On September 19, a Friday night, Texans had their first chance to hear the two major gubernatorial candidates face off in a debate. Or, as was more likely, they could turn their attention to the start of high school football season. By the end of the canned battle, the press was disappointed that there were no missteps, and the rigid parley between Democrat Wendy Davis and Republican Greg Abbott was as predictable, and probably one-tenth as interesting, as an episode of the Biggest Loser.
Horrible things happen in Ted Dekker’s best-selling novels. A serial killer snaps the bones of his victims. A sadistic Nazi toys with his captives. A box opens to reveal a severed finger.
It was one of the finest marketing slogans ever hatched from the mind of man, a simple, unmistakable declaration of pride and resolve: “Long live long necks.” Fittingly, it seemed to just float into view, conceived over cold Lone Stars in the parking lot of Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters sometime in early 1974.
Jim Franklin, the concert hall’s wild-eyed resident artist and occasional master of ceremonies, was unwinding not far from the backstage apartment he shared with a boa constrictor and a chicken. His conferee was Jerry Retzloff, Lone Star’s local district manager, and talk had turned to the beer business. Retzloff was a reluctant newcomer to Austin, having been abruptly transferred from the brewery’s San Antonio headquarters the previous summer. Budweiser had started taking huge bites out of Lone Star’s Austin sales, in large part by targeting college kids. Retzloff knew that Lone Star president Harry Jersig, a first-generation German Texan and beer man of the old school, was unwilling to court the youth market. Their long hair sat ill with Jersig’s buttoned-up sensibility, and he didn’t want to appear to encourage underage drinking. And even if Jersig eased up, Retzloff would still have Lone Star’s long-standing image to contend with. Its slogan at the time, as voiced in commercials by Ricardo Montalbán, was “The Beer From the Big Country.” It was a rural, outdoorsman’s beverage, a beer for cattle pens, deer blinds, and bass boats.
But when Retzloff arrived in Austin, he saw a surefire new angle emerging. He spent his days cultivating relationships with the distributors who brought Lone Star to town and the bartenders who sold it. His nights, however, were spent listening to music in the city’s budding progressive country scene, and he noticed an ungodly amount of Lone Star being drunk at its epicenter, the Armadillo. A check of the books at the brewery confirmed his impression: more Lone Star draft beer was sold at the ’Dillo, capacity 1,500, than any venue in the state except the 44,500-seat Astrodome. Whether it was a Texas nativism that even a hippie couldn’t shake or some precursor to modern-day hipster irony, the longhairs were threatening to make the cowboy beer their own.
Retzloff persuaded his superiors to let him pursue them. He brought the vice president of marketing, a thick-necked Canadian named Barry Sullivan, to the ’Dillo to hear the scene’s golden boy, Michael Murphey. When Murphey opened the second verse of his anthem, “Cosmic Cowboy, Pt. 1,” by singing, “Lone Star sipping and skinny-dipping,” every hippie in the room raised a Lone Star toward the rafters and screamed. Sullivan was sold.
A drinking glove that Retzloff sold at the brewery’s gift shop and museum.
A Jim Franklin poster.
Then Retzloff went to work on Jersig, who’d instructed him to grow Austin sales by 15 percent in the coming year. “I went back to Mr. Jersig and said, ‘How about I give you thirty percent?’ ” recalls Retzloff, now 74. “ ‘But you’ve got to let me do it my way. I’ve got to get rid of this coat and tie and get me some cutoff shorts and grow a beard’ ”—all of which were forbidden by strict Jersig policy—“ ‘because I can’t sell beer to these kids that way. I’m in there moving kegs around in a tie? They think I’m a narc! I’ve got to become part of the in-crowd.’ ” Jersig acquiesced—and let Retzloff know his job was on the line.
So Retzloff started thinking about a strategy, and that’s what he was doing, out loud, with Franklin in the ’Dillo parking lot. In his ten years with Lone Star, he’d worked in the plant, the front office, and the field, and he knew that to prod a meaningful uptick in sales, he’d need something to promote other than the beer itself, something that made it seem new. He remembered the Handy Keg, a twelve-ounce can painted to look like a keg that had helped Lone Star to its first year of more than a million barrels sold, in 1965. He looked at the bottle in his hand. It was skinny, with an extended neck, which in the industry was known as a returnable, as opposed to the stubbier bottles that drinkers could throw away. Budweiser didn’t push those longer bottles in Austin because it was too costly to ship them back and forth for refilling.
Studying the bottle, Retzloff recalled a recent sales visit to a bar in Dallas, where he’d bought returnables for some SMU sorority girls. “Oh, look,” one had gushed. “Longnecks! Just like we get when we go down to Luckenbach.” Her excitement surprised him, and so did her description. “Longneck” was a term he’d heard only in a few small South Texas towns. He kept thinking. “Something about those returnables had always stuck in my head,” he says. “When I worked in the plant, our first beer break was usually at nine a.m., and we had about five places around the brewery where we could drink free beer. It’d be either in cans, returnables, or snub-nosed disposables. For some reason, the employees would always call around and see which spot had returnables, then go take their break there. I also knew, from my time in the accounting office, that eighty percent of the beer that employees took home was returnables.
“So I told all this to Franklin. I said, ‘These are beer people. They don’t give a darn if you come out with cans that fit in your back pocket, socks, purse, or whatever. They will forever be drinking returnables.’ ” That was all Franklin needed. His wonderfully warped mind had already made the lowly armadillo the mascot of the Austin counterculture, and he went to work on a poster design that would similarly elevate Lone Star. “Do you remember that first poster?” says Retzloff. “The atom bomb had just hit and blown everything off the landscape. The only two things still standing, the things that were absolutely invincible, were the armadillo and the Lone Star. And then he came up with that slogan: ‘Long live long necks.’ ”
A light drizzle was falling in the early morning hours of May 9, 2010, when detective Dwayne Thompson pulled up in front of a modest home on Spring Grove Avenue, in a tree-lined neighborhood in North Dallas. A uniformed officer walked over and told Thompson that the house belonged to a man named Michael Burnside, age thirty. At around twelve-thirty, the officer continued, a woman had called 911 from the house.
Texas has a new mixological pilgrimage site, and it’s in a hotel basement. Midnight Rambler is the handiwork of Chad Solomon and Christy Pope, craft-cocktail pioneers whose fingerprints can be seen on bar programs across the globe. And now they’ve pulled out all the stops in Dallas with a gorgeously curated space in the artsy Joule Hotel.
The sun wasn’t even up when Trent Loter returned from the kitchen with another Diet Mountain Dew. He drank seven cans of the stuff a day, but this morning he was putting them back with purpose. That’s because it was the first week of August, the start of two-a-days, and for the equipment manager of the Pampa High Fighting Harvesters, that meant going back to work.
On this week for the past 26 years, Trent had risen before dawn and reported for morning practice. The last 13 of those years had been spent here at the “football house,” a tiny two-bedroom located half a block from the high school, where he and his parents returned each season. The rest of the year he simply endured at his family’s home in Pottsboro, near Lake Texoma, waiting for the whistles of August to blow and put him back in rhythm. He popped the top on the Mountain Dew and flipped to the Weather Channel.
Trent was a man of ritual and routine but also a man of obsessions. His older sister, Shannon, joked that his life revolved around three things: high school football, church, and the weather. In fact, he wouldn’t walk to the high school in the mornings without knowing exactly how the skies were going to behave. His mother blamed it on growing up in Tornado Alley—or, specifically, on June 8, 1995, when the biggest twister in Pampa’s history hit the west side of town. Trent and Shannon hid in the closet as the sirens wailed outside. The tornado ended up missing them, but to this day, the sound of thunder agitated him, and he refused to go outside if there was a hint of lightning.
This morning, he stared down the television until the local forecast scrolled across the screen: another sunny and windy day in the Panhandle. His eyes softened. “All clear, buddy,” he said.
Out in the living room, his mother and father were up having coffee. Ann and Lonnie Loter were both 73 and in good health. Lonnie had a mop of white hair and a slow, easy manner. For 35 years he’d pulled shift work at the local chemical plant before giving it up to fish. Now he busied himself with running trotlines for catfish on calm Texoma mornings—something that would have to wait another few months.
Ann was spry and full of energy, even at dawn. She appeared at Trent’s door to check on his progress. “How we coming along?” she asked, already knowing the answer, for how many times had she asked that question on this very same morning?
“Good, Mom. I’ll be out in a minute.”
He was shirtless, and the glow of the television threw light on his middle-aged body. He stood five feet four, with broad shoulders and a soft, pear-shaped stomach. His hair was dark brown, except for a splotch of gray just above his forehead. A thin goatee, peppered with white, added ten years to a round, boyish face. He had tiny ears that lay flat against his skull, a small nose, and a wide forehead.
His bedroom was a living museum dedicated to the high school he had graduated from, in 1992. Green-and-gold banners covered the wood-paneled walls along with varsity schedules and team photos of seasons past—with him smiling in the back row of each picture, surrounded by a different cast of characters. His letter jacket hung from a chair, along with a T-shirt that read, “Real Men Wear Green”—one of the 65 Harvesters shirts currently in his collection. He put on a gray shirt with “Pampa” spelled in green letters and carefully tucked it into his denim shorts. He placed a gold Harvesters cap on his head, then turned his attention to a Red Raiders duffel bag on the bed.
“I put my things in here for work,” he said, adding in the same breath, “Shannon went to Texas Tech. She takes me to games.”
The items for his bag were neatly arranged on the bed. The first was Dave Campbell’s Texas Football, the highly regarded preview magazine that over the years had become a sacred and holy text. The magazine featured four hundred pages of summaries, notes, and roster breakdowns for the more than 1,400 high school teams in the state, and its release was more anticipated in the Loter household than Christmas. Trent studied its pages for hours and carried the latest copies nearly everywhere he went. His closet was filled with boxes of back issues, dating to the eighties, when Ray Childress and Jackie Sherrill graced the covers.
During his 26 years with the game, Trent had memorized the mascots for nearly every high school in the state, from the Carthage Bulldogs to the Dell City Cougars, from the Demons of Dumas down to the Panthers of Weslaco. His talent was well-known throughout Pampa. Men approached him at ball games and in coffee shops to try to stump him, but few could. Along with the high schools and their mascots, Trent had memorized the counties where they were located in addition to their seats of government. So if you lobbed something at him like Slaton High, which Lonnie did that morning, he could tell you Tigers, from South Lubbock—which, of course, was located in Lubbock County.
“That’s a easy one, fishin’ buddy,” he said.
Since the latest issue of Dave Campbell’s wouldn’t hit newsstands for another two weeks, Trent was reading one from 2004, which he now placed in his bag alongside his tattered Bible. The giant-print King James Version was about fifteen years old and so thoroughly used that its spine dangled loose. Inside, Trent had marked 2 Corinthians with sheets of wide-ruled paper, onto which he’d meticulously copied chapters 1 through 23 by hand. He’d been copying the Bible for years. His mother didn’t know how long it took for him to finish the whole book. Just that when he did, he tossed the pages into the garbage and started again.
After packing his Bible and football magazine, Trent threw in a yellowed county map of Texas and two fresh legal pads, which he pulled from a cache in the closet. He then zipped the bag closed and walked into the living room. Ann and Lonnie were sitting down reading but leaped up when Trent appeared. “All set to go?” Ann asked.
Trent kind of grunted and pointed to his sneakers. Without looking, Ann said, “Let me give ’em a good tying.” After his mother had finished—“Ready, Freddy!”—his father tugged at the bill of his cap, smiled, then gently touched his son’s face.
“Have fun today,” he said.
Trent waved, tossed the bag over his shoulder, and stepped out into the dawn, where the crown of Harvester Field towered in the distance.
Trent at the “football house” with Ann, Lonnie, and Shannon. (Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden)
On a Wednesday afternoon in late June, more than two hundred members of the largest incoming freshman class in the history of Baylor University boarded a convoy of chartered buses and headed from the school’s campus, in Waco, to the tiny town of Independence, two hours south on Texas Highway 6. It was in Independence, they would learn, that Robert Emmett Bledsoe Baylor—a Kentucky native who found God during a revival meeting at the advanced age of 46—helped establish the university, in 1845. The trip was the centerpiece of Baylor Line Camp, a five-day orientation held each summer designed to familiarize the newest Baylor Bears with one another and their school and, not incidentally, to further sell them on the Baylor brand.
Once the students arrived, they were herded into Independence Baptist Church, the oldest continuously operating Baptist church in Texas, where they were regaled by staffers and alumni with a history lesson about the university’s origins—in those early years, extracurricular activities included “dewberrying” and “spirited horse races”—and stories of past Baylor leaders who had “paved the way so that we all could contribute to the narrative of our great university,” as one speaker put it.
The heavily scripted visit came to a climax just before sunset, when the students were presented with their Baylor Line jerseys—the yellow shirts they’d wear to football games—and encouraged to walk through the stone archway and around the columns on Academy Hill, the only physical remnants of the former campus. They hugged and held hands, more solemn than celebratory; a few of them wept. These are “students for whom coming to Baylor has been a lifelong dream,” Elisa Dunman, the director of the university’s new-student programs, told me later. “The moment is now, and it just kind of overtakes them.”
Among those overtaken was Nick Adams, a lanky premed major from Cedar Park with neatly trimmed brown hair and a wide grin who had been drawn to Baylor, in large measure, for its Christian mission. As he slipped the yellow jersey over his white T-shirt, making his induction into the Baylor family official, he was more moved than he’d anticipated. “It was an eye-opening experience—really emotional,” he told me. “I was like, ‘Whoa, this is pretty deep.’ ” Adams had wavered a bit on his college choice, and Independence sealed the deal. “We’re the ones taking this tradition now,” he said. “We have to live up to the expectations that Baylor has of us—and that the country has of us.”
His sense of awe would only deepen a couple of months later, when he and fellow freshman Raul Aguilar—both wearing their Line jerseys, of course—arrived early for their first football game at McLane Stadium, the recently built 45,000-seat, $266 million edifice situated next to campus on the banks of the Brazos River. A testament in steel and concrete to the school’s newfound status as an athletics powerhouse rather than an overlooked also-ran, the gleaming arena had replaced the outdated Floyd Casey Stadium, which was inconveniently located across town and lacked the ancillary attractions that now come standard with big-time college football, such as the new stadium’s 42 luxury suites, its recruiting lounge boasting a video wall and turf-level view of the field, and its 7,500-square-foot locker room with an enormous Baylor logo glowing from the ceiling like the viridescent eye of God.
A few hours before kickoff, in front of an exuberant audience that included the yellow-clad freshmen, a nine-and-a-half-foot bronze statue of an amiable 24-year-old named Robert Griffin III was unveiled in the middle of the vast plaza on the stadium’s south side. Beside the statue, a rendition of the former Baylor quarterback in mid-throw, stood the flesh-and-blood Griffin, smiling next to his massive likeness in a sport coat, jeans, and tennis shoes. When Griffin, who won Baylor’s first-ever Heisman Trophy, in 2011, and is now a quarterback for the Washington Redskins, addressed the crowd, he spoke of the trophy as a joint achievement. “I always say we won the trophy,” he proclaimed, to chants of “RG3!”
The same school year that Griffin won the Heisman, the women’s basketball team went undefeated, and its star, Brittney Griner, was named Collegiate Woman Athlete of the Year; the men’s basketball team made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament; and the baseball team won the Big 12 championship. In fact, Baylor’s 129 wins in four major programs had been the highest single-season total in NCAA history, an accomplishment that Baylor fans dubbed the Year of the Bear. Now, three years later, the scene in Waco—the sea of yellow jerseys, the impressive stadium, the charismatic football star—was, to anyone paying attention, undeniable evidence of a new chapter being written in Baylor history.
Even the skeptics (and universities breed them like lab mice) had to admit, perhaps grudgingly, that not only has Baylor emerged as an athletics heavyweight but its winning reputation is spurring a surge in donations and attracting more students than ever before. The university has raised more than $400 million since 2012 and embarked on a daring improvement plan. The incoming freshman class is, at 3,625 students, so large that the administration has had to convert common areas to living spaces and pay upperclassmen to move off campus to free up dorm rooms.
And in the midst of this boom, Baylor is taking on the most ambitious plan in its 169-year history: to transform a somewhat self-satisfied, middle-of-the-road academic institution into an elite university, a school whose scholarly status rivals its reputation on the field—like Notre Dame with a Baptist bent. Yet achieving those aspirations means thinking hard about the university’s identity, and right now conservative Baylor finds itself engaged in a high-wire act as it navigates a changing culture. What does it mean to evolve while holding tight to your Christian roots?