'Definitely a one-of-a-kind experience': Red River Rivalry atmosphere returns to 'Fantasyland'

Ryan Aber
Oklahoman

DALLAS — Entrances are a big deal at OU-Texas for the Sooners and Longhorns.

There’s the entrance to Fair Park, with the buses winding their way through narrow streets lined with fans in crimson or burnt orange, their reactions to the buses colored by their loyalties.

Then there’s the entrance onto the field, which features a walk from the locker room down the Cotton Bowl’s famous tunnel, both teams packed elbow to elbow, leading to plenty of verbal rocks being thrown and sometimes more than just words flying.

The teams come out facing a sea of burnt orange in front of them and surrounded by the Sooners fans in their crimson — the roar of both sides.

But last year, that experience was dulled.

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The 2020 Red River Showdown did feature Big Tex, shown above, but the State Fair of Texas was canceled and attendance was limited to 25% for the game. This year, things return to normal with full attendance.

There were no throngs of fans when the buses made their turn into the fairgrounds, No midway lights dancing along with the rides. No roars rising from the sides of the roads. No rocking of the buses, either in adulation or anger. No middle fingers raised toward the opposing sides.

There might as well have been tumbleweeds rolling across the plaza just a few hundred feet from the entrance to that venerable tunnel.

“Last year, it was just a ghost town,” Sooners receiver Drake Stoops said. “You just rolled right up, got off the bus, time to go to work.”

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The tunnel still had much of its intensity but upon exiting, there was no cacophony rising up from close to 100,000 fans. Instead, the stands were limited to just 25% due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

By the end of the game — a 53-45 quadruple-overtime classic — the stadium roared by 2020 standards.

“It was still loud. It was still rockin’,” OU defensive lineman Isaiah Thomas said. “Fans were still in the game.”

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But Saturday, things take a turn back to normal in Dallas. Instead of a few scattered corn dog stands, the full gluttonous array of fried foods will be available. The Cotton Bowl will be full, the fairgrounds jammed with thousands of folks who won’t make it inside the stadium, and everything that makes the Red River Rivalry the most unique rivalry in college football returns.

“Just playing the game itself brings out a lot of emotion,” OU quarterback Spencer Rattler said. “But we’d be lying if we should tell all those fans (they don’t) bring out emotion too.

“So we’re excited to just get in that environment and play.”

Jim Davis is excited too.

Davis has been going to OU-Texas games since the 1970s but last year, he watched it from work, maybe trying to take his mind off the fact he wasn’t there, making the decision not to go to games due to the pandemic.

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“It was awful,” Davis, 65, said as he stood in Marietta, trying to find a way to upgrade his upper-level seats for some in the lower bowl that might be shaded from the Texas heat that figures to be a factor Saturday. “It really was. I’m so glad we’re getting back this year.”

But though traffic along I-35 was back in a major way Friday, Davis said the annual gathering in Marietta and the caravan down the interstate to Dallas still wasn’t what it’s been in the past.

“This might be 40% of what it was before,” Davis said. “People are still dealing with the pandemic.”

But the game has long been sold out, the state fair is rolling along after being canceled in 2020 and the players are itching to make their entrances.

“It’s just crazy,” Sooners rush linebacker Nik Bonitto said. “As soon as you’re walking out that tunnel, you can already feel everybody on top of you, just screaming and yelling and all that type of stuff.

“It’s definitely a one-of-a-kind experience.”

Lincoln Riley grew up hearing all about the rivalry and watching it on television.

When he arrived at the Sooners’ offensive coordinator in 2015, though, Riley tried to avoid doing things differently the week of OU-Texas.

He was quickly disabused of that notion.

“My first time in this, I kind of tried to go with a mindset of ‘it’s just another game’ blah, blah, blah,” Riley said. “And it’s not. Not much about this game is normal. It’s almost like you’re in Fantasyland for a week and then a few hours on Saturday. Then you kind of get back to the real world or normal world when it’s over.”

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Fans gather outside Cotton Bowl Stadium before the Red River Showdown last year in Dallas. Oklahoma beat Texas 53-45 in four overtimes.