Norman, Oklahoma is, for lack of a better word, awesome. It is a word I do not use lightly. I am aware of the connotations.
Nonetheless I propose this descriptor in the hopes that those who come after me and my trailblazin’ ways do not ignore this part of Native America, as it’s put by the license plates, for fear of isolation or idolatry. Isolation? It weighs in at a respectable 102,827 residents as of July 2006. (Okay, perhaps that doesn’t shore up my argument.) Idolatry? You may have Norman there. I’ll spare you fatted calf analogies. Sooner football is The Alpha and The Omega here, and I specifically did not wear a pretty cool orange western shirt while in town simply out of respect for the local Levites. I’m not even sure if the orange could be categorized as “burnt”.
What was I expecting? I’m not sure. Provincialism, certainly. Cowboy hats. A distinct inferiority complex stemming from a rivalry with a state that is geographically four times larger, population-wise five times larger and, image wise, the size of the entirety of the United States of America – at least according to Europeans.
I found, instead, just another college town focused on the one thing college towns do best: channeling mom and dad’s hard earned cash into state revenue streams that emptied directly into a slush fund made entirely of Red Bull, triple sec and vodka. In this respect, at least, Norman is your average American (college) town.
I do not properly recall all of the roughly 120 hours I spent in Norman. Friday afternoon to Sunday morning is represented by that icon so endemic to Windows: the unknown file.
I can say with all certainty – after much deliberation, observation and concurrence from fellow observers, whose own conclusions matched mine to a degree nearing perfection once the minor aberrations common to such straw polling were eliminated, and indeed, ignored from the very start – that OU has attractive co-eds.
I had a number of interesting run-ins, conversations, moments of observation and points of confluence during my stay in Norman. A number of them occurred in Louie’s Too, a bar located on Campus Corner and the site of much of my haziness. I had to go to Oklahoma City, though, to land the big one.
On Friday, Sept. 30 I drove to a hotel near Oklahoma City’s airport to pick up a game ticket from a Miami fan. This fan was put into contact with me through the help of the indefatigable army of one that is a Georgia based USC fan who will go nameless. From here on in I will use fake names in order to shore up my guiltiness for writing about conversations the participants probably assumed were private. I will also, for no reason, switch to the present tense.
I pull into the hotel and the first person I spot once I get out of my hideously pinging Maxima is Williamson. Williamson is purposefully bald, short, squat, dressed in dark gray jean shorts, baggy white shirt, Euro trash shades and holding a frosted Miami Hurricanes beer glass. He is black and perhaps 35. He eyes me curiously, perhaps sifting, mentally, the odds of an Asian Sooner fan. Toby, the man I am here to meet, makes it clear that Sooner or not I am expected and temporarily welcome.
We exchange greetings, go down to the pool to drink beers and allow the two older men (Toby is in his early fifties, white, with a large bulbous nose the color and texture of an over ripe orange and the stoop and gait of a contented vulture, and I’m sorry to write this because he is a genuinely likable man and a Miami fan who travels with the team to every game) to stop sweating so profusely. It rains intermittently in anticipation of the next day’s weather, a collection of scudding clouds, pouring rain and roasting sunshine that can only be termed “extremely confused”.
Before I am even seated on a pool lounger with a frosty Shiner Bock in my hand (oh, to have the financial wherewithal to offer total strangers drinks! oh, to have the financial wherewithal to offer myself drinks in the plural!) Toby and Williamson are already discussing how the weather – hot, humid, incessant – will favor the ‘Canes. I listen politely, knowing as I do that homerism is no match for the kind of epic ineptitude represented by Miami’s offense of late. I have settled on prognosticating, amongst OU fans, a 14 point win and explaining to anyone from Coral Gables that Miami will lose by 6, but in the inner sanctum of my soul where the monkeys and their typewriters and the chains connecting one to another are located I have settled on a 9-10 point spread favoring the Sooners. The outcome (51-13 in favor of OU) does no one any good, except perhaps the 78,000 crimson clad in Gaylord Memorial.
Toby and Williamson are fascinating, engaging, well versed in team history and personally present for many of the infamous games in The U’s history. The two spend an easy forty minutes talking about both the 1987 Fiesta Bowl – known as the Camo Bowl to some because of the fatigues worn by Jerome Brown, Michael Irvin and the rest of that devastatingly self assured crew who churned out 445 yards to Penn State’s 162 yet still lost 14-10 – and the 2003 Fiesta Bowl, which needs no explanation except that these two consider it a win and refuse to see otherwise. It has been 20 and 4 years, respectively, since those bowl games and yet the ability to talk about the two most painful losses in Miami history is unflagging. I wonder how many times they’ve done it before. There is, suddenly, a stark vision of Williamson crouched, his face painted in the olive drab colors of army issued camouflage, a Bowie knife in his teeth and the endless furnaces of Hell’s rage shining, fluoroscopically, from eyes that focus on a dim window somewhere in the Heartland of America where Terry Porter sits in a recliner, completely unaware of what’s about to happen.
I also imagine that after the deed Williamson, covered in jugular blood, comes up making “The U” sign with his hands and doing a little dance.
This is in no way a reflection on Williamson. He is as likable as a fat kitten that claws everyone, which is to say “Oh my god, that kitten clawed the shit out of her. That’s pretty funny!” It is, instead, a glimpse into the arterial fury Miami fans bear Porter, the judge who threw the pass interference flag in Arizona, and, frankly, what self respecting ‘Cane hasn’t thought about creeping up to Porter’s house at least once in his life? If only to put up “The U” and run away?
It is a measure of these two’s obsession with college football that I jot down notes amounting to the above with no more than a shrug.
Toby and Williamson are also the first true recruitniks I have met on the road. (Williamson reveals his online handle at a Hurricane message board they both frequent, and Toby is delighted. It turns out Toby is a lurker. I am also a lurker there, and it saddens me – and makes me question my level of focus in my chosen field of obsession – that I recognize Williamson’s screen name.) The discussion turns easily to Miami’s latest recruiting class and the wonders new head coach Randy Shannon is working. As they range over who’s going where and what silent commitments are holding true or flaking, I am continuously and increasingly dismayed by the number of familiar names I hear. That I am aware of 17 and 18 year old high school football players in the Miami-Dade area is slightly disturbing, but that I can converse and, yes, argue about their fates with men twice my age is a fact that comes full circle later on in the conversation.
At one point Williamson interjects himself with a good deal of stuttering pomp (he does this a lot). It is vaguely like being silenced by a cheery howitzer that wants to know if you’ve got enough to drink, and, man, you really should try some of this cheesecake. It’s the bomb.
The meaty part:
Williamson: It honestly got to the point where I thought Larry Coker was genuinely retarded. And I got friends with retarded kids, you know? I don’t say that kinda shit lightly. But what he did with The U? The only explanation is mental retardation.
(Okay. The above is not the meaty part. But it’s so good I couldn’t leave it out. The meaty part, which occurs about five minutes later after a rambling discussion of a particular Miami-Dade recruit who will go unnamed:)
Williamson: Now I’m gonna say something and don’t take it outta context. I’m gonna say it and you two’ll think bad of me, but don’t take it out of context. It’s just gotta be said. You gotta understand where I am coming from. [Note: Williamson is originally from Tallahassee and is now living in Corpus Christi, Texas. Yes. A 'Cane fan from Tallahassee.] There are seriously some niggers runnin’ around out there.
(Heavy pause to emphasize the phonological properties of the end of the word “niggers”, specifically consonant choice.)
Williamson [cont'd]: You see some of these kids these days and they act like they already own the place. You see ‘em on TV announcing his commitment on national TV and he thinks he’s the shit, you know? And for all he know, he is the shit! He’s gettin’ out of the projects and going off to play D-I ball. Two years later he ain’t even on the team. He’s kicked off or he can’t make it because he can’t even read and then he’s somewhere else, some shit school where he transferred to and suddenly he ain’t anything but a washed up nigger. And he ain’t even 19 or 20. If his high school hada dropped football he would’ve stopped going to school in the first place, so maybe he’s lucky to’ve made it to 19 or 20 in school.
Toby: I’ll tell you what it is: these kids have been built up from childhood, everyone telling them how good they are. They are putting athletes up on a pedestal.
Williamson: Sure, sure. They’ve got moms and uncles and shit hangin’ all over ‘em from Pop Warner on. They can smell it. It’s the money. People go crazy over it. And these kids come in and they can’t hang anymore. You look at someone like Willie Williams, he thought he was king of the world.
(Miscellaneous hoo-hahing about lobsters, limos and the like. It is utter black comedy, because behind it all you can sense the disappointment represented by Williams, who was expected to be a new Jonathan Vilma or D.J. Williams for Miami.)
Williamson [cont'd]: Now he can’t even start at Louisville. Louisville. [Note: this is after the Cardinals gave up 42 points to visiting Sun-Belt champ Middle Tennessee State.] And the coaches use that shit against us all the time. They use it in recruiting. Urban Meyer.
(This last is said with a contempt that doesn’t so much oscillate as it does crescendo, but crescendo is wrong because it implies a denouement. It is the wail of the banshee in the highest registers of hatred and it knows no end, and though natural human respiratory inertia demanded a terminus to the word “Meyer” the spirit of the thing rattles on and duly upward and, probably, Downward, and I am impressed. Toby snorts at the mention of Florida’s coach, crosses his arms and shakes his head exactly the way a Brahmin would while watching a leper attempt calculus.)
Williamson [cont'd]: They use that shit against us, the [Florida International] brawl, Bryan Pata, they say…
[Uptight white voice:]
“Oh, Miami, you don’t wanna go there. South Florida’ll ruin your career. Stay away from Miami.”
But let me ask you this [note: it's unclear if he's really asking me, or if he's asking a Rhetorical Other, or perhaps the source of the uptight white voice, but it's crystalline that he is serious, so I, too, attempt to look serious and not fidget and, say, scribble furiously in my notepad, which I have explained away by invoking the hallowed precepts of gas mileage and the financial calculations that go with it], okay? Do these niggers become niggers the minute they put on a Miami uniform? When do they become thugs? Do they start committing crimes once they put that helmet on. No. Niggers is niggers.
(At this point it should be noted that Williamson seems like a self made man: studious cell phone in a holder at his hip [the kind of holder, I might add, that screams "Call me anytime, here's my card, I know a good window guy who'll get you a deal, just call me, it's always on, here's my fax, too, so you can send me the itinerary for next week's lunch and say hi to Brandy for me, willya?"], the finances to afford a hot ticket, a nice hotel room and the time to make it all work instead of, say, working. He’s also got that frosted “The U” glass which is infinitely annoying if I were wearing crimson and cream, but I’m not so it’s endearing and maybe even a little bit cool, because hey, now I want one with Traveler on it. He is, all in all, a very likable guy and a huge Miami fan. In another life Williamson would’ve made an excellent preacher, the kind that spat fire in church and delivered swooning women into, if not Heaven, then at least the earthly delights only a self believing minister with a burning hunk of love can bring to a mortal woman. His banter with the Hooter-ish girls at the sports bar we end up going to is priceless. They love him. I love him because he is the center of a floating orbit of cleavage.)
Williamson [cont'd]: But these same coaches always come back to South Florida because Miami-Dade is where the football is at. You can pick up the leftovers once Miami and Florida State and Florida are done and you still gonna have stars. They know it, the kids know it. These kids need to get out. They need to get outta there, and the coaches feel that. They’re just like those uncles and moms and everyone else. Instead of money these coaches smell desperation, and in the end what do they care if a couple a’ niggers don’t make the squad? They get to look tough by kickin’ ‘em off, but the odds say some of these kids are gonna make it long enough to get drafted, and that means wins. You think Urban Meyer cares? You think he can relate? Shit, he’s whiter than a napkin, sorry Toby. That’s no disrespect to you. It’s just the truth. That’s why Randy Shannon is building something special…
Williamson goes on to recite, almost word for word and certainly a few sentences verbatim, an article by Gary Smith in the Sept. 10 issue of Sports Illustrated. After reading the article myself it’s hard not to root for Shannon, and hard to not scoff at Williamson’s claims that “Shannon is building a family. He’s building something special.”
Williamson and Toby are both fans of Miami, which is located in a state as racially diverse as any out there. Is this what allows them to discuss race so openly? Somewhat after the above, Toby says:
Toby: You know what Notre Dame’s problem is? They have trouble recruiting the black athlete.
There isn’t a single moment where any of us – not me, not Williamson and obviously not Toby – show a single sign of outrage or even disagreement. There is much agreement, and glee at the expense of Notre Dame, but no one bats a lash at Toby’s pronouncement. Notre Dame fans might counter with arguments regarding academic standards, which one could counter is in fact racist, and the argument can go on and on and on, but it remains that the same comment that got Fisher DeBerry fired after an absolutely stellar career at Air Force (he led the Falcons to 12 wins in 1985 and, at one point, a No. 4 ranking) can be uttered so casually and be taken so casually by three men sitting around a table, drinking beer, discussing football and accounting, between them, three separate racial categories.
I will note, however, that not thirty minutes after the following was said:
Toby: I’ll tell you what it is: these kids have been built up from childhood, everyone telling them how good they are. They are putting athletes up on a pedestal.
… the discussion turned rapidly to five star high school prospects Miami was eying, five star prospects that were no longer prospects in that they had committed to Miami (chest thumping, knowing nods and winks) or else to someone else (teeth gnashing, speculation on lack of skill, size, honesty, moral fortitude, humidity survival training, testes, good parenting, etc.), five stars along Miami’s defense and offense, five stars along Oklahoma’s defense and offense, why the ratios balanced favorably to produce an obvious two touchdown win for the ‘Canes, why those five stars would lead Miami undefeated through the rest of their slate to Nawlins where they would defeat USC, whose classes of five stars were overrated anyway and besides, Forston is coming to Coral Gables. C-A-N-E-S! CANES!
The irony is clearly not lost on me.
It also becomes clear, as Miami fans arrive throughout the week, that Norman is getting less white as game day draws closer.
The game itself is a laugher. Miami’s vaunted defense is occasionally great, more often just good and sometimes appearing mutinous as they glance at the ‘Cane offense sipping water on the sideline, perhaps deciding what floral arrangement worked best with the centerpiece. (Hint, Kirby: don’t go with the Lavender Rose.) Oklahoma has the curious habit of playing visiting team’s fight songs at the beginning of the game. Sam Bradford is efficient and though it seems, especially in warm ups, he doesn’t have the velocity a top D-IA QB should, he nonetheless makes the relatively rocket armed Kyle Wright and especially Kirby Freeman look like JV lambs pulled up for playoff slaughter. The specter of Friday night, where Miami fans consistently out cheered OU in Louie’s Too, particularly with their chants of “Boi-se Sta-ate!” (“Pea-each Bow-owl!” just doesn’t have the same kind of viciousness), is fading quickly. In fact there doesn’t really seem to be animosity at all. The student section is entirely too young to remember the span of time when Oklahoma’s Barry Switzer went 33-0 against the world and 0-3 against Miami, and, frankly, the contrast of the garishness of orange and green with the almost somnambulant earth tones of Oklahoma does nothing to incite blood rage between two fan bases that are, above all else, merely confused by each other. The game is over by the middle of the third quarter and the exodus begins as Miami flip flops back to Freeman. Oklahoma looks deceptively dominating, but there is a stretch in the second quarter where the offense can’t do anything and the defense is giving up ground to, of all things to happen in this game, the Miami offense. I would’ve been less surprised if Oklahoma’s defense found itself giving up ground to North Texas, which had been called in to spell the Hurricane attack. What could’ve been a close game (21-13) ends up being a disgrace for Miami fans, one of whom notes that he hasn’t “felt this embarassed since Syracuse in ’98” when the ‘Canes lost 66-13 to the Donovan McNabb led Orangemen. It is exactly like watching the fall of empire condensed into sixty minutes. I wonder where Williamson is, and if he’s as high on Shannon now as he was back at the hotel. How much does “building a family” count for if you get embarrassed on national television? Probably as much as anything Larry Coker said in 2006.
The coolest thing about the whole game? That it’s played on Oklahoma’s field, which is actually sloped to allow the old wing teams to get to the edge and cut upfield. The gradation is noticeable and, for lack of a better word, astounding. It’s like a giant rabbit burrowed in a straight line from one endzone to another. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I was in Nam.*
A word about shame. Enough days spent sleeping in your car will eradicate any and all sense of it. I have no compunction about getting up whenever the hell a trucker wakes me up in the middle of a Wal-Mart Supercenter parking lot (24 hour bathrooms), opening my door and hawking my lungs out the way your gramps used to do back when you were young and scared of things that sounded like Cobra Commander dying in a cage filled with pop rocks and Coca-Cola. I certainly have no objection to brushing my teeth and letting the by-product dribble onto the asphalt beneath the driver’s door. And, frankly, I never really cared very much about smelling vaguely French because I have lived in Paris and it eventually fades into olfactory white noise. There is one thing that bothers me, though: bat wings.
I am practically Bruce Wayne circa falling-down-that-hole-into-the-cave when it comes to my fear of bat wings. It is the bane of any long distance driver’s existence, and in a town as hot and humid as Norman was? I was at wit’s end. So, as much as you, the reader, might not want this advice I will offer it nonetheless: forget about scrubbing the armpits, the back of your ears, whatever… just eliminate the bat wings. Making that a part of the nightly pre-sleep routine is now tantamount to my survival.
So here I am in Lincoln. I will spare you the details of my getting here. It involved my trusty navigator, Henry, telling me to drive on freeways that were sometimes existant, sometimes closed down and, in one memorable instance, the shape, form and texture of Casper the Friendly Ghost, which is to say none because he’s ectoplasm and ectoplasm does nay have shape, form or texture.
Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium is a cathedral. There is no other way to describe it, though I do wish they’d stop naming stadiums “Memorial”. As I was walking around Oklahoma’s stadium the Tuesday before the game, I sat down and scribbled the following:
“This is a cathedral built for a religious people and a religious country.”
That sentence can be just as easily applied to the stadium here in Lincoln, but on Monday night? When I arrived at the stadium at two in morning? With the wind whipping around me and all sorts of priorities ahead of simply staring at a stadium, like perhaps finding a place to sleep? The way the southwest face of Memorial was lit up reminded me of Camelot, my favorite childhood story. The white stone edifice is etched with the following words: “NOT THE VICTORY BUT THE ACTION: NOT THE GOAL BUT THE GAME: IN THE DEED THE GLORY.”
If I thought Oklahoma football was religion, Nebraska football promises to be zealotry on a level unseen. There is literally nothing else in this state except Cornhusker football. They fired a coach who led them to 58 wins and 19 losses in six seasons. And their stadium?
It’s got another quote on it:
“Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice.” -William Jennings Bryan
This is going to be an amazing game.
States visited: California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska.
Miles traveled: 2,300ish.
Times showered: Showered?
Games watched (at least partially): Oklahoma-Miami (Fla.), LSU/Va. Tech, Colorado/Arizona State, TCU/Texas, Texas A&M/Fresno State, Michigan/Oregon, NC State/Boston College, Notre Dame/Penn State.
Mosquitoes killed: Not enough.
USC Panic-Meter: High. But I’ll wait ’til after the game to panic/martyr myself/buy Nickleback albums.
*as in Namibia, my nickname for my high school football field, which had nothing to do with southern Africa and, as such, engendered a good deal of confusion amongst my teammates.