Dixieland Delight: Texas A&M (Part One)
It's still pitch black at six on an October morning in Houston.
The lobby of the Hotel ZaZa, near Rice University's campus in Houston's museum district, is completely empty except for one girl, a former sorority sister at Texas A&M named Natalie, who is wearing a maroon skirt and sitting alongside a cooler full of liquor.
It's five hours until kickoff and there isn't a yell to be heard anywhere, but the biggest home game of the SEC era at A&M has already begun before dawn.
Six of us climb inside a waiting limo -- rented by Houston plaintiff's attorney Kerry Guidry -- who emailed us on Friday at noon and said. "We're drinking on the patio, come hang out. Plaintiff's attorney's in Houston don't work on Friday's." -- and embark on our journey to College Station.
Shortly after our departure, Natalie and Lauren, sorority sisters from A&M, have opened a bottle of champagne and mixed it with orange juice.
We're all drinking from wine glasses as we roll through the silent streets of Houston.
Since the sun hasn't come up it's almost like the night hasn't ended, that we're topping off the evening with a football game.
But then a problem arises.
We have no beer.
And it's too early to buy beer in Texas. (Yes, such a time really exists).
Six years ago I embarked on a journey into the heart of SEC football. I called it the Dixieland Delight Tour (DDT for short in honor of my idol Jake "the Snake" Roberts) and the goal was simple, attend games in12 different SEC stadiums on 12 straight weeks. Go as a fan and immerse yourself in SEC football.
So far as I know no one had ever had the idea to do this before. Certainly no one had done it.
My thesis was that what makes SEC football unique isn't what happens on the field at all, it's the passion, pomp, and pageantry of fans on a football weekend. The DDT was a complete success, one of the most fun experiences of my life.
In 2007 the book was published and since that time I've spent a lot of time at SEC stadiums.
And seen a lot of really good football teams.
Indeed, since I went on the Dixieland Delight Tour the SEC has won every BCS title.
An era of footbal that I call Pax SECana was born.
Last year the SEC expanded, adding Missouri and Texas A&M, two schools I'd never visited in my life. Immediately I knew I had to attend games at both places as a fan, to see how the experiences at the newest SEC schools matched up with the 12 schools already in the league.
Call it Dixieland Delight, extended edition.
Mizzou was fabulous and now it was time for my trip to Texas A&M.
And in a roundabout fashion it was also time to buy beer on the road to Texas A&M.
1. Somewhere on the outskirts of Houston I'm standing at a gas station counter with two cases of Bud Light and a pocket full of vodka gummi bears in a shot glass.
It is 6:55 AM.
Moments earlier, as I scanned the beer coolers, an elderly Hispanic woman had called out to me, "I don't know why you trying to buy beer, it's too early."
In Texas you can't buy beer until seven in the morning.
Now I'm leaned up against my cases at the gas station counter making small talk with Rosa, a petite elderly woman with eyeglasses, who is impressed by our limo, but not impressed by our destination.
"You're going to a football game in that?" she asks, head cocked to the side, eyes rolling in the direction of the limo.
"You couldn't find no place better to go to a limo in."
"No," I say.
"I wouldn't go to a football game in a limo," Rosa says.
"What would you go to a football game in?" I ask.
Rosa and I have three more minutes to kill. There is no one else in the gas station.
"You like Bud Light?" Rosa asks, in a perfect segue that allows us to reinforce the fact that Bud Light is the presenting sponsor of the site.
"Yes," I say.
"Why you drink it so early?"
"Because ESPN screwed up on the game time," I say.
This is like a bad blind date.
"It's 6:58, Rosa, can we go ahead and ring this beer up?"
The answer is no, because the register is programmed not to accept payment until seven in the morning.
I remember the vodka gummi bears in my pocket, pull out the shot glass and toss a couple in my mouth.
"What are those?" Rosa asks.
"Vodka gummi bears," I say, offering her one.
Rosa declines, "I like gummi bears, but not with vodka in them."
This makes Rosa a communist.
Thankfully it's seven in the morning now. I purchase the beer and we're back in the limo, rolling towards College Station.
2. The vodka gummi bears are delicious.
At least now, when they're fresh and the morning is young.
Later they will congeal into a puddle of vodka goo at the A&M tailgate, baking under the sun's heat, wilting like a Kentucky defense in the fourth quarter.
But right now, with six of us in the limo consuming them, they're perfect.
With me in the limo are two former A&M sorority sisters, Lauren, the fiancee of my friend Alan, her sorority sister Natalie, my friend Tardio and his wife Liz.
My wife is back at the hotel, still in bed, sleeping. When she heard we were leaving at six in the morning for the game, I gave her a choice, you can spend the day at the hotel spa and pool or you can come to the games.
It was an easy decision for her.
While we tailgate, she'll run eleven miles, swim at the hotel pool, hit the spa, and go out for lunch.
She does not eat any vodka gummi bears.
One of us will live to be 90.
That person will not be me.
3. We're flying down the interstate, seriously, not a car is passing us.
There is no traffic yet, which is good because the fear was traffic would be intense with everyone arriving at the same time.
As we drive Lauren and Natalie are giving me a crash course in A&M tradition. Lauren, a fifth generation Aggie, is wearing her class ring. In recent years a new tradition about the class ring has emerged, you dunk your ring into a pitcher of beer and have to drink the entire pitcher to get to your ring.
Women are new to A&M since they weren't admitted until the 1960's. Prior to that A&M was primarily a military college, and the university had over 14,000 alums serving as officers in World War II, more than any university in the country, and over twice as many as from West Point and the U.S. Naval Academy.
Now the corps is a minority of the over 50,000 students on campus.
I ask Natalie how many times she's ever said, "Howdy," to someone.
"Maybe ten times ever. Not that often," she says.
4. A&M does not have traditional cheerleaders, instead they have yell leaders.
These are men who run along the sideline at Kyle Field, wearing all white jumpsuits and lead the crowd in cheers.
The yell leaders are elected in a campus wide vote.
These are this year's yell leaders.
I ask the girls whether the yell leaders are popular on campus.
The answer is hell yes.
Basically the yell leaders get boy band ass on A&M's campus.
Which probably helps to make up for the one billion times SEC fans will say, "your gay," upon seeing them on television.
5. The girls don't even bother attempting to teach me A&M's cheers, but they do discuss how incredibly detailed the cheers are.
There are hand signals, particular angles you're supposed to cheer from -- leaning over makes your voice carry better according to Lauren -- and each class has a different responsibility.
(Due to the lack of hotel rooms and the early start on Saturday, I wasn't able to make Midnight Yell practice. But I promise I'll be back next year and spend the entire weekend in Aggieland.)
The students stand for the entire game dating all the way back to 1922 when head coach Dana X. Bible, fearing that he would run out of players, requested a former player named E. King Gill come down from the crowd to aid the team.
Gill didn't play, but from that moment on the legend of the 12th man was born.
Now a 12th man walk on plays on kickoff coverage every year.
6. A&M's organized cheers are delightfully eccentric.
In fact, a good way to describe everything about A&M in general is delightfully eccentric. The university equivalent of the uncle that you grew up loving who lived on a boat for a few years and once killed a Tiger in Siberian Russia.
Where else do they have entire web pages with instructions like this:
These are actual cheers:
[Pass Back: Upward pointed finger moves in circular motion]
Aaaa, Rrrr, Mmmm, Yyyy(Drop voice)
Tttt, Aaaa, Mmmm, Cccc(Drop voice)
Ol’ Army fight!"
Do you have any idea what just happened in this cheer?
No wonder they need yell practice.
[Pass Back: Hand looks to be pulling a train whistle, reaching upward and twisting on downward motion]
Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah!
Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah!
Rah! Rah! Rah! Rah!
(Seniors only: “Whoop!”)
Rah! Rah! Rah! Team!"
These. Are. Real.
And spectacular in a comfortable in our skin kind of way.
A&M isn't pretending to be something it isn't. (Can you imagine this school in the Pac 12 where everyone is trying to be something they aren't?)
7. We've arrived in College Station.
As we inch down the road towards our tailgate, an LSU fan, driving a large truck, climbs out of his car and pukes.
Then he climbs back in and resumes driving.
It's nine am.
God, I love LSU fans.
8. We're tailgating on the north side of Kyle Field directly between the Memorial Student Center and Cain Hall.
Our tailgate has been named, "The Catalina Wine Mixer" and is right night to the guys at TexAgs.com, who are all still giddy about A&M in the SEC.
Seriously, there's a banner.
If you don't know why...watch the clip.
The A&M campus is massive with tons of construction currently taking place everywhere you look.
It's an easy analogy to draw, but walking around the campus I was struck by the degree to which A&M's campus expansion reflects the changing environment of Aggie football. (Making the analogy fit even better Kyle Field is rumored to be expanding beyond 100,000 seats soon.)
I've written for a long time that A&M is a sleeping football giant, that I believe the football program will be a massive success in the SEC.
There are lots of reasons, but they boil down to this -- A&M + the entire state of Texas + the SEC = tons of football wins
You don't have to overthink this.
A&M is going to win big in the SEC, I guarantee it. (Secretly, Longhorn fans know this too, it's why they're already trying to argue that their team is SEC-like as well. Only, did you watch the game against Baylor? That defense is not remotely SEC-like. Don't be fooled, recruits.).
9. As I'm walking around the football stadium -- even with an 11 in the morning kickoff the vibe is magical -- it's clear that A&M is a perfect fit for the SEC.
And I can completely see why A&M felt that it wasn't a fit in the Big 12.
Potter Stewart memorably defined obscenity by saying, "I know it when I see it," and I feel the same way about my abillity to judge whether a school fits in the SEC.
I just know it when I see it.
There's an ineffable and nearly indescribable beauty to SEC football Saturday's.
Those of us who go to the games as fans know what I'm talking about, a catch in the throat as you enter the stadium and look out over the sun-dappled field, a sense of karmic connection with all the games that have gone before or since, the way the football hangs in the air on a Southern fall day and time seems to stand still.
When you feel the hairs stand up on the back of your arm at kickoff, that's an SEC cultural fit. When you see three or four generations of a fan base walking together in the direction of a stadium and when grandpas are lifting up grandsons to see plays better and you know that in fifty years that grandson will be doing the same thing with his own grandson, that's an SEC cultural fit.
You either have it or you don't.
And the Aggies have it.
Even though A&M just joined the SEC this year, the Aggies have been an SEC school for a very long time.
10. Many A&M alums are focused on ensuring the football team is up to SEC snuff.
Others are focused on more pertinent issues.
Kelsey, an A&M alum who is hosting us at his tailgate, spent last night at the local strip club, the Silk Stocking. Called "The Dirty Sock," by A&M grads the local strip club is embroiled in controversy right now. Once located in a trailer with a quarter jukebox, the club has grown in popularity in recent years, adding a VIP room and even bringing in ringers for big game weekends like LSU. Accused of prostitution recently, the strip club owner responded, "As long as you have one foot on the ground it's not prostitution."
Which, as life lessons goes, is a strong one.
Now Kelsey shakes his head morosely as he watches the coeds walking by on their way into the stadium:
"Our girls got to get better," he says. "Around 2000 the talent level got better, but it's not there yet."
He stares off into the Kyle Field distance, sighs, "We just need better talent," he says.
Kelsey is 34.
11. My friend Tardio, who accompanied me on many of my SEC trips in 2006, surveys the scene as we walk through the Memorial Student Center.
The grass around MSC, as its known to A&M fans, honors the war dead who have attended A&M.
So you're not supposed to walk on the grass and you have to immediately remove your hat once entering the building.
"This not walking on the grass stuff," Tardio says, removing his hat, "is going to piss the hell out of Alabama fans."
Inside the packed MSC bookstore, I count nine different shirts that wed A&M to the SEC.
Outside the stadium it seems like every Aggie has bought into the power marriage between the SEC and Texas, between A&M and its football future.
Hell, the very gates to the stadium themselves are stamped with the SEC brand.
12. As part of Dixieland Delight, I purchased tickets before gameday as a fan.
Walking around the stadium before the game, I notice something.
There are no tickets for sale.
I mean, none.
At most SEC venues tickets are plentiful. For today's game against LSU there is no one selling tickets.
I only need a single ticket, but I haven't found one yet. And I want to make sure I'm inside the stadium for the kickoff against LSU.
What will I have to pay to get inside?
Can I even find a ticket?
13. The scene around Kyle Field before kickoff is pure bedlam.
A&M even has their own gameday show from outside the stadium which I appeared on about 45 minutes before kickoff.
I'll leave you with this video analysis of the A&M gameday experience, part two will be up tomorrow.
Until then, know this SEC fans, you need to visit Aggieland. And you'll love your trip there.