AUSTIN, Texas -- Put yourself in a back brace for five months.
Even worse, consider why you're in one in the first place. You played high school football with complete fractures of two vertebrae. For a month. At least. Feel the pain, but blow it off because, you know, this is Texas schoolboy football. Friday Night Lights and all that.
Get out of the car one night after a game and realize your legs are tingling. Suddenly, it's not the back spasms you thought, nor the tight hamstrings. These are the L4 and L5 vertebrae -- the ones that help shield your thoracic nerves -- barking back at you.
Try to raise your right arm. The one with the torn labrum. It happened during your junior year in high school, a year after the back problems. Now play with the torn muscle through your freshman year in college for your beloved Longhorns. Why let on? In high school, you were the hardest hitter on defense and the biggest threat on offense.
In college, you're a budding star. One publication names you a second-team freshman All-American in 2008. It's not until after that season that you finally let them go in and clean up the shredded shoulder.
"Stapled it all back down," you say confidently.
Now read the message boards from that horrible night of Nov. 1. The haters needed a place to vent.
If he would have caught the ball, they would still be No. 1.
Yep, he dropped it. Adios, Texas.
Easiest pick I've ever seen, simple tip drill, really. Guess that's why he plays safety instead of WR. This kid better transfer. Gotta feel for him.• Big 12: Conference page | All-Decade Team | SB Nation | B/R | Podcast
Except they don't feel for you. They keep coming, blowing up your cell phone. Giving you the fish eye on campus.
"When he walked to class the next week," your dad says, "there was a 50-yard radius around him like he had a disease."
Are you OK with being the pariah, the goat, college football's Bartman? On the Catholic calendar, Nov. 1 is All Saints Day. That night, Texas safety Blake Gideon was the ultimate sinner.
The Drop. It meant everything to the 2008 season. More to Texas. When Gideon let a sure interception fall to the ground with eight seconds left on Nov. 1 against Texas Tech, a hole was bored in the gut of Orangebloods everywhere. A pick, that pick, would have sewn up a 33-32 win in Lubbock and preserved that No. 1 ranking. Instead, the world quickly spun out of control.
Texas' world. College football's world. Blake Gideon's world. There it was, the ball skidding off the hands of Tech receiver Edward Britton, fluttering in mid-air right into Gideon's waiting arms.
The Texas Tech radio voices screamed as one.
"No, no!" they said. "Game over."
|Preseason All-Big 12|
|RB||Kendall Hunter||Jr.||Oklahoma State|
|WR||Dez Bryant||Jr.||Oklahoma State|
|OL||Russell Okung||Sr.||Oklahoma State|
|OL||Brandon Carter||Sr.||Texas Tech|
|Ret||Perrish Cox||Sr.||Oklahoma State|
No, the story -- the anguish -- was just beginning. Given a second chance, on the next play Graham Harrell fired the game-winning pass to Michael Crabtree that has been immortalized in Lubbock, posted on YouTube and seared into the minds of every Longhorn like a brand to the hide of Bevo.
Sure enough, the 39-33 Red Raiders victory turned out to be the difference in, well, everything: The Big 12 South Division race, the Heisman Trophy and the national championship. It allowed Bob Stoops to gleefully take the podium 29 days later as the beneficiary of the mind-melting Big 12 tiebreaker that no one could explain, let alone understand.
"'Are you sick about this?' It's what everybody wants to know about," Gideon said. "Enough jokes about it, it doesn't bother me anymore."
Bullfeathers, said Blake's dad.
"It hurt him and you could tell it hurt him," Steve Gideon corrected.
Maybe the injuries had steeled Blake. Certainly being a coach's son built some protective coating around the player's psyche. The Leander (Texas) High School coach cut his son no slack when they were together as player and coach.
"This wasn't a case of daddy taking care of boy," the coach/father said. "This was a case of daddy being harder on son. I told him it's not fair. You didn't choose me as your father."
It all added up to Blake being bred Texas tough. He was a two-time all-state selection, just 15 miles up the road from Austin. Gideon once wrecked rival Pflugerville with 15 tackles, an interception, a forced fumble, a blocked extra point, 99 yards rushing and a touchdown.
"Not in a game," Steve Gideon said when asked if there had been similar muff by Blake in high school. "He always made the plays. He was our home-run threat."
The Drop, though, seemed like a lingering kick in the crotch. Five weeks after the Texas Tech loss, Texas had to watch Oklahoma's Sam Bradford win the Heisman by 122 points over the quarterback who had beaten him in October, Colt McCoy.
That Red River Rivalry usually decided the Big 12 South. But two months after Texas defeated Oklahoma 45-35 and 35 days after The Drop, OU was beating the hell out of Missouri to win its sixth conference title of the decade. A day after that, the BCS standings proclaimed that Oklahoma would play in its fourth championship game this decade.
Almost 10 weeks after Blake Gideon cradled the ball, the game and the season in his belly, the Sooners were the ones playing for the national championship. But a cradle is not a catch, as he would be reminded over and over.
"How many in here made a mistake last night?" the voice roared at the Texas players a day after the nightmare in Lubbock. "Raise your hand if you made a mistake."
Hands shot up.
"So I don't want to hear Blake's name ever mentioned again," Texas coach Mack Brown said.
Brown doesn't draw attention to himself most of the time. He surrounds himself with capable coaches, recruits the hell out Texas and lets the machine keep purring. It's the kind of moment described above, though, that is not in the job description.
While preserving a freshman's mental state, he might have saved a team.
Texas is back in the running in 2009, its mind clear of negative thoughts, No. 2 in the coaches poll. Boil the season down to its essence and it looks like Florida defending its championship against the 'Horns. The game Texas wanted, just a year late.
Unless, of course, No. 3 Oklahoma intervenes.
Cue, sweaty palms in Austin. They can't wait to get back at it, but they can't believe what happened last season. Not just The Drop. The whole unraveling of the season that Texas had no control over. Blake will never admit it affected him, anyway. It was up to others to smooth over the rough spots. Brown did his part. McCoy raced through the dead-quiet locker room that night and reminded his teammates how much they had to play for.
"It's not like I was going to call home and get sympathy," Blake said.
Both parents were athletes. Mom, Ralene, was a high school sprinter. Dad was a defensive back at Stephen F. Austin. When Blake came of age, the high school rules were set down in eighth grade.
"In order for you to earn a spot, you've got to be twice as good as the guy at your position," Steve Gideon said. "I'm sorry you're a coach's son, but that's how it is."
Their relationship through Blake's high school years was so formal that the son found himself calling his father "coach" at home. Coach kept his promise, riding his son, practically following him to study hall in order to keep the grades above reproach.
After carefully considering The Drop, coach/dad might have been breaking apart inside himself, but he damn sure kept the promise.
"Everybody's looking at The Lollipop," as Steve Gideon called it. "Every one of those plays should have been made. That's the coach's perspective in me."
That's the thing. Blake was an easy target, even for a dad. Too easy. We see a kid drop a lollipop and it's easy to assign blame. But the defense as a whole that night gave up almost 580 yards. Fellow safety Earl Thomas, himself a redshirt freshman, stopped after Crabtree caught the ball along the sideline and scored with one second remaining. Thomas thought he heard a whistle and didn't want to be called for a personal foul if he hit Crabtree.
"My heart kind of dropped when I saw him keep going," Thomas said. "I think I cried after the game. I cried that night."
You want to talk drops? McCoy estimates his offensive teammates dropped at least 10 balls in the game, eight in the first half when Tech jumped to a 22-6 lead.
"You can't expect your defense to hold on, hold on," McCoy said.
Not in the Big 12, where the conference was mocked in some quarters for its weekly shootouts. Not with a pair of freshman safeties.
But the message boarders didn't know about the bad back Blake played with in high school, probably at risk to his health. They don't know about the shoulder he played with that night against Tech. They didn't know that Thomas and Gideon had otherwise outstanding freshman seasons.
When Brown offered up the notion that Britton tipped the ball, making it harder to catch, Blake would have none of it.
"If you say that, it sounds like an excuse," the coach's son said. "If anything, it made it easier to catch. I don't want people to make excuses for me or why we lost."
Thomas' 72 tackles were second on the team. He blocked a punt, made two interceptions, forced four fumbles and broke up 17 passes. Gideon was No. 3 for Texas in tackles and made honorable mention All-Big 12. Tough? Against Kansas, Gideon was trucked by running back Angus Quigley and lay motionless on the turf for 20 seconds. He was back the next week.
A case can be made that the pair's best game came against Oklahoma. They combined for 19 tackles against the Sooners.
Does anyone remember? Does that make up for a couple of nationally telecast miscues? The words of his dad began to run through Blake's head: Don't let one play beat you twice. In other words, moping would only create mental Angus Quigleys running all over Gideon's brain.
"I think I heard it all," Blake said. "I knew what was coming. All that doesn't really matter to me. All those guys who post the blogs, that's not who I play for. I play for those 100 guys sweating and hurting and going through it." Call it a freshman hazing. A very public, mind-blowing, soul-crushing freshman hazing. Before he ever got to Austin, Thomas heard whispers back in his native Orange, Texas, that he'd never be good enough for the big boys, coming out of a 3A school.
Gideon was reminded of his anonymity while trying to find his playing self in NCAA '09.
"Freshman No. 21 didn't look a whole lot like me," said Gideon, who is white.
His football-playing avatar in the game is African-American.
The EA Sports folks had it half right.
"All my buddies were telling me my catching ability [rating in the game] was a little overrated," Gideon said.
At some point there has to be those jokes, a resignation, a moving on. McCoy remembers the healing process beginning in the locker room minutes after the Texas Tech loss.
"That was probably the biggest moment, for me, all year long," the quarterback said. "If you walked through there, every person had their face in their hands, they're disappointed and they're throwing things."
Then McCoy reminded them there was still so much out there hanging in the balance. A BCS bowl, a conference championship. Win the rest and who knows where they would end up? It turned out to be a glitzy, but still disappointing berth in the Fiesta Bowl, thousands of miles away from where the 'Horns wanted to be, South Florida. No conference title. No national championship berth.
Texas gets credit for rallying up and beating Ohio State in the final seconds of the Fiesta. The bitterness is only truly forgotten, though, if Gideon and his 'Horns rally up this season and flush every memory, every image of The Drop.
Steve Gideon has begun a collection near his office at Leander High of former players who have received college scholarships. Some colleges have sent pictures, some haven't. One thing is for sure. Earlier this summer there was no picture of his son on the wall.
Blake's picture had fallen off.
It had ... dropped.
Let the flushing begin.
"I'm going to make a play that wins a game before I leave here," Blake Gideon promised. "There's going to be a situation where the team is going to need me to step up. You don't get just one play in your life, in your career."
Offensive Player of the Year
Colt McCoy, QB, Texas: This is the Heisman runner-up's time. Overshadowed by Sam Bradford and Tim Tebow, McCoy might just win the ultimate hardware in December. With a year to go in his career, McCoy already is Texas' career leader in touchdown passes and wins. Given his incredible marksmanship, he might even break the single-season accuracy record he set last season, 76.67 percent. With Texas still searching for a reliable running attack, McCoy might have to carry that load too. A 3,000/1,000 season isn't out of the question.
Defensive Player of the Year
Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska: When does an interior lineman lead the team in interceptions? When that lineman is arguably the Big 12's best defensive pro prospect. For added emphasis, Suh returned both interceptions for touchdowns. His 19 tackles for loss were the third most in program history by a lineman. Suh is virtually unblockable. He just needs some help around him. Bo Pelini thinks he has it this year with the Huskers challenging for the North Division title.
Predicted order of finish
1. Kansas: If this were Miami, Dezmon Briscoe, Kerry Meier and Todd Reesing would be on the cover of every preseason mag in the country. Meier is the leading returning receiver in catches per game (10.8). Briscoe is second in receiving yards per game (108.2). Reesing already has led the Jayhawks to an Orange Bowl and is in line to become the school's best quarterback ever. Mark Mangino already has proven he can coach. If a new set of starting linebackers can tackle and if KU can beat either Oklahoma, Texas or Texas Tech (Mangino is a combined 0-9 against the three) this could be a special season. The Jayhawks get the slight edge in the North because the Nebraska game is at home. Must-see game: Nov. 28 vs. Missouri in Kansas City. Something tells me that at least one of the teams will be playing for the division title. The first two MU-KU games in Kansas City have been classics.
2. Nebraska: Pelini is slowly building Huskerville back to its usual standards. Slowly is the key word because defense is Pelini's thing and the D showed astounding lapses last year. Slowly, because Nebraska has not had a first-team All-American on the defensive line in 12 years. Suh could break the streak. Some draft boards already have him in the top five. There is little room for error at quarterback, where Pelini is a turned ankle away from having real problems. Zac Lee is the guy after Patrick Witt, who was being counted on, left before the spring. A lot of folks think Nebraska has the advantage in the North because of its schedule. I see road trips to Missouri, Baylor, Kansas and Colorado, plus a home game against Oklahoma. Please tell me, how that is favorable? Must-see game: Nov. 14 at Kansas. That easier conference schedule won't mean anything unless the Huskers finish the deal in Lawrence. Two years ago in Larrytown, Kansas dropped 76 points on Nebraska, the most in Nebraska history.
3. Missouri: The Tigers will take a dip after back-to-back Big 12 North titles. Missouri knows it. The fans know it. The league knows it. The key is trying to make an 8-4 season seem like a success. Six-foot-five Blaine Gabbert takes over for Chase Daniel, only the greatest QB in Missouri history. He would be wise to spread the ball out to 1,000-yard rusher Derrick Washington and receivers Danario Alexander and Jared Perry. The Tigers will score, just not as often. If the defense is shored up at all this team could be on the fringe of contending in the North. At times, the secondary looked like a fire drill. All-American linebacker candidate Sean Weatherspoon passed up the draft and will chase the school's career tackles record as a senior. Must-see game: Nov. 28 vs. Kansas in Kansas City. God, these teams hate each other.
4. Colorado: Has Hawk Love turned into Hawk Doubt? Entering his fourth season in Boulder, Dan Hawkins has won only 13 games. The pressure is on to produce (hint: Big 12 North contention and a bowl game). Hawkins isn't backing down, saying this at the senior banquet: "Ten wins, no excuses." It was a killer that speedy receiver/returner Josh Smith left the team. Freshman tailback sensation Darrell Scott was upstaged by fellow freshman Rodney Stewart, who led the team in rushing. Here's the scary thing: In a league with unrelenting offenses, CU has lost six of its top 10 tacklers. Must-see game: Sept. 5 vs. Colorado State. Hawkins needs some positive vibes right away. Beating the Rams to kick off the season is a good start.
5. Kansas State: This isn't the old Big Eight for Bill Snyder. Back in 1989, he was taking over Kansas State from a zero position. This time he is chasing his own legacy. Not to diminish what Snyder accomplished, but back in the early 1990s, Missouri and Kansas were jokes and Oklahoma was sliding. There was no Texas to play two out of every four years. The Big 12 has more depth and strength than the Big Eight as Snyder tries for Miracle In Manhattan II. Snyder got K-State from dregs to the brink of a national championship game in nine years. Will the 69-year-old have that much time this go around? Must-see game: Nov. 7 vs. Kansas. If Snyder is going to get the Wabash Cannonball back on the track, he must start beating the Jayhawks regularly.
6. Iowa State: Iowa State swapped coaches with Auburn. Gene Chizik went to the Tigers, Auburn defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads came to Ames to be head coach. Rhoads, from nearby Ankeny, seems like he wants to stay a while. He'll be looking up at the rest of the Big 12 North -- also for a while. Ripping Wally Burnham from South Florida to be his defensive coordinator was a huge get for Rhoads. The offense will have a chance with dual-threat Austen Arnaud at quarterback. Must-see game: Sept. 12. vs. Iowa. An unsung rivalry that has been surprisingly competitive.
Who will win the Big 12?
Total Votes: 10,554
1. Texas: Mack Brown smiled when I told him I had his pregame speech ready for the OU game. "We beat the Sooners last year, boys. Now let's go out and get some revenge!" Yeah, it's about that and a lot of things for Brown and the 'Horns. Except for perhaps some suspect running backs, Texas is loaded. Brown has his best team since the 2005 national championship crew. Hybrid defensive end/linebacker Sergio Kindle should be this season's Brian Orakpo. McCoy is driven not only by the tiebreaker but also his second-place finish in the Heisman. Must-see game: Oct. 17 vs. Oklahoma in Dallas. It all boils down to this one. The winner could play for the national championship. Maybe.
2. Oklahoma: Sam Bradford won the Heisman, became the first quarterback to win back-to-back Big 12 titles and got the Sooners to the national championship game. What is there left to accomplish? Plenty for Bradford, who listened to family and advisers and put off the NFL. His body can fill out a bit and it doesn't look like there will be a Matthew Stafford to compete with in the draft this year. Oklahoma's questions are at offensive line and receiver. If this were anywhere else but the Big 12 South, the Sooners would be prohibitive favorites to repeat. With a break here or there, they still might end back up in the national championship game. Must-see game: See above.
3. Oklahoma State: With apologies to Texas and Oklahoma, this could be the best offense in the Big 12, if not the country. Returning are a 1,500-yard rusher (Kendall Hunter), an All-American receiver (Dez Bryant), and a 65 percent passer with 25 touchdowns through the air (Zac Robinson). The problem remains defense. New defensive coordinator Bill Young is the Cadillac of his profession. Okie State will be better just because of his presence. Perrish Cox is developing into an NFL talent at corner and is one of the nation's best returners. Must-see game: Sept. 5 vs. Georgia. Two years ago the Dawgs won in Athens 35-14. The team they'll see in Stillwater will be angrier and more talented.
4. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders slip back to the 8-4 level this season. You know the drill: New quarterback Taylor Potts will throw for eight million yards. There will be a 1,000-yard receiver or two. Mike Leach will be his usual quote-machine self. However, last season's 11-2 finish was a once-in-10-year event. There is payback waiting at Texas, at Oklahoma State and at Nebraska to name a few. Must-see game: Sept. 19 at Texas. The 'Horns are looking for blood. They'll settle for a 30-point victory.
|2009 Conference Previews|
5. Baylor: Does any Big 12 school have more upside? Joe Pawelek is an All-Big 12 linebacker. Center J.D. Walton anchors the offensive line now that Jason Smith is gone. But let's be honest, the moment quarterback Robert Griffin followed coach Art Briles to Baylor (from his commitment to Houston), things took off. A sprinter with Olympic aspirations, Griffin gave up the Big 12 track season to concentrate on what should be his breakout season in Waco. If there is a one-man team in the league, this is it. Griffin also was the team's No. 2 rusher. With more weight and more knowledge, Griffin should become the most elusive dual-threat in the Big 12 since Vince Young. At stake is the end of a 14-year bowl drought. That ties for the longest active streak among BCS schools. Must-see game: Nov. 28 vs. Texas Tech in Arlington. Two minutes to go, Baylor down by three. It would be great if Griffin had to drive his team 70 yards to secure the first bowl bid since 1994.
6. Texas A&M: One former Big Eight coach said it during the offseason: This is A&M, it should be able to go over to the Houston high schools and scrounge up a couple of defensive linemen. In Mike Sherman's second season, D-line is a good place to start. The one-time Wrecking Crew was Charmin soft as one of the worst defensive units in the country. In conference play, the Aggies gave up less than 35 once. Once! Nineteen players had surgery in the offseason. The Aggies better get fat early. The season ends with Oklahoma, Baylor and Texas. Must-see game: Oct. 3 vs. Arkansas in Arlington. Stinking up Jerry Jones' new palace is not recommended. This is the last chance for A&M to get fat in the non-conference before wading into the Big 12 schedule.