“For 2020, ‘weird’ is starting to get overused,” said Darrell Debish, a 48-year-old Texas fan who estimated this was his 30th Red River appearance. “But I can’t think of another word.”
Sure, this was the first football game between the two hated rivals to go more than two overtimes (it went four). And Oklahoma’s 53-48 win was the highest-scoring game in the history of the series. But those aren’t the stories people will tell about this year’s Red River Showdown.
“There was nobody yelling at each other or giving dirty looks,” Oklahoma fan Rick Knapp said. “That was weird. It wasn’t that same intense rivalry that it usually is.”
Knapp, who is the executive director of Oklahoma’s Touchdown Club, was attending his 52nd consecutive OU-Texas game — 51 at the Cotton Bowl and the 2018 Big 12 title game 20 miles away at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
His seats are right along the divide on the 50-yard line, usually one of the rivalry’s most famous visuals, the imaginary state border where the mass of burnt orange turns into a sea of crimson unlike in any other setting. With just 11,250 tickets available to each fan base for the 92,000-seat stadium, the divide was hardly visible this year.
“There were as many people in our section from Texas as there were from OU,” Knapp said. “They just kind of melded this year.”
The game got off to an ugly start. With nine minutes left in the second quarter, Texas’ Keaontay Ingram had fumbled, Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler had already thrown an interception and lost a fumble, and Texas’ Ryan Bujcevski had a punt blocked. The Sooners led 17-10 in what had mostly been scoring off turnovers.
“I don’t I don’t think the energy was there to start the game that’s normally there when you have 150,000 people in and around that stadium,” Debish said. “It just wasn’t there.”
Sure, there were flashes of a non-pandemic game. Bevo was at the north end of the Cotton Bowl. The Sooner Schooner was at the south. Smokey the Cannon fired from behind the orange end zone and OU’s RUF/NEKs and Lil’ Sis fired their rifles after OU scores on the other end.
But the Schooner didn’t ride until after the game, when the stadium had emptied. And the bands only appeared in past performances on the video screen. It was an odd disconnect, hearing “Texas Fight” but seeing an empty field.
Outside, there was a small selection of fair food and drink stands. But the most obvious juxtaposition of the day with years past was the eerie silence of an empty midway due to the cancellation of the State Fair of Texas.
Debish’s 11-year-old son, Colton, was born into the Texas fandom. “I named him after Colt McCoy because he was born on Thanksgiving when we were beating the Aggies,” Debish said. Debish said they were routed through the shuttered midway on their way to the stadium when Colton describe it perfectly. “This is a great zombie land,” Colton said.
There were still sign of life as the Texas Star, the largest Ferris wheel in the United States at 212 feet tall, continued to spin. Inside a booth, a lonely ticket-seller sat doing a crossword puzzle. She said there were plenty of takers before the game, and they hoped for more afterward, but at halftime, its 44 gondolas were empty. After one $10 ticket purchase, I was the only rider on it, an achievement I’ll never unlock again.
Mary Talley and her husband, Tom, own the wheel and several of the fair attractions and food stands, as well as a mobile amusement company, Talley Amusements. She said it was important for her to even have this one day to let people ride the Star.
“This is the first year in 20 years that I haven’t lived here for the month,” Talley said. “We’re definitely limited here. This is all we get.”
After working in her family’s business since 1984 and owning it for the past six years, she has never seen a year like this one because of the crushing blow the coronavirus and the ensuing restrictions have dealt her industry.
“This is my legacy,” she said of the business. “This is my father’s legacy.”
Despite the rivalry and the outcome, everyone still was grateful to have the football game in a year when it could’ve been in peril. They were happy it remained at the Cotton Bowl despite the fair’s cancellation. Mostly because of another celebrated tradition.
“You gotta have a Fletcher’s Corny Dog when you go to that game,” Knapp said. “I stood in line early to get one. You’ve got to have one. It’s bad mojo if you don’t.”
The lines at the company’s stands stretched 40 to 50 people deep before the game and at halftime, when fans took advantage of the lack of a halftime show to walk outside.
“The lines started at 8 a.m.,” said Amber Fletcher, head of marketing for Fletcher’s Original Corny Dogs. “One man I spoke to told me that he’s attended games for over 30 years, and every year he starts the day with a Fletcher’s Corny Dog for breakfast. We weren’t sure what to expect … but people found us.”
Normalcy, served on a stick. Traditions intact. Just like bragging rights for OU fans.
Late in the game, Knapp turned to his wife, Dr. Teresa Shavney. “This is a classic game,” he said.
“It’s only a classic when you win,” she replied.
“So for us,” Knapp said, “it was a classic.”
In 2020, it might be worth celebrating that this one is in the books.
For about 20 years, Brenda Palmer has worked the entire run of the State Fair of Texas. This year, she just worked this one day, as a parking lot attendant at Gate 12. The Longhorns might find comfort in her outlook for a full return in 2021.
“Maybe God will bless us next year,” she said.