Football and Fried Beer: The Faces and Stories of the Red River Rivalry

Ben Kercheval@@BenKerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterOctober 10, 2013

Inside the Cotton Bowl, the Red River Rivalry between Texas and Oklahoma is a full-fledged grudge match 364 days in the making. Outside, it's a party.

Nowhere in college football is the backdrop for a game more unique than it is in Dallas for one weekend in October when the two sides meet at the State Fair of Texas. A pulsing crowd of thousands upon thousands dress in either burnt orange or crimson and cream. Chants of "Hook 'em Horns!" are met with "Boomer Sooner!"

Florida and Georgia may have the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, as it was previously known, but the cocktails aren't deep-fried.

Most rivalries may divide households, but they don't divide an entire stadium right down the middle.

"With the atmosphere with the stadium split in half, it's special," says Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. "It's like a bowl game in the middle of the year."

Oklahoma and Texas have played at the Texas State Fair on a consistent basis since 1929, though the stadium wasn't named the Cotton Bowl until 1936. Since the State Fair literally sits at the halfway point between Austin, Texas, and Norman, Okla., it's an ideal location for fans, alumni and recruits.

The Cotton Bowl, 1948 (Courtesy of Jason Hays)
The Cotton Bowl, 1948 (Courtesy of Jason Hays)

Texas holds a 59-43-5 edge over OU in the all-time series, but it has lost the last three games.

Texas senior offensive lineman Trey Hopkins has one more shot at Oklahoma on Saturday. He doesn't want to end his career without a win in Dallas.

"It runs through my mind often actually," Hopkins said, via TexasSports.com. "It's been three tough years."

Going winless against a Red River rival doesn't happen often. The longest win streak by either program in the game's long history is eight. Texas did it twice, once from 1940 to 1947 and again from 1958 to 1965 under legendary coach Darrell Royal.

The 108th meeting between the two teams on Saturday will be one of the most important games of Texas coach Mack Brown's career as well.

Beating the Sooners is crucial for quieting the critics calling for Brown to resign or be fired, but the odds already aren't in Brown's favor. VegasInsider.com has OU as a two-touchdown favorite, and with a rash of injuries, the 'Horns could be shorthanded.

The intensity and subsequent anxiety will be high, at least for one side.

It's just another year in the Red River Rivalry.

"There's literally something here for everyone."

For one month out of the year, Fair Park, a sprawling 277-acre entertainment complex located just to the east of downtown Dallas, becomes Times Square on New Year's Eve.

The first State Fair of Texas took place in 1886 and has grown into a colossal gathering of locals and tourists alike. There are rides, cultural and art shows and livestock displays. Standing at the center of it all is Big Tex, a 55-foot cowboy mascot that has become the iconic symbol of the event.

Big Tex at the State Fair of Texas, 2013
Big Tex at the State Fair of Texas, 2013

And of course, there's food. A Lone Star State-sized smorgasbord of it, from Mexican to German and everything in between.

The fare ranges from the classics, like corn dogs and funnel cakes, to the novel, like a deep-fried banana split. In 2005, the State Fair began handing out Big Tex Choice Awards for these fried culinary creations: one for "Best Taste" and one for "Most Creative."

The Best Taste award winners sound exquisite: a deep-fried peanut butter, jelly and banana sandwich (2005), or Texas-fried cookie dough (2007). The Most Creative winners are palate puzzlers. Fried bubblegum (2011) and deep-fried latte (2007) highlight the list of the most bizarre.

The 2013 winner for Most Creative? Fried Thanksgiving dinner.

"There's literally something here for everyone," says Elaine Yniguez, who works in public relations for the State Fair.

Mark Zable understands that better than anyone. In 2010, he won a Big Tex Choice Award for Most Creative for his fried beer.

That's a State Fair of Texas first.

In 2006, fried Coke won Most Creative, but really, it's Coke-flavored batter covered in Coke syrup. But Zable's fried beer? It's actual liquid. He has a trademark on the name and a patent on the process.

He came up with the idea in 2008, but it took him two years to figure out how to successfully deep-fry something in liquid form. When he presents it in a small food tray sponsored by Shiner Bock with a side of nacho cheese sauce, it looks like a ravioli.

Fried Beer at the State Fair of Texas
Fried Beer at the State Fair of Texas

And it tastes, well, different.

"I've never had a product as charged as this one," Zable said. "People either love it or they can't stand it. There's no in-between."

Jack Pyland probably wouldn't like fried beer. His tent, Jack's French Frys, serves up the originals with no gimmicks: hamburgers and hot dogs, french fries and funnel cakes. The business has been in his family since 1945. Pyland has worked every State Fair of Texas for the past 65 years.

Pyland's first job for the family-owned business was in advertising, so to speak, when his father needed sound effects to draw customers into the tent.

"Six months old. That's the first time I started working for him," Pyland said.

Pyland works every day from 5 a.m. to past midnight, a shift totaling between 20 and 22 hours, running his business during the month of October. He naps when he can and is constantly moving, even while nursing a broken foot.

"The fair doesn't stop for me," he says matter-of-factly.

Mark Zable
Mark Zable

On average, Pyland orders and sells 80 100-pound sacks of potatoes a day and 30 20-pound boxes of hamburgers with 80 patties to a box. Those numbers go up significantly on the day of the OU-Texas game.

The potatoes are sliced, washed and seasoned before being cooked. The process isn't fancy, but it makes for some seriously good food. The fries are fresh, hot and crispy. When topped with iodized salt and vinegar, by Pyland's recommendation, it's a satisfying snack.

"I tell people if they don't like the salt and vinegar, we'll give them another cup of fries and they can put ketchup on it or whatever they want," Pyland said. "So far, no one's taken me up on that offer."

"You are the greatest college football fan I've ever seen."

For Scott Harmon, the Red River Rivalry has been a game of business and pleasure at separate points in his life.

For about 10 years, Harmon and a group of friends were season-ticket holders for the Texas Longhorns. That included the annual game against the Sooners.

DALLAS - OCTOBER 11:  The Oklahoma Sooners play the Texas Longhorns during the Red River Rivalry at the Cotton Bowl on October 11, 2008 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Then, life happened. Scott got married and had kids. The days of pilgrimages to the Cotton Bowl came to an end, replaced by days where he worked to put his daughters through college. Now 63 years old, he works as a business development manager at Alliance Fiber Optic Products, Inc. in Dallas.

But 40 years ago, his role in the Red River Rivalry was different. He was the drum major for the Texas Longhorns' marching band.

"When you're in the band, it's a much more intense situation," Harmon says. "You have a job to do on the field, and the band takes its role as a main cheerleader. You're cheering all the time, ringing those stupid cowbells. That's probably the reason I've lost half my hearing."

Harmon first arrived at UT as a freshman in 1968, but he was immediately introduced to the passion of what was then known as the Red River Shootout. An ensemble 500 members strong at the time, according to Harmon, the marching band wouldn't take everyone; freshmen had to take turns performing on game days. And Harmon's turn came on, of all dates, Oct. 12.

UT won that year, 26-20.

Five years later, in 1973, Harmon was leading the Longhorn marching band out of the Cotton Bowl following a decisively less favorable outcome for Texas: a 52-13 drubbing that marked the beginning of the Barry Switzer era.

The 50-50 split between fanbases can create a volatile environment, and when mixed with liquid courage, some fans look to keep the fight going after the final whistle has blown.

"It's after the game. OU had beaten us that year, and beat us pretty good," Harmon says. "Here comes this giant OU fan. He's about 6'4" or 6'5" and weighs about 250 pounds. He is wearing a leisure suit made out of OU Crimson and Cream polyester, and he's raving and cursing."

Scott Harmon in the LHB, date unknown (Courtesy of Scott Harmon)
Scott Harmon in the LHB, date unknown (Courtesy of Scott Harmon)

When the Longhorn band lines up and begins to march, it can be dangerous if anyone tries to cut through. But people attempt to anyway.

Sometimes it's because they're impatient; sometimes it's to raise hell.

In this case, Harmon said, he knew the OU fan was “going to go through the band—and I'm the drum major so I'm at the front—I can see him making eyes with the twirler. I know what's going to happen. And I'm only about 6'0" and 180 pounds back then.

"So I stepped in front of him and said, 'Sir, I'm sorry, but you can't go through the band for your own safety.' And he starts cursing at me."

Only then does Harmon notice it.

"I say, 'Excuse me, but is that really a red enamel of "OU" on your two front teeth?'

"'Yeah. What of it?' the fan fired back.

"So I tell him, 'You are the greatest college football fan I've ever seen. I've seen some rabid Longhorn fans and rabid Arkansas fans, but you take the cake.'"

The situation dissolved quickly. What could have been a disaster instead morphed into a moment of comic relief.

Today, Harmon is still a fan of the 'Horns and an active member of the Longhorn alumni band. Though he hasn't been to an OU-Texas game since 1987, he still returns to Austin to perform as part of a yearly tradition.

His time as a member of the band remains a cherished memory. His only regret?

"I wish I had gotten a picture of that guy’s teeth."

"She stood there for a second with her 'Horns down' before she realized...I was down on my knee."

Once a year, college football rivalries can divide houses. The Red River Rivalry brought one together.

Clayton proposing to Lydia (Courtesy of Clayton Kelley)
Clayton proposing to Lydia (Courtesy of Clayton Kelley)

Clayton Kelley moved to Austin, Texas, in October 2010—the same weekend as the OU-Texas game. A recent graduate from the University of Oklahoma, the capital of Texas was as much unknown territory as it was enemy territory.

"I went to the game with my dad, and then I kept driving to Austin," Kelley said. "I knew no one."

Four months later, Clayton met Lydia on a blind date. It didn't take long for the pair to figure out they had pledged their allegiance to opposite sides of the Red River.

But the love for sports—and eventually, each other—trumped the rivalry. By that summer, Clayton knew he wanted Lydia to be his wife. He went through the traditional steps. He asked Lydia's father for permission and got the perfect ring.

Then, he added his own spin.

Clayton, a lifelong Sooners fan, hadn't missed a Red River game since 1998. He would take Lydia to the 2011 edition of the game with the intention of proposing to her on the field after the game.

Everyone was in on it. The plan called for Clayton and Lydia to meet their friends on the field at the 50-yard line for pictures. It would be easier, Clayton explained, than trying to meet at Big Tex "like the rest of the world."

Clayton and Lydia Kelley in 2011 (Courtesy of Clayton Kelley)
Clayton and Lydia Kelley in 2011 (Courtesy of Clayton Kelley)

The problem was that the game was a nightmare for Texas that year. Oklahoma surged to a 34-10 halftime lead and never let up. The Sooners would go on to win 55-17.

By the third quarter, Lydia had seen enough. She wanted to return to the fairgrounds for a beer and a corn dog. Clayton, enjoying the thrashing his team was delivering, then went into crisis control mode.

He begged her to stay out of the fear the plan would be ruined. "I tried to tell her if she leaves we'll never find each other after the game."

Somehow, it worked, and Clayton and Lydia made their way to the field to meet their friends.

"We had already taken some pictures, so she was getting kind of upset with me. But she agreed to one more picture," Clayton explains. "So she pouts and makes her hand into a 'Horns down' sign like you do after Texas loses and I get down on one knee.

"She stood there for a second before she realized that everyone was taking a photo and I was down on my knee."

What did Lydia do? She cried. A lot.

She also said yes.

Clayton and Lydia were married seven months later in May 2012, with their story getting the attention of the Daily Oklahoman. Their wedding cake, a replica of the Cotton Bowl, was a tribute to their engagement.

Clayton & Lydia Kelley's wedding cake (Courtesy of Clayton Kelley)
Clayton & Lydia Kelley's wedding cake (Courtesy of Clayton Kelley)

Not much has changed for the couple now that their relationship has been publicized. They still attend the Red River Rivalry and will be in the stands on Saturday.

"I get asked all the time if I was surprised," Lydia remarked. "Of course, I was surprised. We had been dating eight months."

Ben Kercheval is the lead writer for Big 12 football. All quotes and photos obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Fair Park information courtesy of the State Fair of Texas. You can follow Ben on Twitter @BenKercheval.