Bill Little commentary: The victory lap
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Nov. 18, 2011

Bill Little, Texas Media Relations

It has always seemed fitting that Senior Day and the game where they honor the newest members of the men's and women's Longhorn Halls of Honor usually occur on the same weekend. Because each is about accomplishment. Each is about memories.

David Thomas, the stellar tight end who was part of the 2005 National Championship team, spent a little time with the current Longhorn team Thursday, and shared his memories of his Senior Day that season.

"Ahmard Hall and I looked at each other as we were finishing the "Eyes of Texas" after the game, and decided to take a victory lap around the stadium. All of the fans were still there, and I remember slapping hands with them all the way around the stadium. It is a day you never forget," he said.

Saturday night's game with Kansas State will be the final game in Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium for this year's seniors, but in many ways it has a different feel to it because there will be two regular season games and a bowl trip that will follow. So the end may be near, but there is still a long way to go as far as the legacy these seniors will leave.

Still, this is a special night, if as much for the parents as it is for the players. Just prior to the game, each Longhorn senior will come out of the tunnel, shake hands with their head coach, Mack Brown, and then head into the end zone for hugs with family members.

For the families, and for us, it is a realization of a passage - the moment when you realize that something that had become a constant in your life will be no more.

Can it really be that Blake Gideon, the son of a coach and a heroic mother-cancer survivor, will be leaving after starting every game of his college career? We have all come to know, not only the players, but their folks as well. We've learned of the social work in foreign lands of Dr. and Mrs. Acho, just as we have celebrated their sons, Emmanuel and Sam, as the ultimate student athletes, on and off the field. Fozzy Whitaker's mom is a hero for us, for rearing a son after his dad died when he was young, and loaning us that son as a champion and a heart-warming story in our lives.

And there are Paul and Michelle Tucker, who sent not only son Justin, but swimmer Samantha, to follow them and a long family tree of Longhorns. Like Blake Gideon, Justin has kicked a football, either on a kickoff, a placement or a punt, in every one of the last four dozen Texas football games.

It was Dr. Tucker, one of Austin's premier cardiologists, who came out of the stands when Justin was in high school to help save Matt Nader's life on the playing field. Folks called it a miracle, and we are told that is what happens when The Higher Power uses the hands and the knowledge of His creatures here below to do something extraordinary.

Miracles also unite those gifted hands with the power of an individual's will, which brings us to Blaine Irby. We watched him come from California, and watched his wonderful parents transition from loved ones who anticipated one career beyond college for their son to a vigil that he would, in time, walk normally.
The doctors and rehabilitation specialists will tell you that Blaine Irby is a miracle; and in that space, we marvel, and we celebrate.

Fifteen members of this senior class have played in a combined 567 games, with 217 starts. Besides Blake, Justin, Fozzy, Emmanuel, and Blaine they include Cody Johnson (who unselfishly moved to fullback this year), David Snow (who has played center, guard and tackle in the offensive line), Tray Allen, Kheeston Randall, Keenan Robinson, and Christian Scott.

Others who have contributed significantly include deep snapper Alex Zumberge*, fullback Jamison Berryhill, Mark Buchanan, Ahmard Howard, John Paul Floyd, Luciano Martinez, Patrick McNamara, John Osborn, Sam Walker, Trey Wier* and Nick Zajicek.

The weekend activities for the Hall of Honor inductions will see the women honor administrator Christine Plonsky, as well as such superstars as Sonya Richards-Ross and Cat Osterman, among others.

Former Longhorn football players who are being inducted span generations. Bill Zapalac was the son of former coach Willie Zapalac, and his brother Jeff also lettered at Texas. Bill played defense in the 1968-70 era when the Longhorns won two National Championships and 30 straight games. Lance Gunn was an all-American safety in the early 1990s, and Pat Fitzgerald was a star tight end on three conference championship teams. He was an all-American on the field, and a National Football Foundation Scholar Athlete as well.

The journey which brings them all together is unique, with a common thread being Texas Longhorn athletics. It is a reminder that we are - all of us - somehow connected. There is no better story of that than Kris Kubik, the Longhorns' longtime assistant swim coach who has been at Eddie Reese's side for every conference and national championship the storied program has achieved. And so it was Kris who gave us this story.

In all of the years of the men's Longhorn Hall of Honor inductions, dating back to 1957, only one Longhorn, who neither played or even attended UT whose only participation has been as an assistant coach has ever been inducted. That person was Darrell Royal's right-hand man and defensive guru, the late Mike Campbell. Mike last coached at Texas in 1976, and he died in 1998. So how do the lives of two men, the swimmer Kris Kubik and the football coach Mike Campbell intertwine?

"I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee," Kris wrote. "One of my best friends growing up (and still to this day) is a fellow named Bill Daniel, Jr. Bill's father attended Central High School in Memphis, graduating around 1940 or so. He went on to Ole Miss to play football, but had to leave to fly for the Air Force in WWII, and then returned to play football at Ole Miss once again. His best friend at Central High and his roommate at Ole Miss and his "brother" in the Air Force was - drum roll please - Mike Campbell. It completely warms my heart to know that connection...."

What we have learned, and are reminded by the ceremonies concerning the Hall of Honor and the hugs from families on Senior Day, is that we all are connected. There are those in the arena who use their unique gifts to excel. Because of them, there are those of us - family, friends and fans - whose role is simply to absorb the miracles, and the talents, which we see.

Those whom we honor Saturday night will never pass this way in this same setting again. But they return (in the case of the Hall of Honor inductees), or they leave with their memories and their legacy. And that, after all, is their gift to us.

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