Sometimes football really is a metaphor for life. Scoff if you like at that hoary bromide, but you will only reveal yourself as one who was not at Kyle Field in College Station on the day after Thanksgiving. A week and a day had passed since the laws of physics had reconfigured the tiers of the Aggie Bonfire into a jumbled pile of logs and human agony, and though the scoreboard said that the Aggies were playing the University of Texas, team and fans alike were galvanized by the conviction that their real opponent was Death.

The crowd arrived early for the ten o’clock kickoff. They wore memorial ribbons of maroon and white and buttons that read “They Live On.” No one knew quite how to act. Out-of-towners greeted old friends as they always did, with a jest and a slap on the back, then caught themselves and embraced wordlessly. About an hour before game time, the Corps of Cadets marched into the arena and around the field, their ranks thinned by six who had perished in the bonfire collapse. Ten minutes before game time, the crowd—now swelled to more than 86,000, the largest assemblage ever to watch a football game in Texas—was asked to stand for a moment of silence. The stillness was broken by the roar of four F-16s, each piloted by an A&M graduate, swooping in low and fast from the south. As they reached the vicinity of the stadium, one departed from the formation, rocketing upward into the heavens until all that was visible was the winking of fire in its afterburner.

Grief gave way to more-familiar emotions that accompany the onset of a big game in college football—anticipation, anxiety, exhilaration. From the start, the play was fierce and desperate on both sides. “It’s just an old-fashioned fistfight now,” Texas coach Mack Brown exhorted his defense. Texas had the

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