Monday, November 18, 2019

The Bonfire

It's hard to believe it was 20 years ago today.

With the UT-A&M game a thing of the past, it's easy for these things to start slipping to the edges of memory.  The third longest rivalry in college football and all the preparations for the game.  The Hex Rally at the University of Texas where students lit red candles to ward off an A&M Victory.  The Aggie Bonfire, a Guinness World Record holder.

The UT-A&M games from all other years of my college career are just blips in my memory.  But the UT-A&M game in 1999 and the events surrounding it are forever etched in my memory.

In the early hours of the morning on November 18, 1999, the Aggie Bonfire, a 59-foot high stack of around 5,000 logs, collapsed during construction.  Of the 58 students and former students working on the stack, 12 were killed and 27 were injured.  It was a week before the bonfire was to be lit.

I was a sophomore at UT at the time.  I had friends at A&M, but none that would be working on the bonfire.  What I remember more than anything, is the parents at the church I was attending, who had children who were attending and who were working on the bonfire, thanking God that their children were not working that morning.  The fear in their voices as they relayed waiting for that call, that their child was ok.

The rivalry between UT and A&M may have run deep, but it was never ugly.  It was for the most part, good-natured.  There were teams we each disliked more (OU), fans we each didn't get along with more (Tech).  We were rivals from tradition, and we could each pull up a dozen jokes about the other.  But there was always something special about that relationship.

I've never been prouder of either school than I was that year in response to such a tragedy.

The Aggie Bonfire became a vigil and remembrance ceremony.  Over 40,000 people lit candles and observed two hours of silence at the site of the collapse, before departing for yell practice.

UT for our part changed our Hex Rally to a Unity Gathering.  We lit white candles for remembrance instead of our usual red.  We invited the Aggies to be a part of this unifying event.

The tone of the game was even different.  I was glad to be a part of those petitioning the networks to show the half-time performances.  Each band honored the fallen in their own fashion.  UT played Amazing Grace and Silver Taps in tribute, removing their white hats as they left the field.  The Fightin' Texas Aggie Band never looked sharper, performing their traditional routine more precision than I had ever seen, with a silent cadence to march off the field.

If there was ever a good day to lose, this was the game.

The events revealed the underlying truth to the rivalry.  We were all Texans, we were human.  That is what mattered.  Not a football game.  Not a hundred years of tradition.  One human caring for another.

I may miss the rivalry.  I miss the tradition.  There seems to be a hole in Thanksgiving week now and I would love to see some form of it revived.  If it's even possible.

But I will always remain impacted by the events of November 1999 and proud of the grace and humanity exhibited across Texas at that time.

Hook'em Horns.  Gig'em Aggies.

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