In Norse mythology, Valhalla is a heavenly temple where those who were brave enough to sacrifice their life for their land spent all of eternity. At Rice University, Valhalla is a bar.
Underneath the steps of the Civil Engineering building on campus sits what might be the smallest bar in east Texas and is run by graduate students throughout the week. Unfortunately, they aren’t open on Saturdays, so I just caught a glimpse of the door. The door stood less than five feet tall, meaning your average 7th grader would have to duck to walk through. Valhalla wasn’t my final pre-game destination, however.
The drive from Austin to Houston is a near straight shot down interstate 10, which makes for a rather uneventful flat drive, but crosses the scenic Colorado River about an hour west of Houston. Thankfully, Texas enjoys its 75 mph speed limits and four lane highways, making the drive easy (until you hit Houston traffic).
For years, the Owlcoholics have been tailgating outside Rice Stadium – rain, shine, or otherwise. They are a group of Rice alumni dedicated to having a good time every Saturday with fellow alumni and their guests. They also partner with the neighboring tent, The Dirty Birds, which is composed of former athletes at Rice. Jonathan, a leading member of the group, was gracious enough to invite me in and even introduced me to the rest of the crew.
Every hour, on the hour, you can catch the Owlcoholics participating in what I was told was the only lasting tradition besides, “not really knowing what’s going on and getting drunk.” AC/DC’s Thunderstruck plays over the speakers and everyone present participates in a round of the classic drinking game. Essentially, one person starts drinking their drink until the word, “thunder” is said and then the next person starts until they hear, “thunder” again and so on. Another classic tradition they take part in is the Ice Luge Shot. They have an ice sculpture delivered with a luge carved in it and pour all sorts of alcohol down it, where it’s received at the base (see below). Of course, I had to try my hand at it (not pictured).
Besides having the best name in the business, the Owlcoholics know how to throw a tailgate, complete with some delicious grilled wings and sausage. They’ve even picked up sponsorship from Saint Arnold’s, a local brewery, and Eddy’s Vodka, local to Austin, TX. After a sample of the beer, they’ve picked up a fine sponsor. You won’t find a better group to tailgate with in east Texas, and possibly even the country. You can find them on Facebook here, and I highly suggest checking that page out.
As much as I wanted to stay with the Owlcoholics, week 0 kickoff was approaching inside the stadium. Jonathan is an expert on Rice Stadium, even having done a paper on its construction in college. The stadium was built in the heyday of Rice football, before the Oilers or Texans were in town, he tells me, and was constructed large enough to host Super Bowl VIII in 1974. The stadium originally sat over 70,000 spectators, but one of the end zones have been covered with a tarp, making its official capacity at 47,000 today.
Unfortunately, having a stadium of that size can be a curse for Rice, with a prime example of it coming in their season opener against the Prairie View A&M (PVAMU) Panthers. The stadium is the caliber of a Power 5 school, being roughly the same size as Michigan State’s Spartan Stadium when the end zone is uncovered. The facility is old, being built in 1950, and the project was completed in less than a year. When asked if the stadium was going to be done for the 1950 season opener, the architect joked, “is it a day or night game?” The age of the stadium is no more apparent than in the restrooms, closed with ancient wooden doors and open troughs in the men’s room for urinals. Houston’s downtown skyline appears over the double-tier grandstands, reminding fans that this campus is in the middle of the city.
The monstrous grandstands were hardly filled, though, and this crowd would have looked a lot more formidable in a stadium of 30,000 or less. The away stands were absolutely packed with Panther supporters who were decked out in their black, purple, and gold. PVAMU even brought their full band, composed of well over 70 members. The Marching Storm is nationally famous, even being the leading performance in the 2017 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. At this game, The Marching Storm did not disappoint, and executed a tasteful Aretha Franklin tribute at halftime complete with a coordinated and very complicated dance routine.
Rice doesn’t have a full marching band, instead opting for a small group that specializes in comedy and making fun of opponents rather than grandeur. Some years ago, while hosting Texas A&M, “the Mob,” as they’re called, formed a fire hydrant and brought out a dog that looks rather similar to the Aggie’s sacred Reveille, and let it pee near the human fire hydrant. Of course, this left a sour taste in the mouths of the Aggies, and caused a bit of a controversy. Since then, the band has embraced their crude humor with the words, “offensive,” “distasteful,” “tacky,” and “shameless,” written on the sides of their drums.
While waiting in line to get in, I spoke to a Prairie View A&M fan and alumni, who was headed back to get her Graduate Teaching certificate in San Antonio. She talked about her passion for the team and how she loves going to all of the games even 40 years after she graduated. These fans were going to be passionate and they were going to be loud. Loud they were, with the Marching Storm drowning out all other sounds when they played, including the PA system (which Rice got into a “who’s louder” contest with, cranking up the volume numerous times).
The Panther fans definitely outnumbered Owl fans on this day, and they all brought their fire and game when it came to showing support to their team. Lucky for them, there was a lot to cheer about in their season opener; the Panthers erased a 16-0 first quarter deficit and went into halftime with a 21-19 lead. With 0:06 left in the second quarter, PVAMU quarterback Jalen Morton threw a dime of a pass to receiver Tristen Wallace to secure that lead. The pass was picture perfect, one worth a look at (above).
Rice wasn’t flat in the first quarter, though. Sophomore wide receiver Austin Trammell caught a pass in the flats, turned it up field for a gain of 14, and topped the catch off with a spectacular hurdle. Junior running back Emmanuel Esukpa had a field day on the ground, picking up 173 yards on 32 carries and a touchdown. Second string running back Austin Walter also had a great day, rushing for 83 yards and two touchdowns, including an eventual clutch score to bring the game within two.
After halftime, PVAMU didn’t let off the gas, scoring the only touchdown of the third and making the score 28-19 going into the final quarter; things were not looking great for Rice. Rice stalled the first drive of the fourth, and punted the ball away, with the Panthers starting the drive on their own 20 yard line. On the third play of the drive, a Rice defender broke free and sacked Morton, resulting in a fumble recovered by the Owls. The offense turned the strip sack into a touchdown three plays later, closing the gap 28-26.
Another defensive stand resulted in a Panthers punt. However, the long snapper sent the ball three feet over the punter’s head and it rolled out of the back of the end zone, resulting in a safety. All of a sudden, the momentum was in favor of the Owls for the first time since the first quarter. After another defensive stop, Rice took over with less than five minutes left in the game. A fantastic drive ate up clock and ended with two seconds left on the two yard line.
That’s when kicker Jack Fox walked onto the field with the chance of a lifetime – the one everyone dreams about and practices a million times in their backyard. He lined up for a 23 yard game winning field goal, just a yard longer than a standard extra point. Earlier in the game, he pushed a 51 yard attempt just left, and this was his chance to redeem himself. And redeem himself he did. The kick was right down the middle and the clock read 0:00. Rice pulled off the walk off comeback to perfection.
Though it wasn’t pretty, the Owls showed some signs of promise and at times had an unstoppable run game and a solid defense. The game was reminiscent of the ugly upset by Nicholls State back in 2007, which was mentioned to me prior to the game by the Owlcoholics. That game haunts them to this day, and they almost had another game to replace it with. Ironically, the loss to Nicholls State in 2007 was the first game of their last head coach, and this near-upset was the first game coached by new head coach Mike Bloomgren.
The second season of the tour started off with a great game, great tailgating, and a fun atmosphere, especially in the student section (which I spent some time in). At the end of the day, win or lose, every student still goes home with a degree from Rice University.
It’ll be worth heading back to Rice just to pay a visit to the Owlcoholics.
Location: Rice Stadium, Houston, TX.
Score: Prairie View A&M 28, Rice 31
Televised: ESPN+, 6:00pm CST
Weather: 94º, sunny, and humid