|Follow the yell leaders!|
By Wayne Drehs
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- They warned me. In the opening line of the Texas A&M press box notes, in bold black letters, they gave me -- and every other Kyle Field press box rookie -- plenty of notice for what lay ahead.
"Welcome to Kyle Field. For those of you visiting for the first time, please do not be alarmed. The press box will move during the Aggie War Hymn."
Sure, I thought. High above this 82,000-seat Texas football Mecca, some 150 feet in the sky, this massive press box -- supported by three concrete pillars -- was going to move. Uh-huh. And the folks in Alabama miss Dennis Franchione.
"First time, huh?" he said with a wide grin and a dragging drawl.
"Uhhhhh ... yeah," I responded, shaking.
"Happens every game," he said. "Nuttin' da wury 'bout."
He was right. The song eventually ended. The press box stopped swaying. And calmness returned. It was just another example of how mind-blowingly fanatical the Aggie fans can be. And how much they hate the University of Texas.
Bear Bryant once said, "Ten Aggies can yell louder than a hundred of anybody else." He's still right. The 11-line verse that rocked Kyle Field to its foundation? The repeated bellowing of "Saw Varsity's Horns Off," a knock on the Longhorns. During the verse, all the Aggies squeeze together, put their arms around one another and swing back and forth. The stadium follows their lead.
"I guess if you haven't been here before, it could be a little shocking," said 34-year-old Alan Waltman, a lifelong Aggie fan, sitting in the stadium's top row below the press box. "But that's just how we do it here."
It wasn't the only time I didn't believe what was happening in front of me. Visit tradition-rich A&M on a home football weekend and two overwhelming themes stand out: 1.) No big-time program has more off-the-wall, age-old rituals to support its team; and 2.) Everything revolves around beating Texas.
Of the 37 lines in the Aggie War Hymn, 16 of them -- in some form or another -- refer to the Longhorns. (No other school is mentioned once. Can you imagine, say, Arkansas State showing up last September and hearing "so long to the orange and white?"). A feces-collecting wheelbarrow that follows the school's mounted cavalry around the field is painted burnt orange with a white "TU" on the side. And the purpose of the bonfire -- the 55-foot-tall raging inferno that the Aggies built every year until a collapse killed 12 students in 1999 -- was to demonstrate the Aggies' "burning desire" to beat the Longhorns.
"It's pretty simple. They look down on us and we whip their ass," said Ted Lowe, an A&M yell leader in 1958.
Actually, the Longhorns hold a 70-34-5 advantage in the 109-year-old rivalry, which renews on Friday in College Station. Recently, Texas has shifted its hate in the direction of Norman, Oklahoma. But the Aggies haven't budged, still saving their finest jokes for the T-sips.
Q. How does a Longhorn put on his underwear?
A. Yellow in the front and brown in the back.
Q. How many University of Texas students does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A. Four: One to screw it in, one to boast how great the light bulbs were when Darrel Royal was there and the other two to leave about halfway through.
Their white jumpsuits give them the look of hospital orderlies, but A&M's yell leaders are the only students who receive a varsity letter without competing in an intercollegiate sport. Though NCAA rules prohibit them from participating in football practice, they spend much of two-a-days running and lifting alongside the team.
Before games, after games and during countless public appearances, they're treated like the Backstreet Boys, with 12-year-old girls wearing braces jumping up and down and hoping for a picture ... all while their girlfriends, some of the most sought-after women on campus, look on.
"It's all part of what we do," senior John Magruder said. "Smile, take pictures, kiss babies, just be ambassadors for the school."
It's one of the most hotly-contested positions on campus, with hundreds of students campaigning, thousands more voting and a mere five left standing in the end.
"Next to actually playing on the team, the only thing that can really rival it is maybe student body president," said Lowe, the former head yell leader. "Everybody knows who you are. You get all the girls. I remember I used to have a different date come down every weekend. I couldn't keep them straight."
If that isn't unique enough, there's Reveille, the school's collie mascot. A five-star general, Reveille is the highest-ranking member of the Corps of Cadets. She attends class; and if she barks during a session, university policy is that class be dismissed.
When Reveille VI died last month, she was put on the cover of the A&M program for the game against Kansas -- under the headline, "Farewell to a First Lady." Some 3,000 people showed up for her funeral, which included the playing of taps and a series of eulogies from her former handlers.
The Corps buried Reveille VI just outside of the stadium, where all former Reveilles are buried, so they can keep an eye on the game. When a recent stadium expansion blocked the gravesite's view to inside the stadium, A&M put a mini-scoreboard on the addition's outer fašade. That way, the buried Reveilles won't miss any action.
From students and professors to grandparents and babies, all die-hards are there. It isn't a rah-rah-ree, kick-'em-in-the-knee, rah-rah-rass, kick-'em-in-the-other-knee sort of pep rally. It's a series of precisely-choreographed hand signals, leg kicks and arm motions to accompany the same yells that have been going on since the first practice in 1913.
"People call it a pep rally and we get ticked off," Magruder said. "It's not a pep rally. It's yell practice."
During the yells, everyone leans forward, resting their hands above their knees -- "humping," as they call it -- because it supposedly makes the yells louder. Every mention of the opposing team is greeted with a "hiss," while a mention of the Aggies is followed by a "WHOOP!"
And then, there are the yells:
Squads left, Squads right!
Farmers, Farmers, we're all right!
Load, ready, aim, fire, BOOM!
A&M! Give us room!
You haven't felt alone -- truly alone -- until you've stood in a stadium with 20,000 people, every single one of whom is bent over, flashing hand-signals and roaring about fighting farmers, while you're standing upright with a notebook in your hand. It's like going to church for the first time in six years and having no idea what's going on, while the entire congregation knows what to say and when to say it. You're clearly the guy who doesn't go to church.
In this case, you're clearly the guy who isn't an Aggie.
Said one fan, apparently noticing the giant "I don't belong" sticker on my forehead: "Hey -- are you from Kansas?"
Practice ends when the stadium lights go out, the end zone cannons are shot off and everybody makes out with their date. (Those without a date flick on a lighter in hopes of finding another dateless soul). Believe it or not, this, too, has a direct correlation to the game, as a true Aggie supposedly kisses his girl after every A&M score.
And the wildest thing is that come game day, every single member of the student body, better known as the 12th man, does all these crazy rituals. They scream the various yells. They rock during the War Hymn. And they stand for the entire game, supposedly because they're waiting to be called upon if they're needed "in battle." Every game, a walk-on represents the student body by wearing No. 12 and participating in kickoff coverage.
On this weekend, the Aggies win; and the freshman cadets (better known as Fish) carry the yell leaders off the field, across campus and dump them into a icy fountain as part of another tradition. Here, another impromptu yell practice is held, to begin preparations for next week's game.
But this time, I wasn't the only outsider.
It isn't by accident. Incoming freshman go to Fish Camp, a three-day session 100 miles north of campus to learn the Aggie Way. They're taught the yells. They're taught the traditions. And they're taught the stories behind them.
The importance of it all has even hit home with first-year head coach Franchione, who, during two-a-days, assigned to each position an Aggie tradition to teach to the rest of the team.
"I heard the guys didn't take it real seriously at first, and he ripped into them," Lowe said. "He understands that there aren't many places like this. Maybe the Citadel. Maybe VMI. Other than that, this place stands on ground all its own."
So what's to make of all these rituals? Aggies preach about the love, loyalty and pride they have for their school. If you're an insider -- a fanatic member of the maroon-clad Aggie clan -- you think the traditions are spectacular. You think it fosters a unique sense of belonging, a feeling of one with the football team, the corps, the student body and the yell leaders. You think this is what college sports is all about.
But if you're an outsider (or a Longhorn), you can't help but think it's overdone. You peek in the bookstore and see children's books titled "Reveille's 12 Days of Christmas," and you grow skeptical. You hear that the Aggies never lose (they were either outscored or ran out of time) and laugh. And you see the yell leaders running around in their auto-mechanic jumpsuits without any skirt-wearing female sidekicks, and you wonder how A&M missed the "21st Century" memo.
Truth be told: You're not alone.
"You can't explain it. You can't put it into words," Magruder said. "I try explaining to people what we do; and no matter what I say, it sounds corny. We go to Nebraska and walk down the street on our way to yell practice, and people are like, 'Hey, there's the Amish.'
"I guess in order to understand, you have to be an Aggie."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org