There's a distinct difference between heroes and legends.
Darrell Royal built Texas into a college football blue-blood.
Heroes are the baseball players you collected bubble gum cards of as a kid. They fade from your mind only to venture back in at random times, but thinking about how they'd hit that towering home run that made you completely in awe of their being makes you crack a smile as you wax nostalgia.
Legends are an entirely different breed. They're the type of people who form your ideology as a person. They're the reason that team is engrained in your DNA. They're the reason you went to that university.
You don't forget legends. They never die.
And yet while both can be distinctly identified as two totally separate entities, Darrell Royal is wholly and completely one in the same.
I was born nearly seven full years after Royal – who passed away on Wednesday at the age of 88 – coached his final game inside the stadium that now bears his name. Having never gotten to see his Texas teams grace the field, all I knew of Royal were the stories my dad would tell me as a kid.
Growing up in a small farming community with friends who enjoyed hunting and fishing with their dads, I relished the times my dad would tell me about Street to Peschel, about Pat Culpepper and Johnny Treadwell, about how he swears up and down to this day that Roosevelt Leaks is the best back in the history of the Texas program.
The relationship my dad and I had and still have to this day was in large part based on what Darrell Royal built at the University of Texas. I imagine it's that way for a lot of people, and I'm sure that's in what makes today such a tough day for Longhorn fans everywhere.
“He built the foundation that we're working off of today,” DeLoss Dodds said on Wednesday afternoon. “He took a program that was struggling and built it to new heights.
Without Royal, the Texas program wouldn't have been elevated to it's current status.
“Anything we do around here, anywhere you look at around here, Coach Royal has his fingerprints on it.”
The best thing my dad ever did for me was pay my way to Mack Brown's football camp the summer before my sophomore year of high school. That week-long venture accomplished three things.
One, is it gave my dad the chance to see the ins and outs of the program for the first time in over 20 years (he had a cousin who was on Royal's 1976 team and attended a couple of functions). Two, it made me realize that I needed to start thinking about things other than playing college football.
And three, and most importantly, it gave me a true appreciation for what Darrell Royal built at Texas. I spent the week on the 40 Acres getting a history lesson. I learned about the wishbone. I learned about the legendary offseason program Frank Medina ran under Royal. I learned about everything Royal built the Texas program into, and why Mack Brown wanted the program to head back in that direction.
Darrell Royal was always a hero. That trip where I got to see firsthand what he was responsible for building made him a legend in my mind.
“Today is a very sad day. I lost a wonderful friend, a mentor, a confidant and my hero,” Mack Brown said in a statement. “College football lost maybe its best ever and the world lost a great man. I can hardly put into words how much Coach Royal means to me and all that he has done for me and my family.”
For just about everyone reading this, it felt like Royal was a part of their family. For everyone who bleeds burnt orange, for everyone who is in the stands for every game, for everyone who has a subscription to this site, for everyone who buys so much as a t-shirt at the mall, it's because of what Royal molded during his time on the 40 Acres.
Without Royal, Texas doesn't become one of the first TV darlings of college football. Texas isn't a national brand. There is no Mack Brown, there is no Longhorn Network, there is no Hookem.com.
Mack Brown was saddened by Royal's passing.
None of it would exist had Texas not taken a chance on a 32-year-old up-and-coming former University of Oklahoma standout with limited head coaching experience to turn around a program that had fallen on hard times. Not only did he turn things around, but Royal made Texas one of the true blue-bloods of college football.
“What can you say,” Dodds said. “He is Texas.”
I didn't get a chance to see Royal all that much. I froze in awe the first time I ever crossed his path while covering a Texas-Baylor basketball game back in 2005.
One of the last times I was in Royal's presence was back in February. Hookem.com member RunRickyRun and I were both at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame induction of Mack Brown where Royal got the loudest ovation of the night.
We were both excited, and the hero aspect of Royal had us both beaming like small children to know that it was a privilege to be in the same room with the patron saint of Texas football. It was also tough as both of us knew this would be one of the last public appearances Royal would make, but neither of us dared to speak about it.
I've had the chance over the years to have chats with men who coached with, and played for Royal. They've all had countless stories to share about him, but surprisingly very few were about a football game or a big play.
They'd be about a golf outing, or a joke told on a plane ride back from a bowl game, or a good piece of advice on a career choice later in life. Royal was often said to focus on building the character of football player first, making them a man second, and then the football would take care of itself.
If nothing else, Royal's true lasting impact will be that so many of his players went on to find success in the business world, or in whatever career path they chose, and became good husbands, fathers and citizens.
Darrell Royal was so much more than just a good football coach. He was man's man who molded so many, and impacted countless more.
At this point in my dad's life, he's not much for sitting around talking about games from the past. Being terminally ill with cancer will do that to a man.
I called my mom Wednesday afternoon to see how he was doing. Upon hearing the news of Royal's passing, he suddenly wasn't feeling very well and decided to get some rest.
Apparently he'd been feeling down most of the day and kept saying that Royal was, “a good football coach and a great man.”
Darrell Royal left this world on Wednesday. So many lost a hero, but because there's so many like me who've had the appreciation for what he built at Texas handed down to them, the legend of Darrell Royal will never die.
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