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Even if the game goes on as planned, it won’t be Texas-Oklahoma without the State Fair

What makes the Red River Showdown so special is that it’s not just a game, it’s the Mardi Gras of football.

When our most trusted source told America early in 1968 that the war in Vietnam would end in stalemate, at best, Lyndon Johnson knew he was done. “If I’ve lost Cronkite,” the president told advisors, “I’ve lost Middle America.”

A similar high-level announcement indicates the end of college football, at least as we’ve come to love it locally.

Big Tex said so.

Or more to the point, Big Tex’s handlers said so. The big guy won’t say anything at all this fall. No boom of “Howdy, folks!” as you frame your annual selfie. No explaining the dude’s semi-tragic story to the kids.

No deep-fried exotics to chance. No Elvis in butter. No pigs on the hoof. No swings on high. No stomach in your throat.

No corny dog.

No State Fair.

No Texas-OU.

“Oh my gosh,” Mack Brown said from Chapel Hill, N.C. “The State Fair of Texas. That’s when you know it’s real.

“We have a real pandemic now.”

The Big 12 may persist in this farce and play a football game Oct. 10 at the Cotton Bowl, if COVID-19 doesn’t force a cancellation of football first. Might as well go ahead and pull the plug, if you ask me. What’s a college football season around here without Texas-OU? Both sides of the border say they’re still planning on playing, but even if they do, it won’t be the same. They can dress it up all they want. Even sprinkle the Cotton Bowl with a few thousand fans to keep it from looking post-apocalyptic. But it won’t make it Texas-OU.

The setting is what makes it “so unique and the greatest game, in my opinion, in college football,” as Texas’ athletic director, Chris Del Conte, told our Chuck Carlton.

What makes it so special is that it’s not just a game, it’s the Mardi Gras of football. The greatest annual sporting event in Texas. Sure, the rivalry is intense, with jobs and national aspirations on the line. But that’s not what appeals to the legions of devotees with no particular loyalty to either school. On the second Saturday of October, the agnostics put aside their personal devotions and antipathies and celebrate a cultural touchstone, a happening, the world’s biggest, bawdiest, built-in tailgate.

Stripping the fair from the game is like yanking the azaleas out of Augusta National or removing the set from Hamilton. Bad enough when they jacked up the capacity and ruined the fair’s sightlines from the pressbox. At least you knew it was still out there. You could practically feel it pulsating.

If not for the flavor of the fair, the rivalry might as well revert to home-and-home, as Texas officials threatened years ago in an effort to force Dallas officials to spruce up the Cotton Bowl. If not for the fair, we wouldn’t have needed Pete Schenkel, the Dallas icon, to work so hard to smooth it all over.

Of course, there are financial reasons to lament this loss, as well. The fair means as much as a half-billion dollars annually to the local economy, more than a week’s worth of a Super Bowl, as our Michael Granberry reports. Which should tell you something about the gravity of the situation. As Mitchell Glieber, president of the State Fair of Texas, told Granberry, as “heartbreaking,” as the decision was, they couldn’t risk “becoming a major contributing factor to the struggle that Texas and Dallas County are experiencing.”

As is often the trouble with the truth, it doesn’t make it any easier to take. Until Tuesday’s announcement, in fact, I had refused to consider the possibilities. One catastrophe at a time, you know.

Granted, some of you may not be as troubled by the news. The fair is simply too crowded, too hot, too messy. Overrated and underwhelming. I hear you. It’s not perfect. What it is, is a rollicking reminder of who we are and were and an opportunity to laugh at our glorious imperfections.

Like it or not, though, the fair defines Dallas. What would you rather outsiders think of first? The airports? The grassy knoll? The Trinity? Fort Worth has the stockyards and the rodeo. Houston still has NASA, Austin the capitol and San Antonio the Alamo.

Dallas? Big Tex.

Probably worth noting here that, besides my affection for the fair and Texas-OU, there’s a reason I take it personally. In the fall of ’86, I was standing in the shadow of Big Tex, talking to the brother of a woman who’d wandered off to find a restroom, when I asked if I had any shot at dating his sister. Until that moment, she’d just been a friend. I was nervous. Her brother gently nudged.

I can see her now, walking toward me from the Midway, smiling, and me thinking, “Here we go.”

Anyway, there won’t be any memories made this fall at the fair. No laughing at a daughter gnawing on a turkey leg the size of her head. No debating with a son which pig looks fastest.

No old lady giving a team bus the finger.

Maybe next year.

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