Each year, on a fateful October Saturday in Dallas, after only a few hours of restless sleep, we rise before the crack of dawn, completely wired, and approach our already-laid-out clothes like a player approaching his locker to suit up for battle. We've thought out everything about attending the annual Red River Showdown in meticulous detail, down to the driving route we'll take to a previously scouted parking area.
As my fellow Longhorns fans and I drive through the darkened streets of southeast Dallas, the anticipation builds to the point that we can hardly speak. The silence breaking only when the ice in our cooler full of liquid courage cracks as the car bounces over the first speed bump in the parking lot. Off in the distance, through the early morning haze, the lights of the Cotton Bowl gleam forebodingly.
As the parking lot quickly fills to capacity, we trade degrading remarks with the fans from north of the river that runs red in a thinly veiled attempt to convince each other that we haven't any doubt whose team will win the day. Regardless of the purported demeanor, it's easy to recognize the anxiety in fans' eyes, because we know all too well from years of monumental victories and crushing defeats that winning the Red River Showdown means everything.
An hour or two before kick off, we make our way to the stadium. Approaching the gates to the State Fair grounds offers a brief respite from the feud, as Texas and Oklahoma fans squeeze together and shuffle forward nervously, as though approaching a prison recreation yard. Only the cackling laugh or joke of an inebriated fan breaks the tension that envelops both sets of fans up until the fair admittance end of our game tickets are torn, and at long last we're inside... where everyone immediately returns to the business of the day: throwing as much fuel as we can on one of the most fiery rivalries in all of sports.
We wander through a maze of carnival booths, inhaling corndogs and warm beers with a waxy aftertaste, anchoring our location with skyward glances to the familiar concrete façade of the Cotton Bowl, gradually honing in on the ramps leading to the stadium gates.
Every step up feels like the initial ascent of a roller coaster -- click, click, click -- the anticipation steadily building as we negotiate the huddled masses filling every square inch of the Cotton Bowl's cattle-herding corridors, until the bottom drops out from beneath us as we catch our first glimpse of the endless expanse of burnt orange- and crimson-clad fans rising up from every side of the Elysian green field below.
The sensory nirvana all but stops time, as though in the slow motion sequence of a war movie. In our stunned state of being, the cacophony of sounds are entirely muted, until the explosion of a cannon brings us back into the now.
And with that we have arrived, at the greatest college football game of them all. Before we know it, the opening kick off sails through the air and our minds begin operating in fast-forward mode as we plunge into a thrill-a-second ride, momentum swinging back and forth, both teams making plays at an impossibly fast rate of speed, our brains grasping for air...
And that's just the first five minutes of the game.
When it's mercifully over, to the victor go the spoils, indeed. Fans of the winning team float out of the stadium on an air of euphoria not thought possible without the aid of hardcore hallucinogens.
Conversely, the losing team's fans mostly limp away from the stadium with their heads hung low once the issue in no longer in doubt, hoping to make it back to their cars with as little contact as possible with the merciless, gloating fans of the winning team.
A few bitter fans from on the wrong end of the score remain defiant to the end, continuing to lash out at their hated rivals. But it's futile, the hopelessness in their glassy eyes all too recognizable to anyone who's been on the losing end of the Red River Showdown.
For Texas and OU fans alike, the second Saturday in October is the closest we'll come to purgatory on earth and the heaven or hell that awaits us on the other side.