Football

A day in the life of DKR: So close, yet so far for fans waiting for the great turnaround

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Posted October 22nd, 2017

It’s 8 a.m., hours before Saturday’s Texas-Oklahoma State game, and Levon Steele already has been setting up in the parking lot at the corner of Trinity and MLK for three hours. He’s a little sweaty. He’s a little stressed. And he’s already fielding questions about why people haven’t showed up yet.

Steele runs Mike’s Tailgate Crew, one of the most popular tailgates at Texas football games.

“My friends really were questioning if people were going to show up,” Steele said. “It was a morning game. There was the F1 race (at Circuit of the Americas) and the team already has three losses.”

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And there’s a reason he’s worried about people showing up for tailgating.

Mike’s Tailgate Crew isn’t just a tailgate that’s about bringing friends together for a good time. It’s not about drinking or good food or football.

It’s about charity.

Steele has been running the tailgate for upwards of 13 years with the proceeds going toward the college fund for his cousin’s daughter, Samantha Sena.

“In 2004, my cousin, Mike Sena, was diagnosed with brain tumors,” Steele said. “One of his last wishes was that we got together every week with friends for a tailgate. We’ve been doing this ever since. When he passed in 2006, Samantha was just a baby, and we decided to keep doing the tailgate and have the proceeds go toward her college fund and a couple of other charities.”

Money is made by tailgate attendees making a $20 donation ($30 for VIP) for not only a place to watch the game, but also drinks, slow smoked Texas brisket, sausage, turkey breast, spicy cheesy bacon buttery potatoes and charro beans.

“They always show up. Today I think we have a group coming in from Chicago. It’s 25 guys here for a bachelor party,” Steele said. “It sounds a little bit cheesy, but I’ve always believed that, ‘If you build it, they will come.’”

Fans cheer trying to get a free shirt during the Texas football game against Oklahoma State in Austin, Texas, on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. ANA RAMIREZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

That positive attitude rang true throughout the entire Longhorns fan base Saturday despite the team’s 13-10 overtime loss to 10th-ranked Oklahoma State. Despite the loss, which dropped Texas’ record to 3-4 overall and 2-2 in the Big 12, and despite the fact that the game featured little offense from either side, fans seemed upbeat throughout the day.

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“We just held the top offense in the country to 13 points. We made a great quarterback look really confused all day,” said Daniel Zamora, who was sitting toward the north end zone with a large white Longhorns logo painted on the back of his head. “The loss was heartbreaking, but you can see progress. The team is taking steps, and the defense has been great.”

That’s exactly what fans have been looking for: Progress. The realization has set in that this season isn’t going to lead to a New Year’s Six bowl game, not after close losses to USC, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Unless chaos reigns in the Big 12, the conference championship is probably out of reach.

But if Tom Herman’s team continues to make progress and shows improvement, the fan base seems satisfied. The feeling is wins have to be around the corner.

Emery Elliott, 21, shouts during the Texas game against Oklahoma State in Austin, Texas, on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. ANA RAMIREZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Oklahoma State held a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter and was driving down the field for what looked like a double-digit lead and the 75,000 fans or so who showed up — the announced crowd was 92,506 — were on their feet cheering for the defense. Support for Herman and the coaching staff wasn’t wavering.

“We’ve been here for the worst years in the history of UT football,” said Peter Oeftering, who graduated  from Texas in December. “This is the most optimistic I’ve been about UT football for a while. The defense is fixing a lot of the mistakes we have had. You don’t see the same thing over and over again. And I’m a big Sam Ehlinger fan.”

Shortly after that conversation, with the Cowboys threatening inside Texas’ 10-yard line, Longhorns nose tackle Poona Ford forced a fumble by OSU running back Justice Hill, and safety Deshon Elliott picked it up.

Three plays later, after a 90-yard catch-and-run by John Burt, Ehlinger scrambled into the end zone for a 2-yard run that tied the game.

“You can see this entire year that the defense makes adjustments,” UT fan Brent Kegans said at halftime while standing in line for libations. “They have tons of resilience and tons of heart. They don’t give up. I can’t ever remember a Texas team being 3-3 and fans being this supportive.”

Texas defensive back Brandon Jones (19) nearly intercepts a pass intended for Oklahoma State wide receiver James Washington (28) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Austin, Texas, on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. Oklahoma State defeated Texas 13-10. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Part of that is because it’s Herman’s first year.

Part of that is because the Longhorns have gone 33-30 over the past five years under Mack Brown (2012, 2013) and Charlie Strong (2014, 2015, 2016). While 3-4 never will be acceptable, fans are getting excited watching their team compete late into games against ranked opponents.

After a quiet three quarters, loud “Texas Fight” cheers were echoing off the concrete stadium. When the Cowboys were held to a field goal in their overtime drive, the crowd buzzed with anticipation. There was a sense that this was going to be Herman’s first big moment in Austin. A victory over Oklahoma State — with winnable games against Baylor, TCU, Kansas and West Virginia coming up — would have Texas football heading back to where it’s supposed to be.

Photos: Texas fans tailgate ahead of Oklahoma State game, Oct. 21, 2017

Excitement grew when Ehlinger’s pass to Lorenzo Joe drew a pass interference penalty, putting the ball at OSU’s 12.

Three plays later, on third down, Ehlinger scrambled to his left. Everybody thought he was going to throw it out of bounds. Instead he threw a wobbly prayer into the end zone where OSU’s Ramon Richards was waiting with open arms.

It was an easy interception. The stunned crowd headed for the door.

“I’m heartbroken,” said Scott Specht, who sat with his head in his hands as fans filed out in stunned silence. “It feels like we’re so close. But we just don’t know how to finish games. The improvement is there; I just think we need to see the improvement on the offensive line.”

While it was quiet exiting the stadium, fans bounced back quickly.

Within 15 minutes of the game being over there was an 18-person game of Flip Cup going on at Mack Daddy Tailgate.

And right to that, Steele was taking down the scaffolding at Mike’s Tailgate Crew.

Fans hold up Hook ’em Horns during the Texas football game against Oklahoma State in Austin, Texas, on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. ANA RAMIREZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

“Even after the loss, I think the feeling overall is optimism,” Steele said. “I really think people are giving this coaching staff the chance to get things turned around. We just held the No. 1 offense in the country to 10 points in regulation. We easily could have won the game. There’s a lot to be positive about.”

The most positive thing was Mike’s Tailgate Crew sold out again.

“We run out of food every week,” Steele said. “I hope that continues. The goal is to eventually earn enough so we can pay for a couple years of college for Samantha.”

Samantha is 13, so Steele and his crew have four more years to reach that goal.

“Hopefully in a few years she’ll be at Texas,” Steele said. “That’s where she wants to go.”

By that time, fans expect that all these close losses will be big wins.

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