Kay and I spent a wonderful three hours Sunday with dozens of family — the family I worked side by side with and loved at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram from April 1987 to February 2000, when I moved on to The Dallas Morning News. Bob Cox, a retired S-T reporter, organized a long-overdue reunion, where hugs, laughs, cherished newsroom memories, life updates and, I’m sure, tears filled a room in the historic downtown Flatiron Building and spilled to the patio outside.
The group pic above (which I’m not in) includes mostly folks who worked at the Arlington S-T and is only a fraction of the crowd that gathered on a beautiful afternoon. I’m still kicking myself for never pulling out my phone to take photos, but Ana Barrera Waggoner was gracious enough to snap the shot below of Kay and me. We all had a glorious time, and I hope it’ll become an annual event. It’s something I think we all really needed.
For all of us, the Star-Telegram was a truly special place. For many like me, it was the first “major metro” where we worked as journalists after starting out at smaller newspapers. Some were even fortunate to begin their careers at the S-T and stay there for decades. Not only does it have a rich history, thanks in no small part to colorful longtime publisher Amon G. Carter Sr. and its stature as, at one time, the paper with the largest circulation in Texas.
There’s just always been something about the paper and the charm of the city that have made it a draw for journalists. And we all shared a bond and a commitment to the mission of what we did every day, 365 days a year.
Because of the painful difficulties that have befallen the industry in recent years, most of the S-T family that came together Sunday has moved on to other jobs — many outside newspapers, some freelancing — while others have retired. A very small handful who attended are still toiling at the S-T, which has had a dickens of a time, with round after round of layoffs, buyouts and the announcement last week that parent company McClatchy has filed for bankruptcy.
Still, the paper’s minuscule staff fights to survive and continue providing news and coverage of the Fort Worth area to the community just as it has for well over 100 years — and as papers in cities all over the country remain dedicated to doing in the digital environment.
But Sunday was about reuniting with our old colleagues — our family — after years apart. And except for missing all the folks who weren’t able to make it, it was perfect.
It’s been three weeks since my blog post ripping the Astros over the rule-breaking — the cheating — it was obvious they were guilty of. Little did I know that, three days after I posted on a Friday, MLB would announce the results of its sign-stealing investigation, along with major penalties. Ultimately, the all-consuming quest for championships would take down three managers and a GM, with more punishment still to come against the Red Sox.
Some argue that the Astros should’ve been hit harder, and that the players shouldn’t have gotten away with it all. There’s merit to that argument, but there’s also validity to MLB’s reasons for not going down the complicated path of figuring out which players should be suspended and for how long.
As for why MLB didn’t TKO the Astros with more — stripping their 2017 title or a 2020 postseason ban, for instance — consider what Rob Manfred *did* do, and what the organization has to look forward to in terms of cheating’s lasting impact. I’d have to say the loss of four top draft picks, a yearlong suspension of baseball’s top manager-GM duo (who then, of course, were fired by owner Jim Crane), the stain that’ll never be removed from the disgraced franchise’s image, and the bull’s-eye the team will wear not only this season but for years to come, will have the lesson-learned-the-hard-way effect MLB was going for.
Sure, the Astros still have one of the majors’ strongest rosters and a fairly loaded farm system, and will contend this year for a fourth straight AL West title and fourth AL Championship Series berth in a row. But make no mistake: These penalties were designed to make the franchise pay for its egregious mistakes — if that means slamming the brakes on a potential dynasty, so be it — and to send a message to other teams that breaking the rules won’t be tolerated.
ESPN baseball writer Bradford Doolittle, who’s fantastic, makes strong points in this piece about why MLB doled out sufficient penalties against the Astros.
So the Astros have made their first attempt to move past this fiasco by hiring an old-school manager with a sterling reputation and a history of winning — although never the big one. At first, I wasn’t thrilled with Crane’s choice of Dusty Baker, simply because I thought he was too old and the game’s left him behind. I’ve always liked Baker and remember him well from my childhood and his Dodger days, playing in the Astrodome when Houston and Los Angeles were rivals in the National League West.
But after a couple of days, I realized how smart and calculated a move this was on Crane’s part, hiring a manager with Baker’s pedigree and personality. For this situation and this team and this moment, he’s the right hire.
And I see the Astros also hired a new GM today (Monday 2/3), a guy I’ve never heard of from the Rays named James Click — who was a history major at Yale. He comes from a strong organization, and considering fired Astros GM Jeff Luhnow got his start in baseball with a business background and majored in economics and engineering, I look for Click to slide smoothly into his Houston role.
Now that January has come and gone faster than any month in history (right?), spring training is upon us. And I’m sticking to my vow, still planning not to follow the Astros as closely as usual this season. That doesn’t mean I won’t check scores or standings; it just means I won’t obsess over trying to monitor every game like I usually do.
Like I said in the blog post, I’m not abandoning the Astros. Too much history, too much devotion to the only team that *really* matters to me, too much love. I’m still very upset this happened and am disappointed anyone associated with the team would even think about pulling a stupid stunt like this that would sully its hard-earned rep for doing things the right way.
I’m glad the organization apologized to its fans for this shameful episode. But unfortunately, that won’t change how opponents, rival teams’ fans, and the sports world in general view and treat the Astros from now on: like a hated team. They’ll get the love ’em or hate ’em treatment the Patriots and Yankees get.
No one used to hate the Astros. But they have only themselves to blame.
Very soon, the Houston Astros will learn the price for their cheating.
For deciding — after over 50 years as a franchise that had largely done things the right way, the old-fashioned, hard-working way, the honest way — to break the rules to gain an extra edge.
For being so arrogant as to think they could get away with flouting Major League Baseball — not to mention the sport’s codes of ethics and integrity, whether written or understood — to fulfill their blinding desire to win the team’s first championship, no matter the means.
For disrespecting opponents and the very game in their reckless pursuit of glory, and for cheating their own fans and violating their legions’ trust.
The Astros stand accused of straying far outside the usual bounds to pick up opposing teams’ pitching signs in their World Series-winning 2017 season — and possibly the past two years. Mike Fiers, who pitched for Houston that season but didn’t make a playoff roster, went public two months ago in a report in The Athletic, saying the team had used a camera in centerfield at Minute Maid Park to read catchers’ signs, which were then signaled from the dugout area to Astros hitters through the comical method of banging on a trash can. There’ve been rumors of other chicanery; we’ll just have to see what comes out.
Commissioner Rob Manfred is expected to announce penalties in the coming days after an investigation — one he calls MLB’s most intensive — that media reports say has pulled in 60 witnesses for interviews and includes poring through more than 75,000 emails.
Suspensions of general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch are almost a certainty, but recent reports indicate that players are likely to avoid punishment. Steep fines are a given, as well as forfeited draft picks. A postseason ban for 2020 seems unlikely, but a move that extreme could be on the table if Manfred and MLB want to make an example of the Astros.
The comeuppance will not be light. But it will be deserved.
I take this stance as someone who has been alive nearly one more year than the franchise’s 58-year existence — and who has loved this team as long as I’ve loved baseball.
I’ve kept quiet, but it’s gnawed at me for weeks. I’m very upset about this whole imbroglio.
Let me clarify: I’m very upset at the Astros.
It goes deeper than that: I’m angry at them.
I’m irate that they’ve brought embarrassment to their city, where I lived much of the first 10 years of my life before we moved just north to Conroe, still attending several games a year.
I’m disappointed that, as one of the best teams in baseball the past three seasons and winners of 100-plus games each of those years, they felt compelled to cheat. (Of course, who knows how many of those wins now need an asterisk?)
Filling out a lineup card stacked with names like Springer, Altuve, Bregman and Correa, you really needed to cook up a scheme to surreptitiously build an added advantage, on a home field where you already dominate?
Just. Play. The. Expletive. Game.
Being painfully honest, this really hurts. The team I’ve been a faithful fan of since early childhood — starting around age 5, which would’ve been 1966 — through the many losing years and the climb back from three straight 100-loss seasons, has let me down in a way no on-the-field failure ever has or ever could.
No other team’s highest of highs and toughest of losses can send my emotions soaring and plummeting like the Astros. That includes my alma mater, Texas A&M.
For a franchise with a perpetually squeaky-clean image, with a history of wholesome players like Jimmy Wynn, Larry Dierker, Jose Altuve, Craig Reynolds, Billy Doran, Craig Biggio, Kevin Bass, Nolan Ryan, Lance Berkman, Jose Cruz, Terry Puhl and so many others, this is a black eye the Astros will now always sport.
They’ll never be able to cover it up, always to be viewed as cheaters. Not to mention as a team that takes on domestic abusers like reliever Roberto Osuna — then makes a mockery of a serious issue through denial when a front-office clown yells profanity-strewn remarks in support of the abuser to a group of women during a playoff celebration, one of whom happens to be a reporter.
I could give the Astros the benefit of the doubt, saying they thought what they were doing in stealing signs so “creatively” was within the rules — a case they no doubt made to investigators. But they had to know it was, at the very least, bending them.
Was a world championship worth the irreparable damage to the team’s reputation and the Patriots-like hatred that will follow them from now on?
Most fans will say yes. I say no.
I’m being overly dramatic, too sensitive, some kind of by-the-book baseball snob. That’s what some of you are thinking.
And I realize some — many, probably — will disagree with my premise and say what the Astros are alleged to have done — no, what they have done — is no big deal. The most popular cop-outs I’ve read/heard since the accusations surfaced: “Everyone steals signs. It’s part of the game,” along with “Everyone cheats.”
Not like the Astros did. MLB’s rules forbidding the use of technology in this way are explicit. I’ve read posts on an Astros fan group on Facebook where there are still plenty of deniers and apologists. So many saying “haters gonna hate” and “they’re just jealous of our team’s success.”
Fans will believe what they want to believe and express their opinions freely on the unchecked monster of social media. But at some point, you have to accept the facts and realize no one’s making this up through some perceived bias toward your team. With the video evidence all over the Internet since the story broke, how can anyone deny that cheating took place?
There’s another crowd that’ll say, “But baseball’s changed. You know, the metrics, the analytics, the shift, all that data. This is just part of how technology is being used more and more.”
I’ve always considered myself a baseball purist, yet I think I’ve evolved with our national pastime — if the label even still applies — in recent years. So I understand all that. That’s not what this is. Until something is within the rules, it’s against ’em.
Players and coaches have been known to unfairly rip sports writers because they assume they’ve “never played the game” and are clueless regarding the nuances in much of what they write about. I can’t claim to know everything about every sport I covered in my past life as a sports writer, but I learned a lot in those four years starting out in Odessa over three decades ago.
I played ball growing up and feel like I know the sport pretty darn well — enough to know that what the Astros did was wrong, and unacceptable behavior for a true champion.
And sure, I get it. Compared to some of baseball’s bigger scandals — Pete Rose betting on his team’s games, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and others using steroids — this infraction may seem like a misdemeanor in a sea of felonies. Until you break it down, pitch by tipped-off pitch.
Like the guys who shot themselves up with steroids all those years, what the Astros did screwed with games — extending innings that might’ve ended without the pitch knowledge they were gaining, and helping them score runs they might not have scored.
They altered game outcomes, teams’ records and division standings. It’s a domino effect no one can deny made a difference, possibly affecting every road team on the Astros’ schedule.
If MLB comes back with findings that support the allegations and announce major penalties, I need to see the Astros’ front office stand up in a genuinely contrite way, taking ownership of what the team did and not denying or foisting excuses off on fans.
This is about what you did, which goes above what teams “have always done” to get a competitive edge. You owe your fans an explanation — and a big-time apology.
If the Astros appeal the decision and their penalties, it’ll only make them look petty and even more pretentious than many believe they’ve become in recent years. And like they don’t think the rules apply to them.
It’s time to step up to the plate and accept whatever punishment is handed out.
So many of the Astros’ good deeds off the field over the life of the franchise have helped brighten the lives of Houston-area residents. Winning the 2017 World Series in the aftermath of the devastating Hurricane Harvey provided an emotional lift that made it possible for many to get from one day to the next.
It’s doubtful MLB would take away that championship, but it’ll be forever tainted.
All the decades of good guys and goodwill won’t matter to the baseball world outside Texas — which, from now on, will see the Astros as a team that cheated its way to a title.
Not as winners.
For a city and this team’s adoring fans, that is a travesty.
As for me, I’m determined not to follow the Astros as obsessively this year as I always have. I need some time to come back around.
I don’t plan to be glued to GameDay online while I’m at work at night. Or to strain to hear their games through static trying to pick up that Houston station on my way home from work. Or to pay for TV packages to see more of their games. My actions won’t mean a thing to the team, but they’re part of my personal grievance over this unforgivable episode.
I’m not abandoning the Astros. I’ve been through too much with them to do that.
I’ve considered throwing my main allegiance behind another team for a while. Always been a fan of the Twins, because my late father grew up in St. Paul and so many of my beloved relatives were devoted fans. There are the Rangers, since we live in Arlington, I attend a few games a year (usually when the Astros are visiting) and have been an on-and-off fan since moving to the D-FW area in 1987. Or I could start following the Rockies more, seeing as the brother and sister from my birth family with whom I’ve bonded since finding them almost 15 years ago have lived in the Denver area for decades.
For now, I’ll just back off on the Astros. I’m serious about this. I’m not even sure what it’ll take to win me back to full fandom. But I’m certain Kay will appreciate my being a bit more “available” between April and September.
When the Beatles were taking over the musical world from 1962 to 1970, with tours (ending in 1966) and marathon recording sessions, putting out over 200 songs and some of the highest-selling albums in history, I was a little boy (born in ’61). Sure, I knew some of their huge hits, and when I got a little older, my brother Isaac and I even had the White Album. I’ve still never seen the movies John, Paul, George and Ringo made (well, I vaguely remember watching the psychedelic Yellow Submarine on TV, if you want to count that).
But after three-plus weeks in my new Camry hybrid, listening to hours of the Beatles Channel on the free trial of Sirius XM and being introduced to a bunch of music I’d never heard, I have an even greater appreciation and love for their absolutely undeniable genius. The remarkable songwriting, vocal and instrumental gifts they gave us simply can’t be matched.
There’ll never be another group like them, and although they all went on to nice solo careers, it’s a shame they broke up before they could give us more of themselves as a quartet. No need to get into the reasons for the widely-chronicled breakup here.
I’ll also admit they did a lot of stuff, especially later (“Revolution No. 9”?), that was really “out there” (those drugs, man), and many didn’t go for their Eastern- and spiritually-influenced music. I think some of it’s kinda cool.
But the fact that they experimented with so many different approaches wasn’t necessarily a bad thing — I think it speaks more to their brilliance, plus they were trying to evolve with the times. And they still did a lot of fantastic music during those later years. The other day when I heard “The End,” I hadn’t realized that was actually the last piece they recorded together.
As we moved into the new decade, the Beatles Channel had a cool ongoing show hosted by a historian of the group, Kevin Howlett, called #MagicalHistoryTour. It featured every song the Beatles recorded, in chronological order. He gave such interesting snippets of history behind every song, about the recording sessions, how the songs came to be, the instrumentation, etc.
For instance, he talked about how, on an afternoon in June 1965, Paul McCartney belted out the final take of “I’m Down” in studio with the band. You’d think that would’ve wrecked his vocal cords for the day, but he managed to then record the amazing “Yesterday” that evening, both songs for the “Help!” album.
If you haven’t and you’re even remotely a fan of the Beatles’ music, you should check out out the Sirius channel (18). Not only does it feature their songs, it also plays recording session takes where they’re talking and carrying on, and has a lot of other audio of them including interviews, songs from their solo careers, and songs from ’50s and early ’60s rock ‘n’ roll performers who inspired them.
It also includes other celebs and musicians talking about their Beatles memories and favorite songs, and weekly Fab Four compilations submitted by listeners, like “Eight Songs a Week.”
I’ve got a lot of personal Beatles favorites — and have gained a few new ones from listening to the channel — but I’m posting this remastered version of “Here, There And Everywhere,” one of the most beautiful melodies and love songs in musical history, from the “Revolver” album in 1966.
The original is Paul singing solo with backup harmonies from John, George and Ringo coming in later in the piece. This version from 2009 is different, and I love how the backup harmonies have been added throughout.
Last night was perfectly cloudless, albeit chilly (lows dropped well into the 30s). So why not?
Our youngest teen and I ventured out after 2 a.m., driving about 25 minutes south of our home in southwest Arlington, to a more rural area away from some of the bright lights. Our plan (hope) was to see meteors, on the peak night of the Quadrantids shower, and we were going at what was supposed to be the optimal time. And these particles from Asteroid 2003 EH1 aren’t just garden-variety meteors — they’re fireballs! And who doesn’t want to see fireballs, even if just with the naked eye, when the potential is for over 100 an hour at the shower’s high point?
Our family has never made special efforts to get up in the middle of the night to see celestial events, but when I read about this one near the end of my editing shift Friday at The Dallas Morning News, thanks to my colleague Jesus A. Jiménez‘s timely story, I texted Kay and asked if we could try. When I got home about 9:30, it was confirmed that we would. (But when our alarms went off, Kay decided to stay in bed. Our son Will had already decided he wasn’t going.)
Alas, after almost 45 minutes of craning our necks at the northeastern sky, watching around the area of the Big Dipper as the experts instructed, Lindsay and I had seen nothing resembling a meteor. Lots and lots and lots of magnificent stars, but no flashes darting across the darkness (there was that plane that flew under the Dipper … 😉). We were off an isolated farm-to-market road near a cemetery, and I was determined to see meteors. But as with fishing and board games that never end, our kids have always had little patience for such things.
On the way home, I said, “The stories I read online said you should stay out there for at least an hour, just in case it’s too early. Wasn’t it cool just to stand there and stare up at the vastness of space? And that’s just a tiny fraction of it.” The response: “Yeah, but I don’t have enough patience to stare at it for an hour.”
When we got home and she’d gone inside, I looked up from our driveway and there was the Big Dipper. I stood there looking around it for about 20 minutes, blocking out the streetlight with my right hand. Once I thought I saw something streak by out of the corner of my eye and I said aloud, “Did I just see one?” I convinced myself it had been a reflection of the streetlight off my glasses. A couple other times I thought I saw something off to the side, but again, I’m pretty certain it was wishful thinking.
I finally gave up and went inside at 4 a.m., discouraged I’d seen nary a meteor in what was advertised as a grand shower you don’t want to miss. I figure we were looking too high in the sky, but when we looked lower on the horizon, there was probably too much light pollution to see any meteors that might have been zipping past. Maybe if I’d stayed out longer, I’d have been able to see a few higher in the heavens?
Do any of you amateur astronomy buffs have meteor-gazing experience you can share? I’m sure next time, we’ll need to drive a ways and *really* get away from the city. It probably didn’t help that the shower was in the northeastern sky, which required looking toward Dallas, which just happens to have a few lights around it. North America won’t have good views of this particular shower for another eight years, according to Jesus’ reporting.
Even though the peak has already passed, I was thinking I might try again after work tonight if it’s going to be clear. But probably not.
Maybe I’ll wait for the next shower. I’ll be on a meteor mission. Or maybe I’m better off just going on a meatier mission?
Or I could just stick to actual showers, like the “meteor” in this meme. Since I know how those work. And there’s no patience involved. 😀
“That’s me,” I said to the smiling, older, short-of-stature lady as I stood up from a chair in the waiting area of the radiology department at Medical City Arlington.
We chatted while I walked with her through the doors, down the hall and toward a room where I took another seat and she asked me questions about the procedure I was there for. I’d be swallowing a capsule full of radioactive iodine targeting my thyroid, which has spent several years being hyperactively uncooperative.
But before that, this same lady who’d soon plop the pill into my hand and bring me ice water to drink it down would delight me with the most amazing memories of her adoptive father, a classically trained pianist who was born into a Jewish family in Germany, raised in Austria and came to the United States in the early 1940s.
It was a recent Thursday, and I was about to receive a treatment that would necessitate my spending the following three days locked in our bedroom — so I wouldn’t expose anyone else to the radiation supposedly oozing from my pores. The security measures were unusual, and a bit unnerving.
Some of the most gratifying moments in our lives come when we meet strangers and connect, hear their stories and are touched by them. The last thing I expected when I arrived at the hospital that day was that I’d meet someone like Maria Hilliard, supervisor of nuclear medicine at MCA.
After we sat down and she contacted the oncologist to let him know I’d arrived, we began visiting and found out we shared a bond as fellow adoptees. As Maria told me about how she’d been adopted in the Chicago area after she was born in 1951 and the remarkable story of her adoptive parents began to unfold, I quickly became engrossed.
My love of classical music and the fascinating history of Maria’s father, Stefan Bardas, drew me in. And, not only was her father a pianist — her mother, Luisa, who was born in Riva, Italy, was as well.
Maria told me that her father, born in 1914, was teaching piano at Northwestern University when she was adopted. He took a job in 1954 as a professor of music at North Texas State College in Denton, where he remained on faculty until 1980.
But as Maria and I waited for the doctor, she told me one of the most shocking chapters of her father’s life. If not for an incredible twist of fate, he might never have made it to the United States — or survived to be her father.
When he was about 19 (she believes he was in Germany), Stefan was in a train station and dropped his identification papers. A Nazi soldier picked them up, found and detained him, noting that he was a pianist. Stefan was given a choice: He could either perform for Hitler and earn his freedom, or he could be hauled away to a concentration camp. Maria said it was a painful decision for her father, but he grudgingly chose to perform for the Führer.
Stefan survived the Holocaust by attending school in Rome at the Conservatory of Saint Cecilia, earning his bachelor’s degree in music. There, he met Luisa, and they married after immigrating to the U.S. Maria said they both performed, and years later, gave private lessons to young children.
After arriving in New York, Stefan played popular music in piano bars and taught young students. He served as a piano teacher at Carroll College and Wesleyan University before joining the Northwestern faculty.
Another extraordinary memory Maria shared: When she was a young girl in the 1950s in Denton, the famed pianist Van Cliburn was her baby-sitter. She said he always read her stories about trains and let her jump on the bed before her parents came home. This must have been not long before, at age 23, Cliburn became a global sensation by winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958.
I asked Maria if her father performed with orchestras; she said he did some, but most of his performances were solo. Stefan was known worldwide for his mastery of all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and for a fingering technique he developed for pianists with small hands. After retiring from North Texas, he continued to teach piano part time at El Paso Community College, and was an adjunct faculty member at New Mexico State University.
I also asked Maria at the hospital if her parents’ piano gifts had rubbed off on her, and she smiled and said they hadn’t. She played the flute growing up in Denton, where she graduated from Denton High in 1970.
“My parents gave me a wonderful, loving musical life,” she messaged me later. “I look back and think of it as almost magical. I only appreciate and love classical music today because of both of them.”
Maria has invited me to get together at a Starbucks sometime and talk more about her parents, and I’m sure I’ll take her up on the offer. Hopefully she’ll share a recording or two of her father’s music with me, because I’m eager to listen to his virtuosity.
In messages we’ve exchanged, Maria has told me that after her father passed away in 2008, his family spread his ashes in the Rocky Mountains in Estes Park because they reminded him of the Alps in Austria and Italy. She said her brother’s ashes are also there, and hers will be someday. Her mother is buried in her Italian home of Riva.
As I Googled Stefan, gazing at numerous photos and reading through the many references, I found his obituary. The opening words are a fitting tribute to a piano maestro held in high esteem by his countless students and the pantheon of classical music:
“Stefan Bardas passed away quietly, like the codetta of a Beethoven Sonata, with a perfect cadence in the appropriate key, confirming the tonality of his life and his death, on April 29, 2008, after a long and inspiring 93-year life dedicated to teaching the piano.”
Thank you for walking me through some of your family’s unique history, Maria. I feel privileged to have learned about your parents and, especially, your father’s vast influence on young piano students and classical music.
In a few short hours, at 2:42 Monday morning as most of us are sleeping, there’ll be a remembrance ceremony on the campus of my beloved alma mater, Texas A&M University. Hundreds will be there to honor, shed tears over and remember the 12 Aggies who died at that moment 20 years ago when a 90-year tradition, Bonfire, tumbled down in an unthinkable tragedy no Aggie can or will ever forget.
Twenty-seven more Aggies were injured when Bonfire collapsed that Thursday in the dark of night, and those survivors and the dozens of others working at the stack site near the front of campus are united in a bond that can ne’er be broken. Then again, there’s a tie that connects all of us Aggies always, as our school song, “The Spirit of Aggieland,” so clearly expresses:
“But there’s a spirit can ne’er be told, It’s the Spirit of Aggieland. We are the Aggies, the Aggies are we, True to each other as Aggies can be …”
On Oct. 30, 1999, Kay and I had attended our first A&M football game as a couple (we’d been married five years), with our friends Bobby Nagel and his wife Annette. It was rainy and miserable, but the Aggies sloshed their way to an ugly 21-3 win. How could we know that, less than three weeks later, a tragedy would douse 12 bright lights, cast a pall on a hallowed Aggie tradition, and transform the campus into the most solemn state in its history?
On Oct. 26, 2019, Kay and I were back in Aggieland together for the first time since that day 20 years ago, taking in another football game, another A&M victory. This time, as we made the long walk from Kyle Field to where we’d parked off campus, we walked near the Aggie Bonfire Memorial, which I had never had the chance to see. It was built five years after the collapse, on the very spot, with stirring portals celebrating the lives, spirit and Aggie pride of each one. We visited all 12 Aggies, reading their words and those of their loved ones. I marveled at their dedication to school, family and God.
Eight days after the Bonfire collapse, what’s usually the biggest, most meaningful game of the year (for Aggies, at least) was scheduled at Kyle Field. There’d been talk of canceling the 106th rivalry showdown between the Aggies and the No. 7-ranked University of Texas. UT coach Mack Brown said if A&M wanted to call it off, as the campus and Aggies around the world mourned, he’d be fine with that.
But Coach R.C. Slocum and his players knew this was something that, for every Aggie, for those who’d lost their lives building the symbol of Texas A&M’s ever-burning desire to defeat the Longhorns, they had to go through with. There was no way they could *not* play this game.
Heavily-favored UT brought not only a lofty ranking, but a 9-2 record and a five-game winning streak into Kyle Field. The Aggies, at 7-3, were 24th and had lost big to both Oklahoma and Nebraska. But they carried boundless emotional momentum, and that counted for more than predictions, more than rankings, more than records. After A&M scored early, the ‘Horns surged to a 16-6 halftime lead.
But in the second half, the Aggies’ vaunted Wrecking Crew defense took charge, holding the ‘Horns scoreless while Randy McCown and the A&M offense scored two touchdowns. An Aggie fumble recovery after a sack of quarterback Major Applewhite as UT was driving for a potential winning TD sealed the poignant 20-16 upset in front of 86,000-plus at the “old,” pre-100,000-plus-capacity stadium.
My friend, fellow Aggie and former Dallas Morning News colleague Rob Clark has written an incredible oral history of the ’99 game for The Eagle in Bryan-College Station. Rob interviewed numerous key figures involved not only in the game but in the aftermath of the Bonfire collapse. If you’re an Aggie, this is a must read.
Despite all the Ags were playing for, no one really expected them to win. But 20 years later, with the bitter rivals not having met on the football field since 2011 — and no sign they will anytime soon — the game still holds significance for Aggies because of what happened eight days earlier.
And because those students (and one former student) died upholding just one of the countless traditions that lay the foundation for what Texas A&M is.
“From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it, and from the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.”
That’s what we say about Texas A&M and being Aggies. The traditions. The camaraderie. The military Corps of Cadets that is “the backbone” of the university. The unbreakable spirit. The dedication to all things relating to Texas A&M. The bond all Aggies feel with one another.
When I became a student at Texas A&M 40 years ago this fall, transferring in from North Harris County Junior College in Houston, I knew little about any of this. Knowing my mother wouldn’t allow me to move away to college straight out of Conroe High because I’d just turned 17 three months before graduating in 1978, I hadn’t gone the application route most kids did.
Strangely enough, though, when I first thought about a possible college, the University of Texas came to mind first — because I’d heard about the great band at UT. Having played the clarinet since seventh grade, I wanted to be in band in college, so I wrote to the UT band director expressing my interest. I got a nice letter back and thought, “OK, this is cool, I think that’s where I want to go.” I even thought about majoring in music — even though Mom wanted me to be a doctor. Yeah, right, that’s not gonna happen.
But somewhere along the way, I decided basing my college choice on wanting to be in band wasn’t the way to go. I’d always liked A&M, too, and at some point during that juco year, I made the switch: I’m gonna be an Aggie. Against Mom’s hopes, I also went with my writing passion and declared journalism as my major.
Of course, to be in the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band, you have to be in the Corps of Cadets. Since I had no military leanings in my head or heart, I gave up the college band dream.
As a transfer, I missed out on one important route to soaking up TAMU traditions: Fish Camp, where incoming freshmen go to learn Aggie yells (think “cheers”), the words to the “Aggie War Hymn” (think fight song), what a Yell Leader is (think cheerleader), what Midnight Yell Practice is (think pep rally), what the Fish Pond is, what Muster is, what Silver Taps is, what you and your date are supposed to do when the Aggies score, why you can’t walk on the grass around the Memorial Student Center. And so very, very much more.
Yes, all schools have traditions. Glorious, revered ones that have been around for generations, some well over a hundred years. Non-Aggies will say we’re being pretentious and are full of ourselves, but there just isn’t another school out there that compares to Texas A&M, its unique traditions, and their significance, importance and unifying strength.
Luckily I lived in a campus dorm all four years (“Moore Hall Truckers, Bad Mother …” Well, that was the start of our yell, anyway). Dorm life gave me the chance to learn and experience Aggie traditions in a way that living off-campus never would have.
But honestly, I’d have to say that I still probably learned only *some* of what most Aggies know when it comes to traditions and A&M history. There were plenty of activities I either just skipped or missed out on because I was too busy working at the school newspaper, The Battalion. I attended Silver Taps, a solemn tradition held after a student’s passing, only once.
And from 1981 to ’83, when I was a sports writer at The Batt, I didn’t get to pull (visibly) for the Aggies, do any of the yells, sway with other Ags during the War Hymn or sing the school song — that kind of behavior’s sort of frowned on in the press box at football games and on press row at basketball games.
I’ll catch much grief from fellow Aggies for this, but I’ve never attended Muster, held every April 21 all over the world. It’s the most solemn and most visible A&M tradition, in which we hold ceremonies to honor fallen Aggies, including a “Roll Call for the Absent” in which, as each name is called, a family member or friend answers “here” to show that the Aggie is present in spirit.
Next year, I plan to start making Muster an April 21 routine.
Which brings me back around to Bonfire (I’m sure you were wondering). In the weeks leading up to the lighting of Bonfire before the Aggie-Longhorn game, large groups of students would gather for “cut” or “stack” duties. That included dorms, and if I happened to be in my room when a group was heading out, I always passed on helping with Bonfire. I guess that made me a bad Ag. They’d always come around banging on the door about 1 a.m. In fact, I only remember working on Bonfire once — and I can’t even remember what I did.
As far as attending Bonfire, I’m pretty sure I only went a couple of years. For one thing, the game was often on Thanksgiving, so the night before, I was back home with my family in Conroe.
So although I feel like I missed out on some traditions during my years at TAMU (like not spending nearly enough time at the Dixie Chicken!), I’ll always cherish the experiences I did have and take immense pride in being an Aggie.
I feel naked when I’m not wearing my Aggie Ring in public and was disconsolate when it was lost for a couple of years — I left it in a press box while covering a high school football game in San Angelo while I was a sports writer at The Odessa American. Luckily, someone found it and turned it in to the Aggie Ring locator service at A&M (who knew they had such a thing?), so I didn’t have to buy a new one.
Now that I’ve reminisced a bit about my Texas A&M days so long ago … remembering and honoring those 12 Aggie angels whose “whoops” no doubt can be heard all over heaven.