Bill Little commentary: Santa Claus is coming
Dec. 25, 2011
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
SAN DIEGO, CALIF. -- The prime question, for the children of the Horns, was whether Santa Claus could really find them at the shiny Marriott Marquis on Christmas Eve in this city by the sea. So just to cover his bases, the jolly old elf came early before the Texas team and staff left on Friday to begin preparations for their upcoming Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl on December 28.
The visions of sugar plums dance in the heads of a good portion of the Texas travel party, a reflection of the youth of the staff Mack Brown has assembled to lead the Longhorn football program. Young coaches have young kids. The infusion of excitement about Christmas is infectious for the Longhorn players, many of who are spending their first Christmas away from home.
San Diego obliged its visitors with a stunning chamber of commerce day, and the Longhorns spent a morning workout preparing for the game and then were guests at Sea World San Diego in the afternoon. It was a great orientation following Friday's travel day.
Sunday the team will observe Christmas Day with a voluntary chapel service and evening dinner, which will follow a morning practice and a trip to the world famous San Diego Zoo.
In a press briefing prior to the Saturday morning practice, Mack Brown discussed the team's need to finish strong in their game with California. In retrospect, he said, the Longhorns lingered too long in the glory of their Thanksgiving night victory over Texas A&M and failed to respond the next weekend when they played Baylor on December 3.
The Holiday Bowl offers an opportunity to rebound and a victory would take the Longhorns' final record to 8-5.
Texas is playing in its fifth Holiday Bowl, and there is a lot of positive history entwined between the Longhorns and this game. Each time Texas has played in the game, win or lose, it has provided a launching pad for something special. In 2000, Texas missed on what would been a game-winning touchdown in the closing minutes in a loss to Oregon. The next season, the Longhorns advanced to the Big 12 Championship game and came up two points shy -- in a 39-37 loss to Colorado -- from playing for the national championship.
A return trip to San Diego that season earned Major Applewhite Holiday Bowl Hall of Fame honors and launched the career of a freshman linebacker named Derrick Johnson in what was then the Horns biggest come-from-behind victory (19 points) in school history to beat Washington.
But it would be the next two games here that would best characterize Texas in the first decade of the 21st century. In 2003, Texas lost by eight points to Washington State. The next two years produced two BCS trips to the Rose Bowl, including victories at the end of the 2004 season over Michigan and over USC in the BCS National Championship game for the 2005 season. Texas capped an up-and-down 2007 with a win over Arizona State here, and then finished third and second in the national rankings in 2008 and 2009.
The Horns enter this trip hopeful and healing -- the former directly related to the latter. Injuries to freshmen runners Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron and receiver Jaxon Shipley and the loss of veteran tailback Fozzy Whittaker hammered an emerging Texas offense at midseason. Though Whittaker is gone for the year, the other three are expected to be healthy.
As he greeted his team on Friday and again at practice on Saturday, Brown stressed the fundamentals which dictate outcomes in all games, but are particularly important in bowl games.
"A bowl game is like starting a season," Brown said. "The kicking game will be key, as will turnovers."
Those are the basics, it is true. But reflecting on bowl games played and those about to be played, the victor almost always is determined by the team which arrives ready on game day. This game, more than any other, will be decided by attitude.
That is why a week's preparation for a bowl, particularly around Christmas Day, is really significant. Practice Monday (which is like a Thursday practice on a normal game week of preparation) will be followed by perhaps the most significant event annually at the Holiday Bowl - the Navy and Marine Corps Luncheon aboard an aircraft carrier. There, the Longhorns will sit down with Cal players and hundreds of sailors and Marines who are on active duty. There, 18- and 19-year-olds will break bread together. It is a stirring reminder that agenda and purpose vary, and it is a chance for the players to show respect for those who stand in harm's way on their behalf.
As the sun slowly set on the Pacific across the bay from the Marriott on Saturday, the little kids began dreaming of Santa, and the players reflected on the coming days. For the staff and coaches, it was a time of remembering, and a time of thanksgiving. Christmas means different things to different folks, and that is how it should be.
For some, it is a remembrance of a time long past; a moment when believing was stronger than reality, and hope overshadowed despair. The distant glisten of the sea reminds us of that. It is a beacon shining, a reflection of memories and a validation of miracles.
That is why this bowl trip for this Texas team is so important. Life, after all, is a connection of souls to a Higher Being, and a thread that binds us together and a family as children of the universe. Somewhere between Santa finding San Diego, and the story of a star and a baby, we are reminded that we may be alone, but we don't have to be lonely.
There is, we are told, the matter of angels. Movies are made about them, books and songs tell their story, and like the kid who can't figure Santa, we wonder if they are real. Paul Crume, the late columnist of The Dallas Morning News, wrote a column in 1975 that addresses that, and on this Christmas, I will leave you with it because it tells it better than I could:
"A man wrote me not long ago and asked me what I thought of the theory of angels. I immediately told him that I am highly in favor of angels. As a matter of fact, I am scared to death of them.
Any adult human being with half sense, and some with more, knows that there are angels.
If he has ever spent any period in loneliness, when the senses are forced in upon themselves, he has felt the wind from their beating wings and been overwhelmed with the sudden realization of the endless and gigantic dark that exists outside the little candle flame of human knowledge. He has prayed, not in the sense that he asked for something, but that he yielded himself.
Angels live daily at our very elbows, and so do demons, and most men at one time or another in their lives have yielded themselves to both and have lived to rejoice and rue their impulses.
But the man who has once felt the beat of an angel's wing finds it easy to rejoice at the universe and at his fellow man. It does not happen to any man often, and too many of us dismiss it when it happens.
I remember a time in my final days in college when the chinaberry trees were abloom and the air was sweet with spring blossoms and I stood still on the street, suddenly struck with the feeling of something that was an enormous promise and yet was no tangible promise at all.
And there was another night in a small boat when the moon was full and the distant headlands were dark but beautiful and we were lonely. The pull of a nameless emotion was so strong that it filled the atmosphere. The small boy within me cried.
Psychiatrists will say that the angel in all this was really within me, not outside, but it makes no difference. There are angels inside us and angels outside and the one inside is usually the quickest choked.
Francis Thompson said it better. He was a late 19th-century English poet who would put the current crop of hippies to shame. He was on pot all his life. His pad was always mean and was sometimes a park bench. He was a mental case and tubercular besides. He carried a fishing creel into which he dropped the poetry that was later to become immortal.
'The angels keep their ancient places,' wrote Francis Thompson in protest. 'Turn but a stone, and start a wing.'
He was lonely enough to be the constant associate of angels.
There is an angel close to you this day.
Merry Christmas, and I wish you well."