Friday afternoon I set out on the road from San Marcos towards Houston, opting for the rolling backroads of Central Texas in lieu of I-10. Cruising smooth ribbons of asphalt along State Highway 71, I zip through iconic Texas towns like Bastrop and Brenham bypassing hordes of Dairy Queens that mark each little downtown.
I stop only once, for lunch, at Zimmerhanzels BBQ in Smithville. Tucked inside the innocuous orange steel building lies some of the finest BBQ in Texas, along with an equally impressive collection of deer mounts. An old timer hobbles in line in front of me, dressed in crisp blue Dickies and a check pattern shirt, his deep wrinkled face bearing eons of work in the sun. An obvious regular, the counter girl recognizes him and offers a cheery “your usual chopped sandwich Jim?” Without a word the man nods, and the spunky girl drops his sandwich on the orange plastic cafeteria tray as he shuffles on down the line. Not a word spoken and the man gets a spread of some of Texas’ finest BBQ….impressive.
I opt for a combo of their brisket and sausage, arranged neatly behind glass display cases, waiting as the counter girl carves the meat to order. I pay cash at the end of the line (they take no plastic in these parts) then retreat to an arrangement of small school tables they have for dine-in customers. A few minutes later, the lunch rush pours in from an armada of heavy duty pickup trucks parked outside, wrangler jeans and muddy work boots spilling into the doorway – always a good sign.
Pressing further east into Brenham, the wheel of the rental car swerves into the parking lot of the Blue Bell ice cream factory in a screeching cloud of dust. No stranger to a scoop, I saunter in for a few samples from the Texas ice cream staple. They have a few seasonal items on the menu, and I’m tempted into a couple modest cups of the chocolate cherry and spiced pumpkin pecan, generously doled out by the counter girl for a buck apeice. A few pints for the road look tempting, but against a few hours of hot Texas sun in the car, they stand no chance.
A few hours later, after braving the afternoon traffic on the outskirts of Houston, I meet up with my friend Brian. The same friend of Georgia fame from last year, when we’d witnessed the Dawgs vs LSU nail biter in Athens after pre-gaming between the hedges. While a pair of games at Rice and Houston didn’t have quite the same appeal as a duo of SEC juggernauts, he agreed to come along anyway and even offered to put a roof over my head for the weekend.
After a quick handshake, he guides me into the gated garage of his upscale apartment complex where I carefully squeeze my shitbox rental into a numbered parking space between a couple of exotic import cars. A Whole Foods Market is connected to the same building, and a few other high end shops dot the neighborhood. After being hosted by a handful of different friends this year in nicer parts of town, clearly I’ve become accustomed to some of the finer things. A college football bon vivant, if you will…
While the apartment might be swanky, my tastes remain humble, and we pop the caps of a few Shiners – that delightful Texas nectar – to get the night underway. I stuff a sack full of rain gear between sips, as the forecast for the entire weekend predicts nearly continuous bouts of rain. After a couple of brews, we order a car through Uber, a far more palatable alternative than the nightmarish traffic and parking in Houston – a city which simply grew too fast for its infrastructure. But the ride proves anything but easy, as the clueless driver struggles with the complex nuances of voice navigated, turn by turn GPS, and I’m forced to bark out instructions from the back seat.
We circle Rice Stadium for a few minutes, the parking lots all but vacant on a drizzly Friday night. With a stated capacity of 47,000, the stadium is far bigger than expected for the Owls program, and the hulking concrete grandstands towering overhead as stadium lights glow in the mist. We mill around for a few minutes until I spot what I’m looking for, a pair of free tickets from a kind woman in a navy blue Rice hoodie. Entering the stadium, we bypass the first deck, however, opting instead to hike up to the second level on the elusive myth of beer sales. A few amber colored, draught Ziegenbocks confirm the rumor, and we settle into the open grandstands as the Owls storm onto the field through an inflatable blue tunnel in front of a meager audience.
With the field a bit greasy, the contest starts slowly as both teams struggle for position in the first quarter. The game picks up in the second frame, however, as the Owls finally start moving the ball on a pair of nice drives. Serviceable Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson connects with his favorite target, a speedy wide receiver named Mario Hull, who tallies up 150 yards on the night and a touchdown catch. While the Owls had several chances to close out the Miners, they keep the sloppy contest interesting before finally closing out the orange clad foes from the with a final score of Rice 31 UTEP 13. With the win, the Rice Owls have secured bowl eligibility and a trip to the post season!
During a break in the action, I climb a few rows up the stands to meet up with Jarrett and Al; a couple of college football fanatics that I’d located through their blog www.collegefootballquest.com. They’re easy enough to spot, as Jarrett is garbed in a signature blue Florida Gators cap, and the aluminum bleachers are all but empty. On a quest to see a game in every college stadium in the country, the dynamic duo has made it to about 27 venues so far and they keep an impressive running list of favorite spots and commentary on their website.
Averaging about 5-6 games a year, the “Questers” take a more methodical approach than my exhausting weekly blitzkrieg. Slow and steady is the name of their race, and they anticipate completing the goal around 2030, no small feat when trying to coordinate schedules around two sets of wives, children and careers. Located on Long Island, Al and Jarrett share a similar logistical challenge as I in getting to games from the college football vacuum of the northeast and their woes of airline travel ring all too familiar. We spend a few minutes chatting, swapping stories about shared adventures and future plans, some of which may overlap in the pacific Northwest in the near future. It’s yet another incredibly rare opportunity to connect with some of the few other people in the world as fanatical about exploring the sport as I am.
Special thanks to my friend Brian (pictured) for hosting me for the weekend, and agreeing to come along to a few games that a lot of other folks might pass up. Can’t wait to hit a few more with you next year man!
Thanks to the College Football Quest crew for finally getting to say hello in person and being as devoted to their journey as I am. Also, thanks for tipping me off about the early Houston kickoff time the next day. Can’t wait for our paths to cross again fellas!
Full Clickthrough Gallery Below: