Saturday marks 97th Red River Shootout |

Saturday marks 97th Red River Shootout

Dave Price

A lot of football fans are going to tune in to ABC at 12:30 p.m. Saturday expecting to watch the Oklahoma Sooners and Texas Longhorns play in a game between No. 2 and No. 3 teams.

It’s a heckuva lot more than that to folks in Oklahoma and Texas. Just ask Mel Essary, a Gardnerville resident who, though 27 years removed from the rivalry, still has some very vivid memories of the “Red River Shootout” rivalry.

“It’s a respectful rivalry, but it’s a war,” Essary said. “To lose that game is like having a death in the family.”

Saturday will mark the 97th meeting since 1900 (Texas leads the series 54-38-5), making it the 23rd oldest rivalry in NCAA football history. The game is played on a neutral site at the 68,252-seat Cotton Bowl in Dallas, located midway between Austin and Norman, and is the highlight of festivities that surround the Texas State Fair on the second weekend every October.

“I think that’s what makes it so classic,” Essary said. “You sit in the stands and you can see the state fair with the ferris wheels and everything right outside the stadium. It’s a real party atmosphere.”

The sight inside the Cotton Bowl is impressive as well. The house is divided right down the 50-yard line. All Texas burnt orange on one side. All Oklahoma crimson on the other. The line is clear to see, not only because of the color, but because of the emotional reaction from either side on any given play from start to finish.

“It is quite a spectacle,” Essary said. “Texas has its mascot, Bevo, on the field; and Oklahoma has the Sooner Schooner. It’s always exciting to see who’s going to get out the most.”

This rivalry, which actually predates Oklahoma’s statehood by seven years, got its name because the Red River runs along the border separating the two states. The state boundary itself has been the source of a feud every bit as fierce as any of the football games, dating back to the Louisiana Purchase. And remember, that was in 1803.

The states even came to the brink of war when Texas tried to build a toll bridge across the river in the 1930s. Oklahoma Gov. William “Alfalfa Bill” Murray sent state National Guard troops and a tank to face off with the Texas Rangers, but fortunately, the standoff was settled without any shots being fired. The feud still lives on, though.

“As far as Texas is concerned, it’s good to have Oklahoma as the 255th county,” Texas state Rep. Tom Ramsey once said.

Ironically, even though Essary is a die-hard Sooners fan, he actually attended Oklahoma State University.

“My brother went to Oklahoma, but I went to Oklahoma State, just for the sake of convenience because our home was only 40 miles from Stillwater,” he said. “Oklahoma and Oklahoma State have a pretty good in-state rivalry, but it doesn’t get the same limelight as Oklahoma and Texas.”

Essary literally grew up watching the Sooners.

“Ever since I’ve known what football was, I’ve watched Oklahoma, and that goes back to the days of Bud Wilkinson,” he said. “My birthday is at the end of November and my dad used to always take me to a game in Norman; if not on the exact date, as close to it as possible. All I ever wanted for my birthday was to go watch an Oklahoma football game.”

There have been some memorable moments, not the least of which was last year’s Big 12 Conference showdown in which the No. 3 Sooners beat the No. 5 Longhorns, 14-3. The highlight of that game — at least for Oklahoma — came when Thorpe Award-winning strong safety Roy Williams flew over the line of scrimmage to hit Texas quarterback Chris Simms in the end zone and force an errant pass that middle linebacker Teddy Lehman intercepted and returned for the Sooners’ second touchdown.

Saturday’s “Shootout” promises more of the same. Then again, the rankings don’t matter. Simms, the son of former NFL star quarterback Phil Simms, said as much when he spoke of the game’s atmosphere during the Longhorns’ Monday news conference.

“It’s unbelievable. I got to see my dad play in a lot of big games, and really, there’s nothing comparable to this game,” he said. “To see half the stadium in maroon and half in burnt orange is unbelievable. It’s something that I always go home and tell my friends about and tell them they need to come down and watch this game.”

Dave Price is a sports writer for the Nevada Appeal