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November 23, 2011

Historic rivalry ends tonight

COLLEGE STATION — The rivalry between Texas and Texas A&M is one college football's oldest, a brother-against-brother grudge game that dates to 1894.

  It is part of the fabric of this football crazy state, a Thanksgiving-weekend tradition with connections to some of the legends in the sport.

  Yet all of it — the Aggie fight song call to "saw Varsity's horns off," the Longhorns' pregame candlelight "Hex Rally," and the raw emotions of the 1999 bonfire game that brought the bitter foes together in a spirit of healing — is about to be torn apart.

  Texas A&M is leaving the Big 12 for the SEC after one final showdown with the Longhorns on Thanksgiving night, marking the end of a fierce intrastate series that has spawned more than its share of heroes and history.

  Heisman Trophy winners Ricky Williams (Texas), John David Crow (A&M), Earl Campbell (Texas) had career-defining moments in these games. Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant led A&M to its first win at Texas' Memorial Stadium in 1956. The next year, first-year Texas coach Darrell Royal led the Longhorns to a win in College Station. The Longhorns' home stadium now bears his name.

  The rivals have played in the same conference since 1915, but as the Texas fight song says, it's "goodbye to A&M."

  "For some people, (the last game) will be so sad," Crow said. "It will be a game where you don't know what's next on the horizon. I wish we could have continued playing the University of Texas, to keep the rivalry going, but that's not possible."

  No games have been scheduled and none is expected to be in the foreseeable future.

  "It would be a tragedy if that rivalry came to an end," said Williams, the Baltimore Ravens' running back who won the 1998 Heisman for Texas.

  Aggies versus Longhorns has always been about more than football.

  Though both institutions now rank among the nation's largest and most-respected public research universities, the rivalry still carries the hint of the culture war pitting the state's liberal intellectuals at Texas against the farming and military traditions of Texas A&M, which started as a military college and didn't allow women until the 1960s.

    When the Longhorns and Aggies clash, it can even shake up the state Capitol. In 2010, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (a former A&M yell leader) squared off against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (a former Texas cheerleader) in the Republican primary for governor.

    Everyone expected a rock'em, sock'em campaign similar to a football game. The Aggie won in a walk.

    Texas leads the annual rivalry 75-37-5 and got it started by whipping the Aggies 38-0. According to a newspaper account of the first game, A&M was thoroughly outclassed in defeat.

    "Every time the Varsity boys made a catch-as-catch-can play, the A&M College boys went to the dust like so many tenpins being knocked down," the Austin Statesman wrote.

    The Aggies didn't beat Texas until 1902. The rivalry inspired Texas A&M's first pregame bonfire in 1909, which became an annual tradition until the log stack collapsed in 1999, killing 12 people and injuring dozens.

    The rivalry really took off during World War I and the years just after it.

    A group of stealthy Aggies branded the 13-0 score of the 1915 game onto Texas' mascot, a longhorn steer. According to Aggie lore, embarrassed Texas students turned the 13-0 into "BEVO", creating the steer's now famous nickname. Texas insists, however, that school records show the steer was first dubbed "Bevo" several months earlier in the campus magazine.

    Regardless of who was responsible, Texas officials barbecued Bevo in 1920 and served him up to a gathering of Texas and A&M representatives, including the Aggies who did the branding.

    "It was pretty poor barbecue," said Albert "Grip" Pen, who played for Texas from 1916-1919, according to the 1970 book "Here Come the Texas Longhorns."

    The first Thanksgiving game was played in 1918, shortly after the end of World War I. Texas won a 7-0 mudfest played on a field that didn't have any grass after years of military drills and marches. In 1920, a crowd of 20,000 turned out to watch Texas win 7-3 against an Aggie team that hadn't been scored on in two years.

    In 1941, local fortune teller Madam Agusta Hipple told Texas students to burn red candles the week before the game to "hex" the Aggies and break a long losing streak in College Station. The Longhorns beat the Aggies 23-0 and the "Hex Rally" became an annual tradition.

    Texas owned the rivalry from 1940-1974, going 31-3-1. It's been much more competitive since then, with A&M holding a 19-17 edge over the last 36 years. The Aggies' longest run of dominance came when they won 10 of 11 from 1984-94.

    Texas looked like a sore loser in 1990 when it banned A&M from bringing its 75 mm howitzer to Memorial Stadium, complaining it rattled the windows of a nearby hospital. The Aggies joked Texas just didn't want to hear a constant barrage of touchdowns, but the Longhorns had the last laugh with a 28-27 victory.

    The 1990s saw two of the most thrilling and emotionally wrenching games in the rivalry's history.

    In 1998, Williams broke the NCAA major college career rushing record in Texas' 26-24 upset of the No. 6 Aggies.

    Williams surpassed Pittsburgh's Tony Dorsett with a 60-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, plowing over an Aggies defender at the goal line. Even in the loss, the Aggies helped celebrate Williams' Heisman-clinching game with Crow joining Dorsett and Campbell to present him with a game ball.

    Tragedy struck College Station in 1999 when the 40-foot tower of timber being assembled for the annual bonfire collapsed eight days before the game. Dozens of Aggies players rushed to the scene to help rescuers remove the heavy logs and Longhorns players held blood drives for the injured.

    Some questioned whether the game should be canceled. Texas' hex rally became a unity rally that drew more than 10,000 Longhorns fans and 40 busloads of Aggies who made a 105-mile trip to join them.

    But even the sorrow wasn't going to get in the way of a good Aggie prank.

    On game day, Texas players and coaches started getting phone calls at 4 a.m. after the numbers of their College Station hotel rooms were posted on the Internet. The pregame meal at the hotel served pancakes without plates and cereal without milk, sending many Longhorns across the street for biscuits at a fast-food restaurant.

    The game went on and Texas A&M players wore commemorative patches with an image of a burning bonfire on their helmets. Four F-16 fighter jets from the Air Force Reserve flew over the stadium in the missing man formation usually reserved for military aviators killed in the line of duty.

    Twelve doves, one for each victim, were released into the stadium before the game. The Aggies won 20-16 after rallying from 10 points down at halftime. Randy McCown passed to Matt Bumgardner for the winning touchdown with 5 minutes to play.

    Texas' starting quarterback that day was freshman Chris Simms, who would go 3-1 against A&M and was the first Texas quarterback to beat the Aggies three times in a row since Bobby Layne in the 1940s.

    It was probably inevitable that the Aggies would prevail that day, Simms said.

    "We felt for Texas A&M," he said. "There was a great deal of bonding. Our whole school was touched."

    When it was over, tens of thousands of Texas A&M fans stayed in the stadium for almost an hour. Aggies players cried.

    Offensive lineman Chris Valletta had written the names of the dead on the shirt under his uniform.

    "We had the thought and memory of those 12 in our hearts and minds," Valletta said after the game. "Every single play."

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