November 1, 2008
Tiger AP ranking: 14th
Tiger AP ranking: 14th
With the 2008 presidential election careening to a resolution, the weight of the issues facing our nation could turn even Kelly Ripa into a scowling, venom-spewing Bea Arthur. But if the cluster fuck in the Mideast, the sharpest economic downturn since pelt trading, and a $700 billion taxpayer funded bailout package that may or may not bail anything out haven’t coaxed you out on the ledge yet, that can be remedied. Join me for a trip to Waco, Texas!
Ah, Waco. Home to the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum (the law enforcement group, not the inept baseball team). Waco, where you’ll also find the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, featuring inductees like A.J. Foyt, Tom Landry, and Ernie Banks (and you thought he was Mr. Cub!). Waco, site of the Dr Pepper museum, where you can learn about the gut-wrenching 1950s decision to drop the period from “Dr.” Given this Wacornicopia of thrills, a trip there should be eagerly anticipated. But tell anyone you’re headed to Waco and will they mention any of these cathedrals of learning? ’Course not. They’ll make a joke about David Koresh and the Branch Davidians.
Waco is located on Interstate 35, equidistant from both Dallas and Austin. Rather than an eclectic mix of Austin’s liberal weirdness and Big D’s citified ways, this town somehow got handed the no-fun gene. I arrived in time for unhappy hour on Friday. Based on the headline in that day’s edition of the Waco Tribune-Herald (“Trio of weekend fires ruled as arson, linked”), the townsfolk still can’t get enough of that burning things down thing.
I enjoy the 23 flavors that make up a refreshing Dr Pepper as much as the next parched throat, but I’m not here to sightsee. Waco is home to Baylor, the largest Baptist University in the world. In other words, Par-tay. The Baylor Bears hold the distinction of fielding the only Texas football team in history that does not include the word “Texas” anywhere in its name. The Bears’ football fortunes have been modest, to put it delicately. They historically reside in the cellar of their division and have failed to garner a win against four different conference teams since joining the Big XII conference in 1996. Given the success of Brigham Young University and Notre Dame, you have to wonder if God doesn’t have it in for the Baptists.
But this year Baylor fans found faith in something secular. An argument could be made that freshman Robert Griffin may be the most talented first-year quarterback in the country. Gary Pinkel compared him to Brad Smith, the All-American Missouri QB who preceded Chase Daniel. Smith possessed maddeningly elusive running ability but proved inconsistent passing downfield. Griffin, conversely, had yet to throw an interception in his first eight games. The extraordinary freshman notwithstanding, odds makers had posted Mizzou a 20-point favorite.
Friday happened to be Halloween, and I was hungry for steak, a beer, and a glimpse of Baylor coeds dressed in something that would cheese off the church elders, much as Kevin Bacon's dancing had managed to accomplish in Footloose. The steak part was easy—those could be found at the Lake Brazos Steakhouse, overlooking, luckily enough, Lake Brazos. One rib eye, a side of fried okra and a Budweiser later, I was handed a bill that read, “Go Cowboys!” Clearly, the Bears faced an uphill battle here.
My Austin-based friend Manny had given me the names of two bars in Waco, and I managed to find one of them: George’s. It had the meandering look of a gin joint that opened in the first half of the 1900’s and added editions periodically as Waco’s liquor laws relaxed. Almost everyone drank from fishbowls called “The Big O,”—so named because students in the repressed ’50s used the word “orange” as code for beer. The Big O cost $2.75 and contained 20 ounces of golden nectar. Malt beverages, as we all learned in Econ 101, are recession-proof but price elastic—meaning that people trade down from Anchor Steam to PBR during economic downturns. Put another way, when the stock market loses 900 points and our government considers granting Grand Canyon naming rights to China, the Big O is the way to go. The Big O did have a downside: hefty, with an extra wide mouth, prudence dictated that it be anchored to the bar rather than sloshed around a packed bar and spilled on a good ol’ boy.
Considering the date, 95% of the patrons weren’t wearing costumes. This made the fat guy in the Fred Flintstone outfit sitting at the end of bar far more surreal looking than he otherwise would have been. With game day looming and no naughty costumes in sight (Wilma Flintstone disappointed), I called it a night as the strains of Charlie Daniels Band’s “Drinking my Baby Goodbye” followed me outside.
One of the problems with following your team every weekend and subsisting on Big O’s and stadium food is the disgusting physical condition you end up in. I had decided ahead of time that Waco would be boring enough for me to fit a run in. I’d jog for 5 miles, or until I saw a church, whichever came first. After about half a mile I came across an airplane hanger-sized house of worship dubbed the Praise Temple Assembly of God—a featureless monolith constructed of yellow corrugated metal. A satellite dish hung from the back. I’m not against shaking down willing congregations for money, but for God’s sake (literally), put up a statue or some stained glass. It doesn’t have to be Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa—that’s clearly too much skin for Baptists, anyway—but give the flock something to look at while they ponder eternal damnation. This joint looked like they’d have Fatheads of NFL stars where the Stations of the Cross would go in a Catholic church. I figured that three laps around the building (for the Holy Trinity) constituted a workout. Did I voice a silent prayer for the Tigers while Just Doing It? That’s between me and Funky J. Separation of church and gridiron.
It was Baylor’s homecoming, and as I drove around looking for breakfast, I took a wrong turn and nearly impaled my car on an abstinence-themed parade float. The Baylor campus looks modern, austere, and well endowed—in the generously-funded sense of the term, not the giant wiener one.
Missouri holds pep rallies before most away games. My friend and President-Elect of the Mizzou Alumni Association Jackie Clark gave me the coordinates and advised me that the administration had requested that any alcohol consumption be “discreet.” As I crawled down South Valley Mills Road toward Floyd Casey Stadium (named after Floyd the Barber from The Andy Griffith Show) I searched for a properly discreet liquor store. Less than a mile from the stadium, gleaming like an oasis of buoyant camaraderie amidst scowling repression, stood Frank DiCorte’s Bad Bear Liquor Emporium. Frank offers quality products at competitive prices to suit all of your discreet tailgating needs—Bad Bear Styrofoam coolers, Bad Bear Ice, Bad Bear cozies, and recession-friendly Busch Light tall boys six-packs for $5.25. So inspired was I that I splurged and bought a Bad Bear bobble head, which featured sunglasses, a Hawaiian shirt and jauntily held a highball aloft to toast the disapproving Baylor administration.
The Mizzou tailgate party was just getting underway. Jackie expertly hit all the talking points in her stump speech, landing hard on the factoid that Tiger athletes led the nation in academic performance. Athletic Director Mike Alden took the stage next, providing a strategic roadmap for winning the game: Stop Baylor's Robert Griffin. The Tigers needed to put pressure on the gifted young field general, yet not over pursue lest he dance outside for big gains. The band didn’t make the trip, but the cheerleaders did, and someone popped in a cd to lead the gathered throng through a fight song medley. It would be a stretch to describe any of these modest proceedings as raucous—except in contrast to the Baylor tailgates, which were nonexistent. Baylor fans visited with each other, politely drank Dr Pepper, and whereas at most big schools you have to keep your eye out for errant nerf footballs and drunken beanbag throws, no projectiles interfere with your walk toward the stadium here.
The National Anthem was preceded by an invocation, a ramrod-postured minister from the school addressing the crowd from the field:
“Lord, as we prepare to begin this athletic contest, watch over the participants and the fans gathered in this stadium. Spare the athletes from pain, or if pain be thy will, at least make it only a slight hamstring tweak. If our groins be pulled, grant that they be pulled in a manly fashion, and not by homosexuals. Finally, may the Lord Jesus Christ, who anoints all gridiron sacraments, lead us to victory over the Godless heathen from a land grant university whose existence emanates not from thy will but from a land mass granted by that fey wig-wearing liberal Thomas Jefferson. Amen.”The introduction of the Baylor team starts with the “Baylor Line,” a tradition in which students, all wearing shirts depicting their graduation year, storm the field before the team comes out. This day, to pump everyone up for homecoming, the team entered from the stands rather than the locker room. The team and the Baylor line mingled together on the field, a few students donning uniforms if the player wearing it could be overpowered. The effect looked like a swarm of directionless bees.
Mizzou received the opening kickoff, with Jeremy Maclin running the ball out to the 35. The offense picked up their score-at-will pace set the previous week in Colorado. They marched for touchdowns on their first two possessions. With the score 14-0 and the Tigers driving at the end of the 1st quarter, it appeared that they’d build up a big lead and then, with Baylor forced to play catch-up, put pressure on the Bears’ young quarterback. Then, taking the snap on 3rd and goal from the Baylor 8 yard line, Chase Daniel threw an interception right into a Baylor player's midsection.
Seizing the chance, Griffin led Baylor down the field, mixing runs up the middle with sideline horizontal passes. He legged in a score to make it 14-7, and the crowd—only around 35,000 in a stadium that held 50,000, began to sound like 70,000. Missouri answered the touchdown, with Daniel directing the Tigers from their own 7 to make the score at halftime 21-7.
The Floyd Casey concourse defines "bare bones." I bought something identified only as “sandwich” and walked to the gated-in exterior, which is far more pleasant. The Texas sun had been bearing down on the field, making the game day temperature of 80 degrees seem warmer. On the stadium’s perimeter, though, it felt far more temperate. The contest seemed reasonably in control for the Tigers.
Missouri kicked off to start the second half. Using the same offensive game plan as the first half—runs and horizontal passes—Griffin led the Bears to another score. The Tigers didn’t respond, punting after a sack and two modest gains. The Bears took possession at their 34, and twelve plays later the score was tied. Baylor was playing ball control, and with the sun acting like a magnifying glass on the Missouri defense, it was working.
Jackie Clark ditched her President-Elect obligations and showed up at the beginning of the 4th quarter. The first words out of her mouth were “What the f?” The crowd roared its approval as we watched the two teams trade touchdowns again, knotting the contest at 28. When, in the next series, Daniel was picked off on a tipped pass, the prospect of spending an evening in Waco after blowing a 14-point lead seemed a very real and depressing possibility.
But with the aid of an offside penalty, the Mizzou defense forced a Baylor punt. Just under 9 minutes remained in the game as the offense began moving down the field and trying to eat clock in the process—something the Tigers almost never had to do. The noise level peaked as the Baylor faithful tried to will another turnover. The Bears flushed Daniel from the pocket and a diving interception attempt near midfield just missed. The Tigers kept driving. At 3rd and 5 from the Baylor 15 yard line, Chase took the snap and rifled the ball toward Tommy Saunders, who had over 100 yards in receptions on the day. A Baylor safety stepped in front of Saunders. Eyeing nothing but yard markers between him and a go-ahead touchdown, he dropped the ball.
Fourth down and five yards to go from the 15-yard line. Two minutes 31 seconds left. A tired Missouri defense. Plenty of time for Baylor to drive down the field. It was decision time—kick a field goal or go for a first down.
There’s nothing automatic about a late fourth quarter field goal in a tight game. The next best thing may be to send Tiger walk-on kicker Jeff Wolfert into the game. At one point in his career, Wolfert converted 90 consecutive chances in conference play. He stands to obliterate the all-time NCAA record for kicking accuracy. So the decision for Coach Pinkel was an easy one. After a fruitless “icing the kicker” time out, Wolfert drilled a perfect 34-yarder to make the score 31-28.
Baylor took the ball at their own 21 with no time outs left. After an incompletion and a 2-yard gain, Robert Griffin stepped back, planted his feet--and threw the first interception of his collegiate career (an NCAA record for most attempts without a pick to start a career). Brock Christopher squeezed the pass tight and fell to the ground. Mizzou would survive.
The Tigers wearily trudged off the field, Chase Coffman visibly limping. Jackie talked me into waiting by the team bus. We found Jeff Wolfert’s parents and congratulated them. His mother told me that, because the score was tied rather than the Tigers trailing, there seemed a little less pressure on her son to make the kick. So that’s where he gets the ice water in his toe.
Chase Daniel appeared, obliging cell phone photographers and autograph-seekers. Coach Pinkel, hair still wet from the shower, looked like Churchill’s proverbial man who had been shot at without result. Mike Alden wore happy relief on his face, telling us that all he cared about was that the team was 7-2, not 6-3. The Tigers looked anxious to get the hell out of town.
Back at George’s, the Big O's have never tasted so frosty cold and delicious. Most of the Mizzou fans had left for Austin or Dallas, leaving Jackie Clark and I to watch the 7 p.m. Texas-Texas Tech game. The presidential election stood three days away, and the flat screens featured last-ditch commercials for several local candidates. In one of them, a candidate’s opponent had “100% WRONG!” stamped across his face. Not 75% or even 90% wrong—this unscrupulous varmint literally had done nothing correct whatsoever.
The Tigers came into Waco and, depending on who does the tallying, may have been as high as 49% wrong. Still, against a rising Big XII South team, on that squad’s home turf, that was plenty good enough. In football, as in politics, even a one-point winner takes all.