DALLAS (AP) — Robert Stark and his son-in-law, Tyler Wanek, dressed in their normal orange-and-white striped overalls for this most unusual version of the Red River rivalry between Texas and Oklahoma.
They just weren’t getting their typical requests for photos with OU fans who like to do the “Horns Down” sign. And Wanek knew what awaited inside the Cotton Bowl on Saturday in those usually electric moments before kickoff in one of college football’s most unique settings.
“The goosebumps won’t be there, if that makes sense,” Wanek said.
It does, with a crowd normally approaching 100,000 limited to 25,000 by the pandemic, which also shut down the Texas state fair outside the 90-year-old stadium for the first time since World War II.
Still, there were some signs of normalcy. The Texas Star ferris wheel was running, although with a tiny handful of riders. Food booths, including the one with the famous corny dog, were open outside the Cotton Bowl’s main entrance.
And while people weren’t crammed shoulder to shoulder outside the main gate less than an hour before kickoff, there were enough clusters of fans for it to be difficult to enforce the edict on signs that anybody caught gathering would be ejected without a refund.
Once the game started, there was still the noticeable divide between burnt orange and crimson at the 50-yard line despite the rare sight of empty bleachers.
“I’m glad to be here,” Oklahoma fan Kury Keeley said outside the stadium before the game. “It’s a little bit more normalcy to me. There’s actually a lot more people out here than I thought there would be.”
Keeley thought the pandemic was ending his roughly 30-year streak of attending every Texas-OU game near downtown Dallas, about halfway between the respective campuses. His family opted out of season tickets because of the pandemic, but he ended up with a pair just days before the game.
Normally, Kelley would join the throngs to greet the buses arriving with players about about 2 1/2 hours before the game. But he didn’t bother, knowing the fairgrounds would be mostly deserted rather than filled with cheers — and jeers.
Stark and Wanek, both wearing masks bearing a Texas logo, always brace for some of those boos. But Oklahoma fan Jack Goddard also noticed a difference in the banter, which he thinks isn’t entirely about the pandemic. It’s the first time in 22 years neither team is in the Top 20.
“There’s not near as much fan animosity as there is normally,” Goddard said. “And that’s because both these teams have losses. They’re not doing well. It’s kind of a weird season. You can’t predict any of that. So if you’re here for this game, it’s because you really want to watch a football game. It’s not for anything else.”
Goddard’s wife, Deborah, agreed. She estimates she’s been attending games for 45 years, and while the Goddards kept up the tradition of grabbing a corny dog before the game, they wouldn’t be joining friends for beers with the fair buzzing around them outside the stadium after the game.
“We haven’t high-fived anybody but ourselves,” Deborah Goddard said. “You know what I mean? It’s really sad.”
Part of Keeley won’t miss the huge crowds outside the stadium after the game, when the fans in the 93,000-seat Cotton Bowl join the tens of thousands attending the fair.
“That’s a mess, especially when it’s hot and all,” Keeley said. “So this is kind of nice. I would prefer there to be 100,000 fans in there because that’s a great atmosphere. But this is nice to stretch out.”
Still, these fans hope they don’t get used to it.
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