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 first scoring opportunity, but a crosswind blew awry what looked to be a perfect field-goal kick; it drifted into the left goal post and ricocheted away from the crossbar. An omen: No bounces would go the Longhorns’ way this day. The Aggies scored first, but their point-after attempt failed when a bad snap led to a desperation pass, which Texas intercepted and returned for two points. Here was another message: Victory for the Aggies would not come easily. In the second quarter Texas scored twice, building a lead of ten points by halftime.
Years from now, when the final score has slipped from memory, those who were at Kyle Field will remember the halftime in every detail. The separate performances of the two bands merged into a single opus, a threnody for the bonfire victims in two movements: the Texas band playing “Amazing Grace” and taps, then removing their hats as they left the field to the beat of a single drum; the Aggie band forming its signature block T and likewise departing without music, the T moving down the field in perfect precision, guided only by a few drummers tapping a cadence against the sides of their drums, then one lone drummer, then none. The crowd was so hushed that you could hear the clanking of spurs on the seniors’ boots and the whipping of the wind against the flags high atop the third deck.
In the second half the mood in the stadium grew solemn and even more intense. The stakes were clear now; the Aggies were playing not just for the bonfire victims but for the myth that A&M holds most dear—the idea that the Aggie spirit is a supernatural force that can overcome anything, even tragedy. Inexorably, the course of the game began to turn. On offense, Texas could not make a first down. The Aggie fans, standing throughout the game as always, bellowed a continuous “Heyyyyyyyy,” louder than can be imagined, pushing the decibel level so high that they disrupted the Texas attack by making it impossible for linemen to hear the quarterback’s snap count. On defense, Texas could not stop A&M. Time after time, the Aggies entrusted the ball to their hulking running back, Ja’Mar Toombs, who relentlessly crunched into the pile, scattering blockers and defenders like bowling pins, churning his way forward, carrying three, four, sometimes five Longhorns with him until he could no longer make headway, and even then he refused to fall.
When Texas did rise up to halt Toombs, the Aggies called upon their oft-maligned quarterback, Randy McCown, who responded by hurling perfect passes downfield under near-impossible circumstances: sprinting toward the sideline at full speed to escape the frantic pursuit of would-be tacklers. The Texas secondary left him no margin for error. He had to loft the ball over the heads of both defender and receiver along a trajectory that allowed only his man to get to the ball. Somehow, he kept doing it. You began to get the feeling that the game was out of Texas’ hands; though the Longhorns were playing well, the Aggies had driven themselves into a frenzy of performance that on this day Texas could not reach. With five minutes and two seconds left in the game and A&M still three points behind, McCown’s last pass of the day floated into Matt Bumgardner’s hands in the Texas end zone, and a tsunami of sound broke over the stadium, a burst of joy, relief, triumph, and vindication.
But the emotions of the game did not travel far beyond the stadium grounds. This was a victory that could not long be celebrated, a defeat that could not long be mourned. Many who left Kyle Field chose not to go to their cars but instead made the long trek to the bonfire site on an open field at the northeast corner of the campus. It was fenced off with orange construction netting, which formed a vast but ragged circle more than two hundred yards in diameter. Inside, the deadly logs lay supine in horizontal stacks. Trailers and cranes still dotted the property. The perimeter, almost half a mile of fence and the ground in front of it, had been turned into a shrine by students who had left remembrances.
Not a word was spoken. The only sound was the slow shuffling of thousands of feet as the onlookers contemplated the offerings: A&M T-shirts, white hand towels that Aggies wave during football games, floral arrangements wrapped in green tissue paper, the hard hats known as “pots” that bonfire workers are required to wear, maroon ribbons, the waxy remains of candles, a stuffed bear kneeling in the praying position with paws clasped under a fuzzy chin. A note had been taped to the fence, reading “We will never forget you all. Love, Spider Fish.” Another cited Psalm 62, Verse 5: “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from Him.” And a typed sheet of paper lay on the ground, bearing a sentiment that Aggies like to say about their school: “From the inside looking out you cannot explain it, and from the outside looking in you cannot understand it.”
The same sentiment seemed to apply to the bonfire tragedy. From the inside, Bonfire (at A&M, the noun is always capitalized and never has “the” in front) represents all that is best about being an Aggie: adhering to tradition, belonging to a huge family, sharing an incomparable camaraderie and spirit, and learning to lead by taking charge of big projects. From the outside, at least to some, having unsupervised kids work atop an unstable 55-foot stack of logs seemed to invite catastrophe. The feelings of sorrow and loss at A&M are made even more poignant because a tradition that represents the essence of Aggie life brought death. That is why A&M president Ray Bowen, hosting a pregame breakfast for dignitaries at the Memorial Student Center, called the tragedy and its aftermath “perhaps the most difficult time in our one-hundred-and-twenty-three-year history.”
On the way back to their cars, some visitors stopped off at the corps museum. A model of Bonfire was on permanent display, as were photographs from earlier years. The modern version consists of six tiers stacked in concentric circles that grow smaller as the pile rises. The logs appear to be vertical; indeed, they have to be for the next stack to be level. Stability is provided by using steel cables to “wire in” the logs, but this year something went terribly wrong. One theory is that the center pole—two telephone poles spliced end-to-end, bolted together, and wrapped with cable—was atilt from the start; another is that the cabling was insufficient. An investigation is under way, and the likely result is that Bonfire will continue, but it will be smaller. And safer.
Another exhibit in the corps museum explains the tradition of Silver Taps. In the month after an A&M student has died, Aggies by the thousands gather late one night around the statue of Lawrence Sullivan Ross, the school’s third president, for the Silver Taps service. All the lights in that portion of the campus are darkened, and muted trumpets sound taps three times, once each to the south, west, and north—but not to the east, symbolizing that the sun will not rise again for the dead. On December 7, the Silver Taps and Bonfire traditions were joined.
On a placard in the display case is a letter about Silver Taps written by a freshman named Don Coward to his parents in October 1968: “. . . I’ve experienced tonight what A&M is all about,” Coward wrote. “Mother and Dad, we’re one big family here and now I know what it means to be an Aggie.” He described the service and then said, “Tonight I experienced one of the most solemn feelings I’ve ever had and feel so good inside. Mom, Dad, it was just like God Himself was there with us.” Underneath the placard that bore the words of the letter was a smaller one. “Three weeks later,” it began, “Silver Taps again rolled into the chill darkness from the dome of the Academic Building. This time, it was for three A&M students killed in a car-truck accident near Roanoke in Denton County on November 9. One of them was Don Coward.”