It happens once a year, creating a seismic divide throughout the country. It pits brother against brother. It breaks up business deals. It ruins relationships. And once it's finished, all both sides want is for another year to pass by so they can do it again. It is the Texas/Texas A& M football game. And in the football-obsessed state that is Texas, no single game resonates more.
Every year during the Thanksgiving holidays, the two teams meet for something that has become much more than just a game. It's a blood feud that represents a tremendous cultural divide in the state. It's city against country, a rural agricultural school against an urban university. And yet both sides come from the same family, warring cousins who roll up their sleeves once a year in the backyard to settle the question of who's number one--at least for the time being.
In Backyard Brawl, W. K. Stratton takes you through this rivalry and its history, covering the years when the game was postponed because the fans were just too violent, the branding of UT's beloved steer, Bevo, by a renegade Aggie, the kidnapping of A&M's beloved Reveille by boisterous UT students, the theft of UT's cannon, Old Smokey, and its unceremonious dumping into the murky waters of Austin's Town Lake, and the fistfights that broke out when celebrating UT fans rushed A&M's nearly sacred Kyle Field after Texas won the last-ever Southwest Conference title on the Aggies' home turf.
Stratton also relates the more serious side of the rivalry, particularly the way both schools came together after tradition turned to tragedy in 1999, when the A&M bonfire collapse killed twelve students. And in a touching epilogue, he captures the angst that hit the College Station campus when officials decided to cancel the return of the bonfire in 2002.
Stratton drew a bead on the 2001 season and followed both teams through their schedules leading up to the big clash in College Station. Taking you inside a renowned Aggie Yell practice and introducing you to fervid yet often zany orange-blooded Texas fans through their elaborate tailgating rituals, he creates revealing portraits of the two teams, including head coaches R. C. Slocum and Mack Brown, both of whom are legends in their own time, destined for the Hall of Fame.
Backyard Brawl is a fascinating examination of the greatest war in college football, destined to become a classic for students of the game.
This chronicle of the 2001 football season's battle between the University of Texas Longhorns and the Texas A&M Aggies is a capsule history of America's biggest, baddest state and its obsession with America's biggest, baddest sport. Each year, the schools' football teams look forward to their annual showdown, which always takes place on Thanksgiving weekend. As Stratton makes clear, UT is on top of the Texas hierarchy: the Longhorns, benefiting from the largess of one of the most economically and politically powerful constituencies in the country, are symbolic of privileged, liberal entitlement, while 90 miles up the highway, the A&M Aggies are proud of their past as a former military school and look to tradition and hard work as their guides through life. With neither team boasting a spectacular 2001 record and the September 11 attacks overshadowing the season, Stratton's attention periodically wanders up into the stands, where he uncovers telling anecdotes that explain how each school got its reputation. He also has a lot of fun traveling across the state week to week, from tailgate parties in Austin to midnight "yells" at A&M, and from the Texas State Fair in Dallas to the excitement of all those ball games. Like B.H. Bissinger's seminal look at Texas high school football, Friday Night Lights, Stratton's volume is a must read for any serious fan of Texas football. For everyone else, it's entertaining and engaging look at the minutiae of football-mad America. (Sept.) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 08, 2003
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Excerpt from Backyard Brawl by W.K. Stratton
A Midnight Yell
THE CHANGES ARE SUBTLE against the blast furnace of Texas summer. Maybe the shadows seem a little longer. Maybe the heat breaks a little earlier in the day. Maybe the string of hundred-degree days is broken; it only gets to ninety-eight or so. And there are more clouds in the sky.
Maybe you notice the booming of shotguns in the distance at dusk. Practice for dove season, shards of clay pigeons in the uncut sunflower meadow. Maybe things are changing...maybe.
You sense those changes, the turning toward something new, and yet the fiery days continue to overwhelm.
I was running a lot before the football season began: four miles in the heat of the afternoon, mostly to get a feel for what the football players were going through during two-a-days in August. I was also making my regular training sessions at the boxing gym, and at six in the evening, I might as well have been stepping into the heater coil of a '77 Cadillac that's just made the fast run from San Antonio to Austin--that's how hot it was in that metal building behind the Goodwill. The heat sucked the air from your lungs. I'd be sweating before I unwound the jump rope in my gym bag. It was always two hours of hell.
Newcomers to Texas from such gentle climes as Northern California are dying for home. I'd hear it everywhere I went: They can't take any more. Yet I ran. I hit the boxing gym. I endured. I always kept thinking, How do those guys survive practices in this heat?
In fact, some didn't. Some high school kids collapsed and died in Texas. The newspapers and TV reports were full of it. Around the country, college players collapsed and died. Even a pro football player collapsed and died. Then I got a little taste of it myself. One afternoon, my feet seared, the sun scorching my forehead as I ran, a chill shot through my body, and my legs abruptly stopped running without my consciously deciding to do so. I scooted off the street to the sidewalk and the shade of trees. Pulled off my T-shirt, fearing, My God, is this what IT is like? I made it home, got a sport drink from the refrigerator, stepped into the shower with my jogging shorts and sneakers still on, and turned on the water. I survived. And the next day I was running again--this time in the relative cool of the morning.
Finally the remnants of a tropical depression stalled in the Gulf, and the long siege of heat broke. Waves of rain swept across the parched land. Everything seemed to be in recovery. Thank God.
The rain is about to give up as I stroll the campus of A&M in College Station, deep in the East Texas woods, late on the last Friday night of August. Just two or three hours ago, it was pouring, so I went to the Target store on Texas Avenue in search of some sort of weather gear. In the camping section, the rain gear display had been stripped, except for a lone Eddie Bauer jacket. A white-haired man and I arrived at the same time, eyed the jacket in friendly competition, joked with each other. Then he said, "I believe I'll let you have it, young feller. It's a little rich for my blood."
"You're sure?" I said, but it was only a feigned protest. I pictured myself being drenched at midnight, and imagined myself fighting off the codger to get the jacket.
"It's all yours," he said, smiling. He gave me a wave and pushed his red plastic Target shopping cart down the aisle. Aggie partisans might say this is the kind of hospitality you come to expect to find in College Station. Maybe so.
But now that I have the jacket, I don't need it. The rain comes to a complete stop. The clouds are parting. The moon appears, although it looks as if it is behind a scrim. And as it does, whatever breeze might have been cooling the evening disappears. The night swelters. Sweat begins to trickle down my temples. I take off the jacket, but my shirt is soon soaked with sweat anyway.