Hooked on Longhorns

Times Staff Writer

As he stood in the shadow of the Rose Bowl, Philip Williams took a long pull off a tall beer and described how he'd dithered before deciding to make the long trip from Texas to the biggest college football game of the year.

"I was the last person to make the call," said Williams as he stood in front of a huge inflated caricature of Bevo, the University of Texas' longhorn mascot. "My wife said if I didn't go, I'd regret it. So I took a week off -- and this is only the first week of the year."

But there is a catch: As of Tuesday afternoon, neither Williams nor the other six people who rode from Texas in Richard Hykel's RV had a ticket. And if they can't get one, then so be it. They'll just pull up their chairs to the big screen outside the stadium.

"But it's early," said Williams' friend, Josh Wright, who also had a beer in hand. "We've still got plenty of time."

Over by the souvenir stand, Dave Johnson, bedecked in Longhorn burnt orange and white, stood on the grass while his wife, Debbie, pulled out her credit card for a shirt to commemorate the most important game for the University of Texas since 1969, the last time the Longhorns won a national championship.

The Johnsons wore badges that identified them as the parents of Greg Johnson, a Texas kicking specialist.

"We're hoping to see him on the field nine or 10 times during the game," said Dave, with the hint of a grin.

"We hope he's just exhausted," said Debbie.

So it went at the Rose Bowl on Tuesday as Texas fans gathered, many of them to witness the UT team picture being shot inside the stadium. Some had made the journey to the Rose Bowl last year when the Longhorns defeated the University of Michigan in a thriller. But this game is different. This is for a year's worth of bragging rights that could come from defeating a team that had won two straight national championships and was going for an unprecedented third title -- in home territory.

Texas fans talked reverentially about Darrell Royal, the coach of the 1969 Longhorn team. Ditto for quarterback Vince Young, who they said would put USC's Matt Leinart in his place.

They laid plans for a long evening of partying before the game, all the better to assist the Los Angeles area economy. That should have been heartening to area businesses, particularly since the Rose Bowl is featuring only one out-of-town team this year. The Texas fans seemed bent on helping out as best they could.

"You can't put a price on fun," said Marc McCrary of Austin, who, together with his brother, Mike, and father, Scott, each spent $1,000 for tickets and planned to drop quite a few more bucks Tuesday night at some of the city's watering holes.

At least the McCrarys had the ducats for tickets, which was more than Williams and his buddies could say. They left from Temple, a small city north of Austin, at 10:30 a.m. Sunday and arrived just in time for the Rose Parade, which they saw only because they became lost and ended up on a street that intersected the parade route.

"It was raining and we're inside and dry," said Williams.

Later in the day, they solved their parking problem by carving out space near the stadium and began making themselves known -- no mean feat when surrounded by USC RVs.

The most senior traveler among the Texans was RV owner Hykel, an insurance company vice president "until next year. Then I'll be on the road."

Hykel said the sensible female voice of their van's global positioning system had been useful in the long drive across country. "She told us where to turn. All we had to do was put in an address and it brings you in all the way," said Hykel, whose RV is a tailgating fixture at Texas home games.

It was early afternoon and the barbecue was flaming when "Spider-Man" arrived. He was collecting cans and bottles from the hundreds of RVs and trailers that surrounded the Rose Bowl, but he homed in when he saw the Texas crowd.

Soon, he put the touch on them for a "donation."

Yolanda Pantonial handed over a $5 bill.

Pantonial said she regularly gave money to the homeless in Austin, though not usually with the generosity she showed toward Spider-Man.

"I gave in the five because he said he was a veteran," she explained.

Pantonial's husband, Jayson Boblitz, a special education teacher in Austin, said he and his wife had flown from Texas and planned to soak in the atmosphere even if they couldn't get tickets.

In fact, they'd only just met the Texans staying in the RV, though they already acted like old friends.

Back by the Rose Bowl entrance, Marie Ruiz of Austin was busy showing off the picture she'd taken of quarterback Young earlier in the day.

"We just started yelling and he came over," said Ruiz's daughter, Laura.

And back at the souvenir stand, Dave Johnson was giving a Texas fan's twist on how the college game of the year might go.

"If Texas doesn't turn the ball over, I think USC is in for a long day," he said. Johnson also had his thoughts about USC quarterback Matt Leinart.

"We want to make sure he has to move," said Johnson. "And if Vince gets into a rhythm, look out. It could be a big score."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World