Far Flung Fandom

A journalist recalls staying connected to the Longhorns from across the globe.

When you’re watching a night game eight time zones ahead, it’s good to try to sleep a few hours before kickoff. That was the plan at least, until the country I was living in was plunged into crisis and uncertainty.

It was late in the evening on January 4, 2006, when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a catastrophic stroke and sank into a coma just hours before kickoff at the Rose Bowl, where Vince Young would win UT its first title in over 30 years. Any hope of sleeping before the game went out the window and instead I watched the news nonstop, catching updates from outside the hospital in Tel Aviv and calling my father back in Austin to talk about the title game.

A few hours later another expat—a USC fan from San Diego—came over and we stayed up until dawn watching the greatest football game I’d ever seen. By the time Vince ran into the end zone on 4th down the sun was almost up, and I was talking on the phone to my folks back in Austin, who were on their way to the Drag to join the celebration.

Sleep deprived but high off the victory, I threw on a Longhorns shirt and headed to work, stepping out the door into a country suddenly in turmoil, full of people who couldn’t care less that we’d just shocked the world in Pasadena.

That memory was my sweetest from 14 years spent watching the Longhorns from the other side of the Earth—when I could get a game at all, which was usually just a couple of times a season.

Hartman with former Israeli Police Chief Yochanan Danino in the summer of 2014.

I moved to Israel a few months after graduating from UT in 2002, after spending the first 23 years of my life in Austin, for a year-long Hebrew immersion course and Middle East studies program. After a brief return to Austin, I headed back to Israel, met my wife, enrolled at Tel Aviv University for my MA, and while there, got a job as an editor for Haaretz.com, a news website covering Israel and the Middle East. I was an editor there for 3 years, then I got a job at the Jerusalem Post as a reporter, mainly covering crime and national security, with a speciality in organized crime.

Living abroad, you tend to seek out things that remind you of home, which isn’t too tough in Israel, where so much is already so Americanized. College football was pure, distilled Americana that was always distant, unattainable, and something almost no one around me could relate to. Even other expat sports fans I met didn’t seem to understand. They tended to be from the Northeast or the West Coast, not Texas or the South, where college football is something bigger than religion.

It was hardly ever available on TV, and remained something to be consumed in small portions when you lucked out, a rare joy magnified by distance and homesickness.

For the most part, it took real effort and a bit of compromise if you wanted to actually watch a game live. Streaming was sometimes an option, including the time I sat in the press section at a memorial rally for slain Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv, watching the OU game on my cellphone. That was already an improvement from all those years I settled for listening to the AM radio broadcast of the Red River Rivalry on my computer.

A mix of UT fandom, nostalgia, and homesickness could have strange consequences, too, like when my first daughter was born in January 2014 (just a couple days after Ariel Sharon finally passed away from the stroke) and I hanged a Longhorns flag in the delivery room for good luck. It just seemed right, even though by the time my second daughter was born two years later, I was so exhausted and ready for her to arrive that somebody could have hung an OU flag in there and I wouldn’t have cared as long as she made it out in one piece.

All those years as a Texas fan came into perspective this year, after I moved back to Austin with my wife and daughters. For the first time in 14 years, I had the privilege to watch an entire UT season in real time from Austin, week after (dreadful) week.

On September 6 I watched the unranked Horns beat a no. 10 Notre Dame team 50-47 at home in Austin. Forty-five minutes after the clock ran out in Darrel K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium I drove back and forth on Guadalupe, the only guy honking his horn on a street that was far from grid-locked.

The Horns were still undefeated (at 1-0) after pulling off a major upset in front of a record-setting crowd, the perfect start to a season that held so much promise and ended with such despair.

A few months later, the feeling couldn’t be different—Charlie Strong was fired just three years after becoming the first black head coach at Texas. He left just after UT lost to Kansas (in football!), finishing the worst three-year record in Texas history. The losing record and the loss of Strong stung, like much of Texas fandom.

Texans aren’t known for modesty and have a self-indulgent obsession with our state that isn’t always rational. This is just as true in football, where—yes, we’ve won 4 titles—but we still never see a program we don’t feel superior to, a problem we can’t throw a pile of money at and still fail, a defeat we can’t snatch from the jaws of victory. This is much easier to see from Austin, and I finished the season with a bad taste in my mouth about the Longhorns and my alma matter.

The author, at Austin’s Northwest Park in 1983.

None of that mattered to me from a distance those 14 years, and certainly not as a kid growing up in Austin, a haze I always associate partly with the Longhorns and mainly with my father.  

He was a UT alum who grew up in Beaumont and Houston and was an undergrad when Texas won its first national championship in 1963. He stayed a true fan over the decades to come, through the lean years and the humiliations, his years of fandom much more defined by moments like UT getting stomped by Miami in the 1991 Cotton Bowl than Vince Young on 4th down in Pasadena. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of NCAA and Texas High School football (along with far more erudite subjects) and a real passion to root for the underdog —which helps when you pull for Houston teams and UT.

It was always during football season that missing home—and my father—was the toughest. It’s the season when the weather in Austin is cool and humane, the students are in town and anything can happen any given Saturday. More than any birthday or holiday, it was New Year’s Day that I wanted to be back in Austin—even if just for the day—to watch the bowl games with my pop, even though the Longhorns probably wouldn’t be playing.

This connection between my father and UT football became more visceral in August 2014, when he died suddenly of a stroke just two days before the opening game against North Texas. That season was the first without my father, and even darker than the 6-7 record would suggest. Every week, without fail, I’d predict victory—that the Longhorns would win one for ol’ Lee Hartman – and almost every week we’d get stomped, mercilessly.

I wasn’t alone in this fool’s errand, and my closest friend back in Austin was the perfect partner in crime. Every week we’d text from Austin to Israel, both of us calling a resounding UT victory, such as the “Yom Kippur Miracle” against Baylor (UT lost 28-7), “The Shocker in Manhattan (Kansas)” on October 25 (No. 11 K-State blanked UT 23-0), and “The Thanksgiving Miracle” in Austin (TCU over UT 48-10). He never faltered, and each week swore he put money on the Longhorns, but I have my doubts.

Watching football this past year in Austin without my father was a strange feeling—like being both anchored and adrift. I’m in my hometown and the games were on live in my time zone, but I lacked my main partner in crime, the one who knew the game day handshake and the stupid inside jokes that wouldn’t make sense if I told them. It’s a feeling of coming home only to find that part of it is forever lost, and that in some ways home is just as distant now as when you lived overseas.

My pop was spared seeing some of those loses, but for him—other than the title in that was always part of the arrangement with UT—you’d watch, get your hopes up, and get heartbroken for years. Often though, like in the Notre Dame game this year, in Pasadena in 2006, or the Big12 championship in 1996, against all odds they’d grab greatness for a minute and it would all pay off.

In those moments, you could see them shine no matter the record, no matter the disappointment that came before.

Even from eight time zones away.

 
 
 

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