Texas chain crew: a sideline tradition

Hannah Williford, Sports Reporter

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared as part of the November 16 flipbook. 

The Texas chain crew was running late on Saturday. 

Their carpool to Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium was forced to turn around after realizing one person grabbed the wrong field pass. Upon arrival, another realized he forgot his pass all together. But the afternoon’s misfortunes had not wiped the smiles off their faces: it was a gameday, and they were back for the first time since mid-October. 

By 4:30, the eight-person team sat on benches in their locker room. They exchanged stories from the night before and munched on carrot sticks and ranch provided by the school. Each member of the chain crew is also a highschool football referee, some of them for 30 years, others 25.

Jason Pugh is the newest to the group by far, at three.

“It’s a privilege,” Pugh said. “Being around them and being able to watch higher level college games… I cherish that.” 

They chide one member of the crew, Craig Eichelberger, for a spot of ranch on his chin and the room erupts in laughter. None of them take criticism too hard; it’s essential for a job filled with heckling from coaches and fans. 

Eichelberger has been part of the chain crew, who marks the down and distance on each play, for Texas football for the past eleven seasons. When he’s not on the field, he’s working as a Lyft driver or on his lawn care business. He’s never missed a game, even at the expense of his niece’s wedding. 

“It means that much to me,” Eichelberger said. “During football season, if UT is in town, there’s nothing else I would rather be doing.”

The rest of the crew makes sacrifices each weekend too, especially with family time. Some of the crew members leave their checks from the game in the mailbox for their wives to find in a gesture of appeasement. 

“The house gets the money in my case,” crew member John Villarreal said. “For a while there, she used to call herself a single mom during football season.”

As Texas’ kickoff against Kansas draws closer, the crew passes around names in a hat for which jobs they will do on the field. Villarreal laughs and swears: He’s been assigned to the same role he has somehow picked all season, carrying the chains. 

“One year I drew five games in a row as the alternate,” Villarreal said. “Another year I drew another five times in a row. This year it’s been chains. I’ve drawn first, I’ve drawn middle, this time I picked last and it’s the same thing.”

The crew spent the game focused, as Kansas pulled off an overtime upset against the home team. While they enjoy the best seats in the house, they are also hard at work, keeping track of the down, penalties and yard markers. Eichelberger remembers one coach who joked that he should be a fullback after barreling down the sideline to get set for the next play.

“It’s the one thing in life I take seriously,” Eichelberger said. “I know the chains are pretty simple, but then again that’s the best part. We’re not a big part of the game, but we are part of the game.” 

After the game, and despite the loss, the crew celebrates with their own late tailgate in the parking garage, complete with complimentary beer.

“It’s not just the game,” Eichelberger said. “It’s the comradery with the fellas.”