David Brenner is quite possibly the hardest working player currently manning the Red Raiders' sideline. The junior long-snapper practices his trade continuously throughout the game and as long as he has fifteen feet of clearance with a few inches on either side, he'll seek out Taylor Symmank and continue perfecting his snaps. Often a trainer or stray defensive player will wander into his upside-down line of sight, forcing Brenner to wait a few seconds before firing another football at impressive speed through his legs and into the outstretched hands of the waiting punter, who takes a few steps forward, drops the recently caught football and feigns a kicking motion as if he were completing the punt. His routine is consistent, unending and rarely noticed. In return, Brenner practices his snaps and never seems to notice the chaos that surrounds him, singularly focused on his only job.
Through circumstance, luck and the good graces of a State Trooper named Tiger from Bowie County, Texas, I found myself in David Brenner's way on more than one occasion Saturday afternoon in Ft. Worth as Texas Tech wilted in the heat and the constant assault from Trevone Boykin and TCU.
After spending so much time in NBA locker rooms or press conferences last year it was nice to finally have an opportunity to observe my first true sporting love from only a few feet away. During my time covering the Spurs I learned to try and absorb as much as possible during the event, and then to do my best to transcribe what I saw, heard and felt. Legibly.
On Saturday I had the opportunity to watch from the sideline, but it's what I heard that stayed with me.
The defining sound.
There were the purple clad students, baking in the metal bleachers behind me, hurling invectives nonstop. The natural grass surface under my feet was not as cushiony as the turf inside the Alamo Dome, and I assume is the same in stadiums across the country. TCU spends thousands on fireworks and their scoreboard operator has a peculiar affinity for Journey songs. I spent most of the afternoon on the north side of the field, which proved to be the lesser of two evils. My chosen location put me closer to the loud speaker belting Steve Perry lyrics, but further from the acrid smoke left behind after another set of fireworks were launched following a Horned Frogs' score. I was also occasionally in the path of David Brenner trying to get better at his job and caught between a relentless barrage of insults directed at Texas Tech's weary defensive lineman from the pickled students enjoying themselves on an unseasonably hot afternoon.
But beyond all of the necessary sights and sounds that come together to create a college football Saturday in the fall, one in particular stood out: The absolute silence of it all.
It's beyond ridiculous to propose that the loudest sound emanating from Amon G. Carter stadium on the campus of Texas Christian University on Saturday was silence, but that's the distinct impression I got. The silence was not from the fans or the music or the obnoxious fog horn machine that incessantly blared. Instead the silence permeated from the Texas Tech sideline. It was deafening. And worse, it was defining.
Somebody build a Mike Leach statue.
The consistent, predictable and dangerous product that Mike Leach so stubbornly fielded for ten years has been replaced by a team and program that has desperately struggled to find an identity during the last five. Since Leach was so unceremoniously dismissed in December of 2009 Texas Tech has been led by four head coaches (two interim coaches in bowl games) and five defensive coordinators. Leach's only lasting legacy seems to be a frustrating veil of secrecy that leaves fans guessing who's injured, what uniform combination the team will wear, and just where exactly those in charge wish to lead us all. The vagueness in every direction is maddening, but other than that, the similarities between Leach and those that have followed him abruptly end.
This isn't an attempt to refight old battles but rather a personal appreciation for what Mike Leach was able to accomplish for such a long period of time. I consider myself one of his biggest admirers, but even I didn't realize until now the sheer strength of his will. Ten straight winning seasons have been followed by what will likely be two losing seasons in the last four. And what's more, he would never settle for the silence that is now so prevalent.
The effort is collective.
In the first quarter on Saturday the energy was palpable. Texas Tech was in the game until two Davis Webb turnovers late in the second quarter, and even then the defense fought valiantly to hold TCU to a pair of field goals. But the passion was gone. The emotion so evident early on quickly melted in the hot October sun as exhausted defensive lineman had to grab their helmets and trot back onto the field time and again. Young members of the staff tried to keep the beleaguered players engaged, but it was no use. They'd read this story before and knew how things would turn out.
On Monday, Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith said that some of his players quit late in the game, but for the life of me I can't compel myself to find fault in them for that. This isn't on Davis Webb, or Pete Robertson; Justis Nelson or Jakeem Grant; Mike Smith or Kliff Kingsbury individually--but it is on them collectively. And it all starts with Kingsbury. The vagueness; the defeatism; the silence. It starts with Kingsbury.
At halftime I found myself in the visitor's tunnel and walked back onto the field with the team. There were quiet words of encouragement but no real moments of inspiration. The players quickly took the field and began doing calisthenics in an effort to get their blood flowing for the second half. It didn't work.
What was a respectable game quickly dissolved into a devastating blowout and TCU never seemed to relent. It was an angry display of offensive power by the home team and exploitation of mistakes by the visitors. Gary Patterson seemed to have a message to deliver to those that doubted whether his squad belonged and Sonny Cumbie seemed to have a message to deliver to his alma mater. Sadly, Texas Tech couldn't muster a response.
In the third quarter TCU faced a 2nd and ten from their own eight yard line. Nigel Bethel II had coverage assignment on the wideout, Deante' Gray, who was lined up near the Texas Tech sideline. As the ball was snapped the sound of a driving, then cutting Gray into the turf was quickly followed by the whirring sound of the football as Boykin fired. Almost instantaneously there was a popping sound as Gray snagged the ball from mid-air and turned upfield. Bethel squared to tackle Gray, but instead of hearing a violent collision of pads and helmets there was only the sound of fabric and plastic meeting, briefly, as Bethel slid to the ground at Gray's feet before he broke free for a 92 yard touchdown. That moment of quiet noise was quickly replaced by the roar of the crowd as Gray scampered toward the endzone, fireworks and foghorn.
Shortly thereafter I gave in. The friends that I attended the game with were in the parking lot across campus sending profanity laced text messages, so I left. I thanked Carl, my DPS chaperone, squeezed by the indefatigable David Brenner and headed for the gate just as TCU was scoring again. The security guard smiled and asked, "guess you've had enough?" while letting me through. "Yep," I said, not wanting to engage.
As I left the stadium, angered and subdued, I trudged past purple tents and tailgates. I weaved past the track and soccer fields, suddenly alone for the first time in several hours. And the silence once again settled around me.