Fans danced and players celebrated during Texas football’s home opener Saturday night, but Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium has seen better days.
The sun set over the rafters like normal, and Smokey the Cannon shot off on big plays. Longhorn mascot Bevo XV stared nonchalantly into the distance in typical fashion, and the Texas Hellraisers still stood shirtless in the front row, rowdy as ever.
Yet the stadium’s emptiness during Texas’ 59-3 rout of UT-El Paso was undeniable, blaring. So was the music that pounded through the loudspeakers, filling the absence of 85,000 fans.
Recordings of “The Eyes of Texas” and other Texas fight songs replaced the organic instrumentation of the Longhorn Band, which didn’t make an appearance at the game. Meanwhile, cardboard cutouts of fans — and their pets — stood in for students and season ticket holders.
Head coach Tom Herman said additions such as these made things feel a bit more familiar.
“That was a really, really neat touch to look in the stands and at least somewhat feel full and supported by our fan base,” Herman said after the game.
Much like the last several months, nothing about the game was normal. A total of 15,337 fans sat in the stands, an unusual sight outside of a pandemic. But that didn’t stop some members of the Longhorn faithful from carrying on before kickoff like they would on any other game day, minus the tailgates.
“We’re over in the parking lot that we’ve been parking in for decades where we used to have our tailgate,” Tim Taylor, a 1985 Texas Law graduate, said before the game. “(My friend) and I are just sitting here drinking a beer, and (we’re) going to head over and mosey over to the stadium.”
So life went on as before — sort of. Cowboy boots and burnt orange surrounded the stadium a couple of hours before, though sparsely. Some fans wore masks on their faces, mustering up muffled chants of “Texas Fight!” while others wore them dangling off their ears. Many, despite the signs hung up around the stadium advising fans to mask up at all times, wore no face covering at all.
“Please remember to protect Texas together,” the loudspeaker echoed outside of the stadium like clockwork. “Face coverings are required. Please be sure the face coverings you’re using completely cover your mouth and nose.”
The message wasn’t totally lost, certainly not on the Texas football sideline. As helmets came off, masks went on.
Empty seats seemed to dilute the people in attendance, but the narrow walkways lining concession stands pushed them together.
The game itself wasn't quite as hectic. In many ways, it ended on the first play, a 78-yard touchdown from senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger to redshirt sophomore receiver Joshua Moore. Shortly after that play, Texas was up 21-0. The scoreboard read “1st quarter,” but the large point difference would’ve made sense as a final score in most games.
However, the blowout didn’t change the stadium dynamic much. DKR remained mostly empty as some fans headed for the exits and the cutouts remained fixed in place.
No one knows what the repercussions of this game will be, but the Longhorns say they’re glad to be back.
“It just really felt good to get out there,” junior safety Caden Sterns said. “It felt more so like a normal Saturday than anything else because we actually had football going on, so again, I’m just thankful.”