A Longhorn does college all over again.
I don’t like football.
I know this strikes many readers as sacrilege, but I don’t really care how the Longhorn football team does. Maybe something is wrong with me? Maybe I need to get in touch with my inner football fanatic?
So I’m going to the experts: the face-painted, raw-throated, no-holds-barred Longhorn Hellraisers. For one game, I’m joining them in tailgating, chest bumping, and disguising myself as a loud, burnt-orange mime.
Hellraisers start early. A 2:30 p.m. kickoff means a 10:30 a.m. kegoff. My first mistake is in thinking that tailgating takes place near or around a tailgate. After about 15 minutes of circling a West Campus parking lot, I wise up, follow the sounds of laughing and the aroma of barbeque to an apartment patio and find 60 or so rabid students playing beer pong, doing keg stands, and chanting, “Let’s get f***ing mental!” It’s 11 a.m.
I soon realize my second mistake. I didn’t wear orange or white. Instead, I’m wearing a black T-shirt from a local left-leaning coffee shop. Luckily Michael Dwyer, president of the Hellraisers, welcomes me warmly and lends me a Hellraisers shirt.
The Hellraisers are a diverse group with interests in everything from civil rights law to triathlons. Each one I chat with is a cheerful, serious college student who occasionally must excuse themself to graphically proclaim in unison the sexual practices of the University of Oklahoma.
Back in the ’90s, the Hellraisers was a male-only organization. But these days the group is happily co-ed. Female Hellraisers are called Hell’s Belles. Many of the male Hellraisers describe being approached on campus by a smiling young woman asking if they like beer, sports, and yelling. Before they knew it, they’d found their new family.
“Family” is a word used again and again by Hellraisers. This is a tight group, supporting one another on and off the bleachers. If a member is running for student government or is cast in a play, the other Hellraisers show up and cheer them on (sans face paint, I presume).
As the fervor rises, so do the complicated chants and orchestrated call-and-responses. It’s like attending a sacred service of a strange religion I know nothing about. Revolving around an unquestioned faith in Longhorn football are rites and rituals and heart-held traditions—and I’m clueless. But the beer is helping.
I begin applying my own face paint and soon look like a clown with food poisoning. One of the Hell’s Belles generously helps and fixes my face so I can honestly pass for one of the gang. I chant along as best I can, occasionally missing the signal to stop, usually screaming one last refrain solo.
I’m told that next we’ll parade across campus to the stadium, chanting and cheering our pride.
“Like a pride parade?” I ask.
We march toward the stadium, yelling and hopping and making witty observations about the affection some students of agriculture have for livestock. As we approach the Subway on 24th, I see the manager scurry to lock the door. It had been the custom of the Hellraisers to march through the Subway. Instead, we tromp—with permission—through the Co-Op, oggled by alumni and fans.
The screaming is accompanied by what I can only describe as light and harmless vandalism: Banging on windows, knocking down signs, all of which is strange considering we’re on the beloved Drag. Things don’t get too out of hand, and when one person throws a traffic cone, another picks it up and puts in back—kind of like cleaning up after your drunk uncle. But I’m a little perplexed at what mild rioting has to do with football.
At the final stretch down 24th Street, we break into a sprint and rush the stadium, screaming and painted like a distorted outtake from Braveheart. “The Eyes of Texas” is sung more often than “The Macarena” is played at a middle school dance. Once inside, a select set of Hellraisers disrobe from the belt up and, with some help, paint their chests. This is the highest honor a Hellraiser can achieve, the ultimate expression of all-out fanatic fandom.
I watch in a daze. What am I doing here? It’s hot, I’m tired, and they don’t serve beer in the student section.
Then things take off. The band pounds, the team barrels in, Matthew McConaughey swaggers on the sidelines. Maybe it’s the sun, or the oil paint seeping into my bloodstream, or the sport-scented pheromones, but I’m cheering. I’m embracing strangers, booing referees, and screaming until my skull feels like it’s growing horns.
I’ve transformed into a die-hard, all-or-nothing Longhorn fan who firmly believes in our collective ability to mystically push the ball toward the end zone. This is no game. This is life, death, glory. This is everything. It may be a fever-fueled delusion, but for a moment I give in to the hype. And it’s fun. Fun as hell.
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