A plaque outside Texas A&M University's football stadium here tells of a long-ago student who came down from the stands to help his school's injured and shorthanded team. He donned a uniform and stood on the sidelines, leather helmet at the ready.
In Aggie lore, he became the Twelfth Man, a student whose "willingness to help the team provided the inspiration for victory" that day in 1922, according to the plaque. It's on a statue across the street from Kyle Field, where the biggest football crowd in state history--86,128 people--today watched the hometown Aggies, in the wake of tragedy, upset rival University of Texas, 20-16.
It's just one of many A&M football traditions--the Twelfth Man, the idea that Aggie fans today, with the number 12 on the backs of their jerseys and T-shirts, stand ready to take the field if needed.
Eight days after another sacred ritual--the building of a huge bonfire stack--ended in disaster, with the pile collapsed and a dozen dead, the Twelfth Man showed up in full voice today and roared A&M to perhaps the most emotional win in its history.
"We wanted to give them a big win," punter Shane Lechler said afterward. "But I think the Twelfth Man may have given us the win."
It had been a terribly sad week on this 43,500-student campus, about 80 miles east of Austin. The bonfire stack--a pile of about 4,000 heavy logs reaching 40 feet high--collapsed in the predawn of Nov. 19, killing 11 students and an A&M graduate who were working on it. It was to have been ignited Thanksgiving night, an annual ritual dating to 1909, symbolizing the Aggies's "burning desire" to beat Texas in their traditional Thanksgiving weekend showdown.
Instead there was a candlelight memorial Thanksgiving night, with an estimated 40,000 people gathering at the planned bonfire site, turning the polo field on the north side of the campus into a sea of flickering yellow. And today, as the Twelfth Man joyously rocked Kyle Field, the tragedy was never far away.
"We came in with those people who died in our minds and our hearts," offensive lineman Chris Valletta said after the Aggies had come from behind in the fourth quarter, throwing the stadium into delirium. "We thought about them on every single play, and we pulled it out. And I personally want to send this victory to them--to every single one of them, and to their families. God be with them."
Valletta wore a T-shirt with the names of the dead on the front, printed in ink. He was sweating and the ink was running on the shirt.
"The entire town, the entire country, had a large dose of reality," he said. "Hopefully we can ease the pain a little bit with this game today."
As a university-appointed committee of engineers and safety specialists, from inside and outside A&M, began its investigation of the tragedy this week, the usual buildup of excitement in the days before the annual matchup with the Longhorns was absent, students said.
"It's been really down," said Jenny Martin, the sophomore class historian. She and a dozen classmates were outside the stadium, selling shirts memorializing the dead. "All proceeds go to the FAMILIES," read the sign on their trailer. The line for shirts was three abreast and stretched the length of a football field. Martin said the students expect to raise about $40,000.
She pointed across the street to the Memorial Student Center. "Usually at MSC there are [rock] bands and stuff all the time," Martin said. "But it's been nothing but cards and signs and flowers everywhere. And people didn't go to class because they're crying all the time. Teachers are crying half the time, canceling classes, letting kids go early."
The original Twelfth Man was a sophomore named E. King Gill, Class of '24. Today, in front of the Gill statue across from the stadium, there was melted wax from candles left burning next to his pedestal on Thanksgiving night. There were 12 individual roses in cellophane at his feet, each with a card bearing the name of one of the dead. Fans who were heading to the game stopped and took photographs.
It was the usual game day crowd: students in backward ball caps and layers of Aggie wear; middle-aged husbands with seat cushions and transistor radios and binocular cases, their wives with coifed Texas hair and makeup and little Aggie ribbons on their blazers. But there was an undercurrent of something not normal. Martin said the flocking fans were quieter than usual.
But later, inside the stadium, after the Air Force flyby in missing-man formation, after the special invocation and the playing of the national anthem with flags at half-staff, the Twelfth Man got loud, maybe louder than the Twelfth Man has ever roared. It seemed that way on the field.
"When we came out for the second half, we saw that the crowd believed in us," said quarterback Randy McCown, whose team trailed, 16-6, at halftime.
"The Twelfth Man is the best thing in college football," linebacker Jason Glenn said later, after the Aggies scored 14 unanswered points. "People who aren't Aggies can't understand what this is all about."
CAPTION: Texas A&M defensive lineman Mike Kasmierski sings the school song with cadets in College Station after defeating the University of Texas.
CAPTION: Fans honor those killed when traditional bonfire pile collapsed.
CAPTION: Texas A&M senior Chip Thiel, who was injured when the logs collapsed Nov. 18, cheers from the sidelines with cadets at Kyle Field in College Station.