We live in Waco, Texas, home of the once mighty, but sometimes declawed Baylor (University) Bears. Do I need to tell you that the Bears is a football team? If so, don’t visit Waco without a visa and an open carry license.
There are 39 football-playing colleges and universities in Texas and the primary college conference in Texas is the Big (of course) Twelve. However, there is a slight math problem because there are only 10 teams in the Big 12. Only three of these teams are in Texas: besides Baylor, TCU in Fort Worth and Texas Tech is far to the west in Lubbock. One Texas team—the Texas A&M Aggies abandoned the Big 12 and went east to join teams like Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama. That was to get more publicity for their team, play in more lucrative settings and promote football education. West Virginia, on the other hand, has come west to join the Big 12. It is claimed that the switch in football teams lowered the team IQs in both states.
My training and focus is on language and culture and there is nothing more important to study in Texas than football with its particular language and culture. The two are deeply entangled in Texas, along with cowboy boots, country singing, bull riding, BBQs, pick-up trucks and horses. But football season is upon us, so I’ll stick to it.
Although there is supposed to be a “season,” for football, in Texas it is a year round litany of practices, drafts, coaches being hired and fired, players in and out of jail, interviews, with highlights and lowlights of everything conceivably connected to football. You cannot get away from football in Texas.
You notice it when you walk into almost any store: A&M hats, Bears shirts, Red Raider shorts, horned frogs, baby cougars and mustangs are all for sale. If you go to a game—and in Texas everyone goes to a game—you must wear a shirt with the name and number of your favorite player on the back. It will show your loyalty to the game and sport by spending more than three good BBQs or steak dinners would cost.
Of course football starts almost as soon as a young feller (usually, although young girls are fast becoming more adept) can toddle to daddy’s (usually, although moms are fast becoming more adept) TV chair and hold a football. As soon as the young-un can walk 6 steps without falling down, daddy will teach him how to throw a football and catch it. Tackling and blocking come about a year later and are taught by mama.
There are various leagues for young footballers and the lowest level is the Pee-Wee league, with lots of peeing when the lad or lady gets tackled the first time in a game. This league is said to be more dangerous than the NFL (the top professional league) because of brain injuries, but that will not stop most real Texas mom and pops from teaching their offspring to smile when they are hit on the head. A lot of coaches who played football when they were younger have a permanent lopsided grin on their faces.
As soon as youngsters are in grade school, they will be watched by NFL scouts and given steroids to improve their overall balance and brain capacity. Once in high school the recruiting will really begin: Nike shoes, Under Armour polo shirts, new cars and tickets for the Cowboy games. Sometimes Dad and mom will suddenly move into a new house.
Every college football team has rituals. In Waco all the freshmen and freshwomen are given yellow t-shirts that “tell the story of the university’s heritage, honor its past and bind generations of Bears together” (according to www.baylor.ed/about). There is, of course, the alma mater fight song, which is sung before and after the game and includes lines like “as long as the stars shall shine, the good old Baylor line will march forever down the years and fling their Green and Gold afar”.The song is punctuated at the end with the “Bear claw,” a kind of come-and-get it motion with the hand whereby 40,000 fans bond, at least for the next several hours. While pawing the air with their hands, the crowd chants “Sic ‘em Bears” and Southern Baptist angels have been said to appear briefly over the stadium.
Preceding the game is the “Bear Walk,” which begins in the tailgating area, next to Touchdown Alley and the Baylor Alumni Network tent at McLane Stadium. The football players—all 125 of them—walk across the basin bridge and to the stadium some three hours before kickoff. It is an awe inspiring event and ambulances stand by to take the 50 or so spectators who will faint to the nearest Baylor medical facility.
Every cult has its own language. Members of the Bear cult are instructed to yell a sustained “OHHHHHHH!” as loud as possible to provide a spell on the opposing team. A player who scores will point to the sky and make a sign of the cross or a thumbs up for any relative watching from heaven. When “outstanding” plays are made on the field the player of note will jump four feet into the air, spread both arms and shout ME, ME, ME.
The team quarterback, similar to a cult shaman, stands directly behind a number of men who are stooped as if in a half-prayer position. The shaman yells a series of numbers and names to confuse the enemy, something like six, BAH, twenty-eight, OMAHA, Hut, Hut, Hut. On the third hut the teams clash and the ball goes somewhere where least expected, sometimes accompanied by a player.
During the course of a football game spectators buy food—not just hot dogs and peanuts, but full meals of nachos, BBQ brisket, lobsters and rabbit—all supplied by the local animal rescue club. Texans are big and they eat and drink big. Dozens of breweries and bars surround the football stadium, but DUI is rare later because all the police are still eating their nachos and drinking beer at the stadium.
I am from the North, so I should be careful about making fun of my Southern neighbor’s love for football. I remember a Texas neighbor who once put a bumper sticker on his car that read “Help clean up Texas, send a Yankee home.” But I felt innocent, because Yankees are from New York, Boston and points further north.
I better finish or I might be required to wear a Baylor Slime Cap. If you don’t know what that is, ask any incoming freshman or freshwoman to tell you. The football cult might also want me to recite their “Sportsmanship Pledge,” which speaks of respect, support and honor for the University. I probably should do that—maybe next year.