Thursday night, I got to watch world-class athletes engaged in competitive athletics. The event featured Heisman Trophy winners, NFL All-Pros, and MLB All-Stars. On this particular evening, they weren’t exactly providing dominating performances, and some of them didn’t really play very well at all. But that was actually just fine. They were playing slow-pitch softball.
The occasion was the Red River Celebrity Softball Game, Presented by Sewell. It featured a team of former University of Texas athletes against a group of ex-Sooners, many of whom had made an impact on the traditional football game whose latest incarnation was played Saturday. There was substantial star power on both sides. Mack Brown, Bob Stoops, and Barry Switzer controlled the dugouts. Heisman honorees Ricky Williams, Billy Sims, and Jason White participated. Lombardi Trophy winner Tommie Harris played. We saw National Champions like Vince Young and Joe Washington. Both teams had a former Dallas Cowboy named Roy Williams. And former professional baseball players dotted the rosters, too, including the likes of Huston Street, Bobby Witt, Greg Swindell, and Brad Penny. The Texas captain was Roger Clemens. Oklahoma was led by Clemens’ good friend (except for this week) Toby Keith. And just add another layer of celebrity, Matthew McConaughey played for the Longhorn side.
Mack Brown only pretended to get angry at the umpires after a close call, but you could also see that he was actually paying attention. Throughout the contest, he would confer with players. He preferred to win.
All the participants did. Some, like Texas’s Kasey Studdard and Oklahoma’s Roy Williams, were especially vocal about it, but the competitive instincts of all the participants were in evidence. Keith stood in front of the dugout for much of the game watching intensely. When on-field reporter Bonnie-Jill Laflin interviewed Brown after his mock tirade, he joked about helping the umpires do their jobs, but the players did make sure throughout that the umpires were as into the game as they were. Indeed, on what proved to be the game-winning RBI, Street lost a chance at another run when he missed third base and his OU opponents successfully appealed.
We saw how much athleticism many of them still possessed. The likes of Johnathan Gray and Mark Clayton can still cover a lot of ground. Some of the former football players weren’t great at catching the unfamiliar softball once they got to it, but we still saw a lot of skillful plays made. Even the likes of McConaughey and country singer Billy Dawson could play some.
The Texas side won 17-16, with Street’s sixth-inning double making the difference. The Longhorns won the football game a couple of days later, too, in a similarly close contest.
None of the above was a shock. Last year’s softball game ended in a tie, so we could figure this year’s affair would be a tight one as well, and I think we expect even retired top-tier athletes to remain competitive and to retain some of the skills that got them to the top. But there was one thing about the game that did surprise me a bit, and pleasantly so. During the later innings we had scheduled (disclosure: I was part of the team that planned the event and got paid for doing so) videos about each of the charitable beneficiaries. The Roger Clemens Foundation, the Toby Keith Foundation, and McConaughey’s just keep livin Foundation would each be featured on the Dr Pepper Ballpark video screen during an inning break. I admit to having been a little concerned about that, because non-sports edited videos often don’t grab a crowd’s attention the way live features do. But that was not the case Thursday. The fans watched them all, and applauded them. They were paying attention to more than the game, and that, of course, is the ultimate reason why all the luminaries assembled in Frisco in the first place – to channel the emotion stirred by the Texas-OU rivalry in a positive direction, no matter how good or bad the softball was.