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The Texas/OU tunnel and emotions of the Red River Showdown

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There's no game quite like the annual grudge match between the Horns and the Sooners.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Split right down the middle, the Cotton Bowl on the second Saturday of October is half burnt orange and half crimson as the Texas Longhorns take on the Oklahoma Sooners.

A former Texas lettermen shared his recollections of the 1974 game against Oklahoma:

When you're given the final word by the TV guy to leave the locker room and head down the short flight of steps to the top of the tunnel, you step out into a surreal, confusing world of childish taunts and many an inverted "Hook Em" being hurled from the walkway above ... stadium security personnel in cheap windbreakers and several members of the Dallas P.D. man the long tarp-covered gate behind you ... you recognize a couple of the motorcycle cops that led the police escort through the streets of Dallas a couple of hours ago; an officer smiles as he gives you a quick salute and a "Hook Em." You return the salute and mouth a quick, "Thank you" to the officer. 

We're told by the TV guy to wait at the top of the ramp ... there's no breeze ... it's hot ...


Someone steps out of a black limo just outside the gate and is quickly escorted by Texas DPS troopers through the gathering and hurried down the ramp. Must be the governor or a senator or Willie ... you can't really see over the glare of all the glistening white helmets shining in the October sunshine. 

The smell of diesel fumes, horse crap, and fried food wafts through the air, mingling with the sulfur smell of residue from the Ruf-Neks' shotguns and Smokey's pre-game cannon shots. You can always smell the State Fair. 

The ticketless, orange-clad well-wishers behind the chain-link gate, trying to get a quick look or a fingershake from a player or coach are the only friendly voices you hear at that end of the Cotton Bowl. 

"Get after 'em, Darrell!" 

"Go Horns!" 

"Anybody got a ticket?!" 

"Can I have your chinstrap?" 

No "OU Sucks" chants; these were the days before that sentiment became the norm. 

Strangely, above the yelling, the dull din of bus engines, police motorcycles, and the screaming siren from a ride over on the Midway, you can hear the clicking of the candy wrapping machines in the Salt-Water Taffy booth just across the walkway beyond the gate... 

You've been taught to keep your focus ... look toward the light at the bottom of the tunnel as you move slowly downhill ... you're wedged so tightly together that your feet are barely touching the ribbed, dirty concrete below. It's like you're slowly floating down the ramp suspended among your fellow team members. You're in the shade of the tunnel now, beneath the stomping, screaming Sooner fans in the south end of the stadium. It's cooler, but you're having trouble catching your breath. 

You can't help but steal a glance at your opponents as they assemble and begin to move down the ramp on the opposite side. You've seen them all through pre-game warmups, exchanged subdued good luck wishes to a misguided former high school teammate that wandered across the Red River, but suddenly, this instant is etched forever in your mind. The crimson helmets with the white interlocked "OU" really piss you off at this moment and the bile rises in the back of your throat ... you feel ... like ... you might ... lose your steak and scrambled eggs you ate four hours before in the quiet banquet room at the Hilton Inn. You don't want to puke on your facemask ... or on your teammate's back. 

Instead of letting the remnants of your pregame meal fly, you choke it back and begin to yell out an unintelligible guttural sound ... your teammates join in and the sound reverberates in your helmet .... your mouth is dry ... your chest is pounding ... all of a sudden, your uniform is too tight ... you feel enormous ... you think of a cup of ice water ... a huge ground swell of noise begins to engulf you as you move closer to the light ... louder and louder ... you're glad you have your helmet on, not because you think that one of those overserved, jeering Okies will lob a half-eaten Fletcher's Corny Dog at you, but you feel secure and impervious when you manage to reach your hand up and snap your chin strap snugly as you move into the sunlight at the bottom of the ramp. You realize then how much you've been sweating as the swirling breeze on the floor of the stadium finally gets to the back of your neck and cools you ever so slightly. 

The roaring sound echoing in your helmet reaches what you think to be a crescendo as the TV guy tries to hold back your screaming, snarling teammates ... You look around and the sudden reality hits you: this is IT. This is the last time you'll ever experience this feeling as a player in what you have grown up knowing as the greatest football contest in the universe. You may get a chance to walk the ramp again, but not wearing this uniform ... with these guys ... against those guys. 

Tears well in your eyes, a huge lump rises in your throat as you begin to hear curses being hurled at the TV guy to let you go; just let us run out on that crappy turf one more time. You hear TV Guy yell something about the World Series game being nearly over and to just hold on for one more minute and one of your larger teammates instructs TV Guy to perform a physically impossible task with a baseball. 

We surge forward, frenzied and frothing ... I look toward Coach Royal who has appeared just to my left ... he looks to be alone in his thoughts. His jaw is set ... he has to hear the taunts of, "Traitor!" and the like directed his way ... I feel more contempt for the red-clad fans leering over the tunnel walls as they wave red and white pompons at my coach's face. I wish the fat woman would fall over the wall as she screams, "Darrell, you ain't sheeyit...!" He is perturbed at the delay ... he gives us a simple nod .... the human dam breaks; TV Guy is left to fend for himself. He may have been trampled; we don't really care at this point. Smokey sounds out a huge cannon blast; a perfect smoke circle rises above the sweltering field. You imagine a football sailing right through the center of the white smoke circle as you see it emblazoned against the clear, blue North Texas sky. You hear the band playing "Texas Fight" at what seems like an impossibly fast tempo and an ungodly loud volume in your helmet. You run. Your teammates are jumping all over you. You may cry. 

You aren't alone. 

The swelling noise is louder than ever and you get to run out into that sunlight one last time. You'll never get to feel that way again.

Despite all the changes in how people live in the 40 years since, the Cotton Bowl has survived largely unchanged. As has the game and surely the feeling that accompanies players onto the field hasn't changed much either.

Well, maybe there have been some things that have changed. Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said on Wednesday that there used to be some serious physical aggression in and around the game.

"Back in the day, we went into the stands and snatched somebody out of the tunnel," he said. "Now you can't put your hands on anybody. It's a different mindset, so that wasn't a problem. I played with some cats that were different. You look at Steve McMichael, he was a little bit off the chart. It's a different mindset. We would fight in the stands, in the parking lot, but with those guys we had back in the day."

The first five minutes are the most intense for the players -- the adrenaline is rushing and the emotions are flying high. While those feelings can be beneficial on the field, the team that comes out victorious in the end is often the team that is able to move past that surge and settle in.

"The thing is you don't get caught up in the emotion of the game, because you've got to settle down and play the game," said Texas head coach Charlie Strong on Monday.

"A lot of times, if you watch players, they get so caught up in games like this and they get a touchdown and be throwing up over their head. They're sitting there jawing. Don't need to be jawing. Just play the game because it is a special game. Look, at the end of the day, you still have to settle down and play good fundamentals and good technique and let the game take care of itself. If you're a playmaker, you're going to make the plays and the guys need to step up and go make those plays. The real guys need to step up and go make them."

For former Oklahoma defensive tackle Tony Casillas, the game was about getting physical early and often.

"It's such an emotional game," Casillas told ESPN. "It's really important for the underdog to come out swinging. Hit the other team in the mouth. Once you do that, and you come out with an arrogant attitude, you're like, 'Hey man, we're Texas' or 'Hey man, we're Oklahoma. We're not as bad as anyone says. Once you hit the other team in the mouth, you start believing in who you are. Then you can win the game. Just look at Texas last year. The physicality they came out with. Oklahoma could never get in sync."

Senior wide receiver Jaxon Shipley has been on both sides of it -- as a fan and as a player. When he was still in high school, his older brother Jordan was making big plays, including the long kickoff return in 2008 that ignited the comeback.

"The thing is, I grew up watching this game and then when my brother came here, watching some of their games and that kickoff return he had, those are some of my best memories growing up," Shipley said. "I can remember sitting in the stands and just watching some of those big plays and thinking, 'Man, I wish I could be out there.'"

The experience was rough for a couple of seasons when it did come around.

"Then I got the opportunity to come here and in my first year, getting to play out there as freshman was unreal," said Shipley.

"We didn't do good that year or the year after that, but last year, I think for me, was probably my most memorable moment at UT was when we won that game. Because this game has so much tradition and this is a game, like I said, everybody looks forward to watching and people only dream of playing in this game. And to get a win like that was an unreal feeling. So this being my last time around, I really want to get a win because it's something that's a really special game for me and something I'll remember for the rest of my life."

The game is a chance for players to write their legacies, for good or ill. Texas fans will never forget plays like the scoop-and-score by defensive tackle Rodrique Wright in 2005 on the Rhett Bomar sack by defensive end Brian Robison that exorcised all the demons of the previous years. The hit by Stoney Clark. The block by Quan Cosby. The interception return last year by Chris Whaley.

Former quarterback Case McCoy told ESPN that he knew going into the game that he wouldn't be remembered for much at Texas if he didn't win a game like that. He did, and despite all of his weaknesses as a player and the terrible ending to his career, no one can ever take away the feeling he had when he put on the Golden Hat after the game that year and the jubilation Texas fans felt in the unexpected, unexpectedly resounding victory.

The stakes force players to elevate their collectives games.

"You've got to be a step faster in this game," said Texas head coach Charlie Strong. "You've got to hit a little harder in this game. Everything changes in this game because all games are big games, but this is just one of those special games that has so much significance to it that we have to get out and go play well."

The goal at the end?

To sing the Eyes of Texas to to the burnt orange half of the stadium, with the stands emptied of Oklahoma fans on the other side, then put on that Golden Hat.

Hook 'em! It's 4:37 pm and OU still sucks!

Matthew Emmons (USA TODAY Sports)