics can be.
The Schooner rides one more time at Memorial Stadium this season, this Saturday against Baylor. After that, its next run could be at the Nokia Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, with a national championship on the line.
I'm rooting for the Ruf/Neks.
You can e-mail Kieran Darcy at firstname.lastname@example.org.