It’s no secret that Texas is hot, especially in late August and early September. The sun beats down at a UV Index of 12 constantly, and there’s almost no escape from the suffocating heat. The first Saturday of September proved to bring some of central Texas’ worst, where the heat index was pushing 105º and a sun so bright it’s dangerous to the unprotected eye. However, that did not stop over 45,300 from coming out to McLane Stadium that afternoon – a sellout.
In 2016, disturbing reports arose regarding a sexual assault scandal involving multiple football players and revolting recruiting tactics that brought a serious investigation under Baylor University. Head coach Art Briles and several coaches and athletic administrators were promptly relieved of their duties amidst the investigations. Baylor began the 2016 season ranked 8th in the AP Polls after climbing as high as 2nd the previous season, and the program was looking to be continuing success. But these reports destroyed the program, and Baylor finished 7-6 in 2016, followed by 1-11 in 2017.
Regardless of the previous year’s lack of success, there was a buzz for the 2018 opener at home against Abilene Christian and droves of Baylor students and fans headed to the athletic section of campus to tailgate. McLane Stadium was built on the Brazos river in 2014, making it one of the newer (and nicer) stadiums in the country. Fans take full advantage of the river by tailgating near and on the water. Those with boats will take friends and family out on the water to enjoy food and drinks before the game begins. This is a popular tradition known as “sailgating,” which can only be found elsewhere at the University of Tennessee and University of Washington. Though attempts were made, we were unable to find someone to sailgate with.
Because the river cuts through the center of the athletics section of campus, bridges run over it to allow for foot traffic to cross from campus to tailgate to stadium. This bridge, with the stadium prominently behind, has become a popular photo spot for all fans, and even has locks on it from couples wanting to mark their place at Baylor. Closer to game time, the bridge can become a popular focus in photos of its own as thousands trek across it to the game.
At the apex of the bridge, almost every tailgating tent can be seen in every direction. To the left is the Brazos and the iconic Waco suspension bridge; to the right is the softball fields, indoor facility, and a large concentration of tailgaters, both student and non-student; up ahead is the stadium and all of the buzz going on around it; and behind you is the campus with thousands of tailgaters and students. The sight is incredible and gives the complete feel of Baylor in just one spot. The Waco suspension bridge is known for being lit up green and gold on game nights, but has a tradition that stretched back for years that might only be known to the locals. Normally practiced by kids, people go onto the bridge with packages of tortillas and toss them like frisbees onto the old bridge’s concrete supports, which rise just out of the water like targets. The object of the game is to get as many tortillas onto the supports as you can in 10 tries (or however many tortillas are in the package). Driving past, you can see dozens of tortillas on these concrete cylinders that have been there for who knows how long.
Waco is a city known for its food trucks. Dozens of them line parking lots all over town, including at popular tourist destination, Magnolia, which is the official shop of the popular HGTV shot, “Fixer Upper.” Well on my way to Magnolia to get some photos and a bite to eat, I ran across Twisted Root Burger Co., a local beer and burger joint that has less than 20 locations across north-central Texas. My last trip to Texas, I ran across their Arlington location and had one of the best burgers of my life, so I decided to stop in and try it again. Each location is uniquely built, with no two restaurants looking alike. This one was built in an old storage warehouse with tall ceilings and bare concrete walls. The games of the day were projected directly onto the walls, which provided the primary lighting for the place.
After enjoying my burger and a couple local craft brews, I made the almost-mile trek to Baylor’s campus. The campus buildings are uniform and polished, something I’m admittedly a sucker for when admiring colleges. The light red-brown bricks and concrete trim give the campus a crisp feel, topped off by the gardens and headed by a statue of Judge Robert Baylor (founder and for which the university was named after). Families of future students and alumni gather under the shade of oak trees to take pictures from the lap of the judge. Following the iconic gold-domed university building back, you find the student union.
Behind that student union is home to Baylor’s mascot – a real bear. I ran across the enclosure that belongs more in a zoo than on the campus of a Big XII school and spent time waiting my turn to get a photo with the bear, which is named, “Joy.” Fortunately, we caught Joy between naps and playing with a red ball that no doubt had some sort of food in it. The kids who came to see Joy were elated and were very eagerly pointing out that a real bear was in front of their eyes to their parents.
After some quality time with Baylor’s mascot, I decided to head towards the stadium. Most of the students were headed to McLane Stadium at the same time I was, and I ended up following droves of Yellow-jersey’d students with the same number 22 on their backs. These students are part of the freshman class of 2022 at Baylor and would be participating in its favorite tradition: The Line. The Line is made up of thousands of freshman all wearing the same yellow jersey (with their unique name or nickname on the back) and get to form the gauntlet for the team to run through prior to kickoff.
The students packed themselves in one of the tunnels nearly an hour before kickoff, all itching to be one of the first in line. When the time finally comes, they are announced, and the students take off running across the field to the opposite corner where they would welcome in their Bears; it’s amazing no one was trampled in the process. Periodically, the students would start chants and scream, which created a deafening roar across the stadium. Once they were finished high-fiving their team, the students take off running again, this time into the stands were they would be the front line of the student section (specially marked with yellow benches). Most schools pin their freshman in the back or in the corner of sections, but Baylor puts their youngest students right up front. The excitement from the class of 2022 created a bit of a hostile environment for the opposing Abilene Christian Wildcats.
I would catch up with The Line later in the game, and instead made my way to my seat in the north end zone. Though McLane only sits 45,000 spectators (the smallest in the Big XII and sixth smallest among Power 5 schools), it looks imposing from the outside. The stadium is more circular rather than oval, giving a wide main concourse and a secondary concourse around and sits open on the south end facing the Brazos. Inside the bowl, however, it is cozy. Like many modern stadiums, there’s not a bad seat in the house; they put you right on top of the action. The highlight of McLane Stadium is the press box that sits on the western half of the stadium. Though not the biggest, it is impressively nice from the outside.
The only issue with the closed-in design of the stadium is that it completely blocks off air flow and breeze from reaching the lower bowl. The stagnant air heats up from an already-oppressive 95º to well over 100º. The sellout helped the stadium become even more of an oven, with little more than a few inches of room separating your sweaty arm from the sweaty arm of your seat neighbor. The main concourse provides little relief, either. To take air breaks, fans have to go to the outer concourse, which provides a pleasant breeze and a quick cool down. The upper stands had some airflow, making them a popular second-half move.
Baylor started their opening drive of 2018 off slowly, going three and out and punting the ball to Abilene Christian (ACU) after looking passive and having some bad play calls. On their next drive, Baylor stalled inside the 20 yard line and settled for a field goal. However, it took the Bears little time to find their legs. On their next offensive drive, quarterback Jalan McClendon fired a 25-yard pass to wide receiver Jalen Hurd, who made a spectacular twisting, jumping catch.
The fast start saw Baylor off to a 17-0 first quarter lead, which was cut by a long ACU pass. Baylor had their fair share of long plays, with four scoring plays of 20 or more yards in the first half. Until five minutes left in the half, Baylor held a 24-7 lead. That’s when scoring accelerated. In the last five minutes of the second quarter, ACU kicked two field goals, and ripped off a 75-yard touchdown run while Baylor scored with runs of 31 and 54 yards, making the score 38-20 going into the half. Baylor closed the game out, keeping a 21-point lead for most of the third quarter and finalizing the game with a touchdown in the fourth.
The explosive energy that the crowd brought in the first half dissipated in the second half, though attendance remained high. People were there, they just weren’t as excited about the Bears dominating win as they were in the first half. I believe the main contributor to that was the suffocating heat in the stadium, which did a number on my enthusiasm, as well as most everyone else. By the time the game was over, I was flat out exhausted.
Baylor wasn’t tested very hard in their season opener, but showed some signs of a dangerous offense, which included running back John Lovett, who forced nine missed tackles and had three touchdowns of his own. Like many Big XII teams, the defense left a lot to be desired, allowing several big plays due to poor discipline and missed assignments.
If you are considering going to a game in Waco, make it in October or later. The summer months in central Texas is a workout in its own and will guarantee to have you finishing four bottles of water on your drive home.
Location: McLane Stadium, Waco, TX.
Score: Abilene Christian 27, Baylor 55
Weather: 95º, sunny and oppressive