North Texas vs UTEP – Eagles grounded by the Miners…

I have no excuse for taking this long to see a game at North Texas. It’s shameful, really. During my four yearlong Dallas tenure, I was preoccupied with speeding across the expansive Texas plains to exotic destinations like College Station and Lubbock. I had also made a bevy of far flung road trips to schools in nearby Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, logging up to eight hours behind the wheel in the wild and intemperate youth of the PigskinPursuit. Even within the DFW Metro area itself, the soaring TCU program was one of the hottest tickets in the sport, and the Cotton Bowl slobber knocker between Texas and Oklahoma ranks as one of the biggest annual matchups in the NCAA. The North Texas Eagles, located only twenty minutes up the road from Dallas in nearby Denton, Texas had, quite simply, slipped below my radar.

Excuses aside, this weekend, that omission would finally change.

But the weather gods in Denton would make me pay for my tardiness. While I had specifically chosen southern destinations for my late November pursuits to find agreeable t-shirt weather, the wild tempest of North Texas called for something more sinister. Freezing rain and howling winds were forecasted all weekend, with bitter temperatures hovering just above freezing. This would not be a day for tailgating, or exploring sprawling campus lawns under sunny skies. In fact, having packed light for the preceding games in Florida and Georgia, I’d have to borrow a jacket from one of my Texas friends just to survive the afternoon in Denton. As such, my trip to the North Texas Mean Green Football Machine would be an abbreviated one.

Located just off I-35E in Denton, access to the stadium is a breeze, and I find easy free parking on the north side of the highway right next to Fouts Field, the former home of Mean Green Football. From there, it’s an easy walk over I-35 across a pedestrian footbridge that connects with the grounds surrounding Apogee Stadium. Opened in 2011, Apogee’s defining feature is a giant V-shaped grandstand that looms over its surroundings like a pair of great aluminum Eagle wings. This unique feature gives the stadium a distinct look to any other that I have visited, and its signature is easily visible to the thousands of motorists speeding by on 35 every day. With a stated attendance of nearly 30,000 fans, however, the stadium is hardly bigger than some of the colossal high school venues in North Texas like Allen’s Eagle Stadium (18,500) or Toyota Stadium in Frisco (20,000).

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But what it lacks in capacity, Apogee Makes up for in its sensitive environmental impact. The stadium is the only one in the country to achieve a LEED Platinum certification (a certification system for green building techniques), and encompasses such green features as runoff water retention systems, permeable paving, and three 120 foot wind turbines used to capture the howling prairie winds for power.

I collect an easy free ticket, a fancy plastic club level seat, from a member of the UNT Alumni Club who is standing outside the Alumni Pavilion with fistfuls of them in his gloved hands. Entering the stadium, I’m greeted on the concourse by a bright green Model A Ford, accented with a decal of a flying eagle. Similar to the “Wramblin’ Wreck” car at Georgia Tech, UNT has their own “Mean Green Machine” – a fully restored 1931 Ford Model A Tudor Sedan that serves as the pride of North Texas Mean Green athletics.

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Portending a miserable day ahead, I grab a bucket of hot chocolate from the concession stands, pull out a fistful of napkins to wipe down the aluminum bleachers, and settle into a wide open swath on the 40 yard line. It’s senior day today, so before the game begins each of the graduating players are announced individually on the PA. They run through a gauntlet of their teammates lined up on the field, greeting their loved ones at the end, embracing in tearful hugs with the mothers. I feel bad for the players. It’s a miserable day and a lackluster crowd because of it. Only a few muffled cheers are mustered for each of the departing seniors, the crowd so mummified in blankets they can barely rise. Hardly an appropriate send off for four years of sacrifice and dedication. The game kicks off a few moments after, when the remaining underclass members of the Mean Green football team storm from the gates on the south end zone, sprinting onto the frigid turf.

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The foul weather in the stands would magnify on the field, and with neither team remotely close to bowl contention, the effort between the lines is noticeably subdued. Neither team in North Texas wanted the football on this drizzly afternoon. There would be seven turnovers in all, the UTEP Miners owning five of those in fumbles alone. Aside from the frenzy of a few fumbles dancing across the slick turf, the first half is a snooze fest of sloppy play. The only scoring in the entire frame is a meager chip shot field goal by the Mean Green.

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Things pick up a bit in the second half, when we see nearly every kind of touchdown that a team can score without their offense actually touching the ball. In the third quarter alone, there is a punt return touchdown, and interception return touchdown, and a fumble recovery touchdown; all of them within a span of five minutes. The on field antics breathe a little life into the listless crowd, a few fans even manage to unfurl their blanket cocoons long enough to stand and cheer for a few fleeting moments in the sleet. But whatever hope the Mean Green Machine had for their second win of the season was dashed early in the fourth quarter, when the Miners punched in a touchdown to take the lead 20-17. With an offense that hadn’t moved the football all day, to the tune of only 205 yards of total offense, North Texas fate was all but sealed once they dropped behind. They would go on to lose 17-20, sending their seniors out even more unceremoniously after a dismal 1-11 season.

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Naturally, after the game I adjourn to my second home in Dallas; Pecan Lodge BBQ. Because nothing lifts the spirits after a frigid, dreary afternoon like the kiss of mesquite smoke across an unctuous beef short rib. An appropriate final meal for the close of the 2015 season.

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