The storied football feud between the Universities of Texas and Oklahoma reaches the end of an era this fall as the famous “Red River Rivals” bid farewell to the Big 12 conference.
But that doesn’t mean an end to the rivalry—nor to the university’s cherished tradition of running game balls from their campuses in Austin, Texas, and Norman, Okla., to Dallas, the site of the annual regular season showdown.
That comes as a relief to midshipmen in the universities’ Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) programs, who have carried the ball—and the Red River Run tradition itself—over the last 3 decades. “This is the biggest event of the year,” said Grant McCollough, an NROTC senior at the University of Oklahoma, who led his school’s run this fall. “There’s really nothing else like it in the nation.”
As his unit’s battalion commander, McCollough received the game ball from the hands of his university’s head football coach and ran it out of Oklahoma’s stadium on the Wednesday before the Oct. 7 game. Two days and some 200 miles later, he and his fellow students ran the ball onto the field of another cathedral of football: Dallas’s Cotton Bowl Stadium at Fair Park.
“The most difficult part of the run was the last mile, as my legs were pretty much destroyed by that point,” McCollough said. But he’ll cherish the memory forever: “It’ll be something I’ll share with my children.”
Braxton Robison, a senior at the University of Texas, echoed the sentiment. The first-class midshipman jogged the equivalent of a near-marathon (23.5 miles) over the 2-day slog, including a brutal stint during a violent thunderstorm in the middle of the night. To make it through, “we formed up and ran 3 miles, calling cadences along the way,” Robison said, referring to the military’s traditional call-and-response songs during marches and other work. “It’s always a little bit tough, but the camaraderie builds our morale and helps us get through it.”
The roots of the Red River Rivalry, so named for the rusty-colored mud in the river that runs along the border between Texas and Oklahoma, date back more than 100 years.
The first matchup took place at the turn of the century, back when the Sooner State was still a territory. The teams have squared off more than 100 times since. The showdown historically takes place in Dallas, a “neutral” city roughly halfway between the schools’ main campuses. The game is now one of the most hotly anticipated in college football, reliably turning out a sold-out sea of more than 90,000 fans clad in Texas orange and Oklahoma red every second Saturday of October.
In the ‘90s, the Sooners-Longhorns rivalry ushered in a new ritual: the annual ball run, managed by each school’s NROTC unit and sponsored by Navy Federal Credit Union since 2018.
Supporting these battalions during their annual run “gives us the chance to rally around military appreciation and sportsmanship,” said Pam Piligian, Chief Marketing Officer at Navy Federal Credit Union. “We’re proud to honor these midshipmen’s hard work and exemplary leadership skills through this tradition rooted in teamwork and service.”
According to ritual, each university holds a rally Wednesday before the big game, in which the head coaches give impassioned speeches before handing off the game balls to the leaders of their Naval ROTC units. The midshipmen run the ball out of the stadium and into the city, as the marching bands play.
And then the real fun begins.
Over the next 2 days, the midshipmen run the ball to Dallas while vans stocked with drinks and snacks guide the way. The units adopt a relay system, with each of roughly 5 dozen students running the ball until their legs give out. The students stop for breaks—but to be clear, neither ball touches the ground until it arrives at the stadium for game play.
Along the routes, fans emerge from homes and businesses to cheer on the caravan, sometimes waving the Stars and Stripes, said McCollough, a member of Navy Federal. “It’s the most patriotic thing you’ve ever seen. It’s like something out of a movie.”
On Thursday night, an exhausted band of midshipmen hit the sack in Dallas and wake up Friday to run the ball into the stadium, but the festivities don’t stop there, much as these students might need a break. The midshipmen head over to the Texas State Fair grounds, where they meet and greet each other, take a group photo, run in formation and hold call-and-cadences under national and military banners.
Friendly games of flag football, ultimate frisbee and tug of war ensue. For Robison, a highlight of the event came when he threw a touchdown pass to a teammate, helping the Longhorns bring home the Red River Shootout Flag Football Trophy.
On Saturday, Oklahoma edged out Texas in the actual football game (the tackle version) and took home the 10-gallon Golden Hat trophy, now on display at OU—at least until next year.
“I enjoyed nothing more than to end my participation in such a special tradition with a win over OU,” Robison said, referring to his team’s flag football victory. The best part, though, was the camaraderie, both within and between schools. “When we’re playing each other and leading up to the game, we kind of see each other as the enemy. But in the end, we are part of the same team. These are the people we’re going to be serving side-by-side with.”
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