For the 30th year in a row, The University of Texas’s Naval ROTC midshipmen will deliver the game ball to Dallas for the Red River Rivalry safe, sound, and on foot.
At tonight’s Torchlight Parade & Rally, hundreds of students and fans will gear up for the 107th Texas vs. Oklahoma football match. And not long after the torches are snuffed out and the band packs up their instruments, 87 Longhorns will begin a most unusual journey.
During the rally, Coach Mack Brown will toss a football to student Thomas Shirley, Naval ROTC battalion commanding officer. When Shirley grabs the ball, the 30th-annual “Run to Dallas” will symbolically begin. The real deal kicks off in the morning, when Shirley and 86 other midshipmen—flanked by a support bus—will take turns running all the way from Austin to Dallas. There, they’ll deliver the ball back into Mack Brown’s hands at the Cotton Bowl.
“It is a great honor,” Shirley says. “I have a lot of pride in representing our battalion, especially since all of them will serve their country one day.”
In Norman, Okla., the University of Oklahoma ROTC midshipmen will also run to Dallas with another ball that will be used in the game. Then the two ROTC groups will meet for a friendly game of flag football.
Vernon Neuenschwander, the Naval ROTC program’s commander, says the origins of the ROTC run to Dallas are murky, though he suspects it was inspired by a similar tradition with West Point and U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen. They, too, run the ball to the annual Army vs. Navy game.
In years past, the UT midshipmen started their journey at the Torchlight Rally and ran all night, arriving at Dallas in the morning. The result: utterly exhausted midshipmen. This year, mindful of the students’ health and grades, Neuenschwander tasked them with running 12 hours in advance, symbolically counting them toward the Dallas trip. “We have to take kids out of school, and we want to minimize the cost on their studies,” he explains.
That doesn’t mean they have it easy. Cumulatively, the midshipmen will run 140 miles. Some will run 2 or 3 miles holding the ball; others, 13 or 14. Fifteen miles is the maximum permitted, but last year one industrious midshipman ran 23. Neuenschwander joined in for 6 miles of last year’s run, an experience he calls “unforgettable.”
“I’ve run a lot, but there’s nothing like running at midnight with a football,” Neuenschwander says. “There’s nothing out there but you and the Texas countryside.”
The midshipmen love it, too. Shirley says they look forward to the event all year. “The battallion is excited to get running,” he says, “especially the freshmen.”
For the Naval ROTC, the Red River football showdown begins in earnest Friday morning when they deck out in burnt orange to meet The University of Oklahoma’s Naval ROTC. Seemingly unfazed by their long runs, the midshipmen will play flag football.
Shirley says he is hopeful about beating the OU Naval ROTC, and Texas has the record to back up his claims: 8-2.
Though the run ahead of them is long and the game outcome uncertain, one thing is certain: the ball will be safe.
“There is no dropping of the game ball,” says Neuenschwander. “That’s bad karma. We treat that thing like it’s a priceless relic. ”
Below, watch a 2011 video from the Longhorn Network on the Run to Dallas.
Photos from top: The 2011 Run to Dallas; Mack Brown shakes the hand of last year’s senior midshipman before throwing him the ball; the OU and UT ROTC midshipmen before their annual flag football game in Dallas. Photos courtesy Naval ROTC.