This is the second post in a week-long series sponsored by EA Sports NCAA Football 2011.
Where choosing an all-time favorite Texas team is concerned, for the overwhelming majority of UT fans there is nothing to discuss. Some of our more senior brethren might prefer one of Royal's top squads, but at a minimum, for every fan under 40 the team is the 2005 national title winners.
Even among those for whom every urge is to choose a different squad--if only to buck the trend or liven the discussion--my guess is that actually doing so will prove inordinately difficult. There are all the obvious reasons, but also that the 2005 squad was so exciting, so exceptional, and so manifestly special that in this instance, making the easy, popular choice feels anything but uninspired. It feels great to love the 2005 Longhorns, and it's immensely gratifying to revel in the afterglow with others who were touched by the same magic. It is the source of a cherished, lasting bond among those who of the 2005 season can say, "We were there." Already, there are students on campus who in 2005 were too young and too unattached to Texas football to have experienced the magic of that season.
And, two decades from now when the college kids are mouthing off to us old timers about how the 2035 title-winning Longhorns could take down the '05 squad, we'll chuckle politely and tell them to sit tight for a second, we've got a DVD we want to show them. And we'll watch the Rose Bowl all over again, start to finish, watching the game out of one eye and our first-time viewers out of the other--the thrill of sharing the greatness with newcomers every bit as gratifying as watching 41-38 itself. If there are two of us in the room, we'll share a knowing, pleased-with-ourselves smile: "We were there."
Odds are, when it's over we'll make them watch Limas Sweed haul in the win at the Horseshoe, as well. By the time we're done, our young friends will concede the argument and yammer excitedly about their new discovery, or maybe not -- they're 19 year-olds, after all. It doesn't really matter. We'll continue on in any case, this time for ourselves. "Now wait 'til you watch this," we'll insist, but we're commanding ourselves.
We won't ever allow ourselves to let go of this team and that season. God willing, Texas will win another title or two every decade or so, but the odds of any future title-winning team and season matching 2005 in excitement, drama, and personal fulfillment are slim to none.
The truth is, that was probably it for us: our pinnacle as sports fans. After the final seconds fell off the clock and the game finally ended, 41-38, I danced and hugged and jumped and high-fived like everyone else, until, suddenly, I just... stopped. Everything around me washed away, leaving me almost alone with the stadium, as though time itself had paused. I'll never forget standing there for thirty seconds that felt to me like thirty minutes, alone in the stadium, with myself and my thoughts, as though suspended in an abyss of water and its deep, solitary quiet. I was frozen in a moment of profound realization, so powerful as to overwhelm all my other senses.
I'm not sure where it came from or why it affected me as it did, but in those moments I reflected upon the experience of the 2005 season -- the regular season journey, the quarterback, the epic Rose Bowl -- from a meta-level perspective... the kind usually reserved for long afterward, like when the music of life slowly begins its final fade. For thirty seconds, I stood alone, consumed by a feeling of incredible, exultant peace coextensive with one of quieting, humbling sadness. I at once understood the magnitude of the triumph and the likelihood that I would never again in my life experience anything quite like it.
I know, that's some really heavy stuff. And understand if your first reaction is: too heavy. It is. And it was... and it's not something I can say I've experienced at a football game before, or expect to ever again.
And yet, there's something affirming about it, too. We yell and curse, jump for joy and pour our hearts and souls into these games, these sports. For the most part, the details are mundane -- a satisfactory enough mixture of good and bad, uplifting and depressing. Looking at our fandom one snapshot at a time, sports do little more than keep us occupied and engaged. Step back a bit, though, and there's more to the whole than the sum of its parts.
On the tangible side, sports bind us as communities and bring us together as friends, at their best bestowing useful benefits upon society, in ways that enrich the places we live. But sports are not unique or essential in that regard, of course, nor in such a capacity is there anything which would justify the fervent zeal of passionate fandom. Indeed, in this capacity sporting teams and leagues are functional equivalents of an art gallery, the amount of utility and value provided predominantly a matter of the extent to which they succeed or fail in bestowing those tangible benefits on the community. No more than the functional purpose of art galleries provides a reason to stomp or cheer or heckle, if our outpouring of emotion into sports is justifiable at all, it must be owed to something else.
It would be depressing and disconcerting if the passionate investment we make in our sports fandom were, as some argue, a futile, wasteful expenditure of time, energy, emotion, and resources. But they're wrong, in precisely the same way as would be a sports fan who dismissed the passionate enjoyment of fine art as similarly worthless. The rabid consumption of sporting competitions involving a favorite team is identical to a collector's enjoyment of a cherished painting. The principle is a limited one (I'm as unlikely to derive anything of value from mindlessly watching a game between Toledo and San Jose State as from a stroll through a gallery of paintings mass-produced for hotel chains), but I'm taking the time to write all of this because watching Vince Young during his 22-game winning streak was as spectacular, inspiring, and spiritually fulfilling to you and me as is a flawless rendition of "Rigoletto" to a lover of the opera.
Before I opened the floor to discussion of other Texas teams who qualify as all-time favorites, I wanted in this post to explain why for most of us the 2005 team not only is our favorite all-time Texas squad, but why it is -- to me, at least -- much more than an easy, thoughtless choice. I exaggerate not at all in positing that the 2005 team and season represent one of the purest examples imaginable of what makes sports meaningful and valuable to us -- not just as a community, but also as individuals:
To watch Vince Young at his best was to reconsider the meaning of impossible.
To know -- not just hope, but know -- that somehow USC would not pick up 2 yards on 4th down was to validate the power of believing, and to affirm our willingness to be believers ourselves.
And to hold our breaths for one last play with just 19 seconds left was to experience an impossible range of emotions -- at once hopeful and terrified and angry and assured and eager and cautious and empowered and helpless and everything else that you could imagine, plus some you couldn't. It was everything that it means to be human -- in all the ways joyful, exciting, and comforting, and all the ways leaving us to feel sad, defeated, and vulnerable.
For this Texas fan, at least, the 2005 season is worthy of honoring as my all-time favorite Texas team both for what they accomplished for themselves, as well as for that which their transcendent journey provided us both as Texas fans and as sports fans.
If we never experience anything quite like it again, it'll be alright. "We were there."
The floor is open in the comments below. I'd love to hear your own thoughts and memories related to the 2005 title-winners or, if my tribute makes redundant your idea to compare 2005 Texas to a Verdi opera, feel free instead to discuss some of your other all-time favorite UT teams, and why they meant something to you as a fan. And finally, a fun match up to ponder: the 1983 UT defense versus Vince Young's 2005 offense.