I remember in vivid detail the day I fell in love with the music. August 28, 2008, and it was still Texas hot in the early evening. My long suffering Baylor Bears were already down a couple of scores to No. 23 Wake Forest in the season opener, which was also debut night for new coach Art Briles.
It is hard to recall just how bad Baylor athletics had been since Grant Teaff’s semi-forced departure in the early 1990s. We had Kim Mulkey, a tennis team and some great quarter milers. On the other side of the ledger we had one of the worst basketball scandals in college sports history and a football team that was comically inept. We actually managed to lose a game when all that was required was a simple kneel down for one play. If you have to see it, go to 4:29 on the link. Like a nightmare that will not let you wake up, Baylor football haunted me. If Coach Briles could just get us to be something not to be laughed at, it would be a miracle.
We pulled our starting quarterback late in the first quarter and Robert Griffin III started his Heisman career. Before long, RGIII jetted down the sideline closest to me; without any way of knowing how or why, he stopped on a dime and watched two Wake Forest defenders fly by, before resuming an electric advance. It was such a breathtakingly athletic move, I knew at that instant that Baylor football was going to be something different. Two years later Baylor grad David Crowder gave us Rise Up as our hype video song and rise we did.
What was not to love? The high-flying offense designed by a West Texas genius, equal parts humble and defiant. The comeback story of the young century; the Bears went from being mocked to being feared. Within five years, Baylor was faster, stronger and smarter than the rest. We could fly by you or maul you. We were the “it” school with a fancy new stadium right on I-35 to remind all of our Texas neighbors driving by just how damn good we were.
One of the many things I loved about Baylor football was the sense that we were different. It started with RGIII. The man was an athletic freak, but he was also an exceptional student and a charismatic leader. Nick Florence, Bryce Petty and Seth Russell followed as our quarterbacks. Some fans cringe when their heroes have to speak, but our guys were funny and smart. They seemed to actually be college students, the type thought to exist only in the NCAA’s fantasy definition of student-athletes. It was not just the quarterbacks either. I met a fraternity brother’s son who started on the offensive line; he was polite, good looking and finishing his M.B.A. One of his line mates spent ridiculous hours studying because he was pre-med. Even the players I knew who had more academic challenges seemed decent and hard-working. McLane Stadium was my field of dreams because there was something admirable going on.
Over the last year, the shine started to fade. Story after story about Baylor football players engaged in criminal behavior. Not “bad judgment, misdemeanor, I forgot to pay for the six- pack” things. Rapes and violent assaults. At first, I assumed it was a bad apple. Heck, Coach Briles had kicked one of the best receivers on the planet (Josh Gordon) off the team just for too much weed. No way our program would put up with truly awful people. Then it was a few bad apples. I could live uncomfortably with that. The price you pay for success and all. But today, ESPN’s Outside the Lines makes a pretty convincing case it was a carton full of bad apples.
It almost physically hurts. Green and Gold runs that deep in me. I know football is a violent game played by violent men. I know that rules get bent in pursuit of excellence. Somehow, those shortcomings always seemed less important than what I love most about the game, specifically its communal nature. At Baylor the team enters the field through a human tunnel formed by the freshman class (the Baylor Line); that same line stretches through the years. Literally we are one; for five brilliant years we could be proud of our tribe because of how our team performed. We fought hard, nothing was impossible. You could learn valuable things about life by watching Coach Briles and his charges. And in what seems like a nanosecond, the team that represented so much that was right has come to symbolize the exact opposite.
I do not know how many of the allegations are true or how badly the school/coaches/players have failed us. I am not sure how it should be fixed or if it can be. It is not my purpose today to figure out all the details. Still, my lawyer’s gut tells me that this is bad; a line that should not be crossed has been.
And yet, I cannot bring myself to give up on the Bears. Are my priorities that far out of whack that I choose football over the safety of our students and the reputation of our school? Hopefully, no. It may be a long shot but I am betting on Ken Starr and Art Briles to somehow fix this; I have seen Coach Briles work miracles before. I am praying that a full and complete investigation reveals that we did not keep known thugs on our team, that we did not sell our soul to the devil. I am jaundiced and maybe a little desperate. Yet, I cling to the dream.
So the music fades, but the song plays on. Rise Up Baylor. Please.