AUSTIN, Texas -- No matter which side you take in the old nature versus nurture argument, there's no explanation for why Hays McEachern is what he is, where he is.
Mom was a Texas Longhorn cheerleader and a close friend of Darrell and Edith Royal. If that wasn't enough, Jenna McEachern also edited three books on Texas football, including Mack Brown's autobiography, and co-wrote another titled, "What it Means to be a Longhorn."
There's a chapter on Dad in that book. Randy McEachern wasn't even on the depth chart when his fifth-ranked team played No. 2 Oklahoma in 1977, but he became one of the greatest of Longhorn heroes when the baby-faced third-team quarterback came off the bench to guide Texas to a 13-6 victory.
Eight years later, when Hays was born, his parents fed him burnt orange like it was breast milk. Visits to Longhorn band practice. Football games. Basketball games.
"We thought we'd indoctrinate our children," Jenna said. "They were going to be Longhorns."
You had nature and nurture. But the bottom line? It became more of a punch line. Longhorns like to tell Aggie and Sooner jokes, to gig their rivals, but this one backfired in the cruelest way.
Q: What do you get when you combine a diehard UT cheerleader and a bona fide Longhorn football hero?
A: An Oklahoma Sooner quarterback.
Red River Rivalry
It's taken for granted that when a native Texan slips that crimson and cream Oklahoma jersey over his shoulder pads, it does more than just cover his heart. It transplants it. Former linebacker Brian Bosworth, from Irving, Texas, said burnt orange made him puke. Jerry Tubbs, another native Texan, mocked his home state after a 45-0 win in 1956 by saying, "I kept thinking I'd sure hate to be playing for Texas and take this kind of humiliating beating."
This, though, is the best Hays McEachern, Longhorn progeny turned Sooner, can come up with:
"During practice for away games, they play the other school's song to get us used to the noise," he said. "So they play the Eyes of Texas during Texas week. It gets stuck in my head. Yeah, it still means something. If I go home, go to a Texas game, I'm sure I'll sing it."
Heresy? Treason? It's more complicated than that. It has to do with courage and determination; a dedication to become a self-made man, to blaze his own trail. It's what made Randy McEachern a Longhorn icon. Turns out, it's also what made Hays a Sooner.
Third-string to Longhorn legend
Randy McEachern came to Texas as an afterthought. A standout at Pasadena Dobie, he wanted to go to TCU, where his father Bobby quarterbacked the Frogs from 1951-52. However, TCU wanted Randy to go to junior college. McEachern was set to go to Navarro Junior College, but a Longhorn assistant coach ran into his father and asked him about Randy's plans. The conversation turned into a scholarship offer. Randy accepted, eager to show he belonged in major college football.
He redshirted his first year and was introduced to the finer points of college life. Once, when he was enjoying the Austin night life, he drew the attention of an attractive coed 18 months his senior. Jenna Hays was a friend of the owner of Hector's Taco Flats, and when she spied the youthful boy in the corner she told Hector, "That kid cannot be 18. He's going to get you in trouble. He can't be 18 -- he's got such a baby face."
And so began a great romance. No, wait a minute. Nothing about this story goes as expected. Jenna graduated, got engaged, married and moved to Houston.
Randy moved up the depth chart, but just barely. He went from fifth-team quarterback to fourth-team safety.
Coming off major knee surgery in the spring of 1977, McEachern was moved to defense by new coach Fred Akers. Upset, he went to Akers' office to plead his case. "I think I'm as good as any of your other quarterbacks," McEachern said. "Give me a chance."
Akers did, but McEachern stayed bogged down in the depth chart.
That October, Texas went into the annual game with Oklahoma in Dallas ranked No. 5. The Sooners, led by Thomas Lott and halfback Kenny King, were No. 2 and hadn't lost to the Longhorns since 1970.
McEachern's parents, figuring their son had as much chance of playing as Bevo, stayed home despite the fact that the game was only televised in Austin and Norman.
The game did not start out well for the Longhorns. Earl Campbell, looking to ignite a Heisman Trophy run, instead threw an interception on a halfback pass to set up a 47-yard field goal by Uwe Von Schamann. Then starting quarterback Mark McBath was sacked on the third possession and broke his ankle. Before backup Jon Aune could find a rhythm, his knee buckled two possessions later as he dodged an OU lineman. There was still more than two minutes left in the first quarter.
In the stands sat Jenna Hays. She'd gotten divorced and moved back to Austin. She worked in the UT sports information department, where she typed letters to recruits and stole photos of cute football players. She now knew McEachern, and she knew what his entering the game meant. "Oh my gosh," she gasped aloud when she saw Randy slip on his helmet. "That's that little Randy McEachern boy."
If there was faith in the burnt orange half of the crowd of 72, 032 at the Cotton Bowl, it wasn't evident.
McEachern buckled his chinstrap. He headed to the huddle.
Legend has it that Campbell met him halfway -- and introduced himself.
"Makes a great story," McEachern says, "but it wasn't true."
As they huddled, tackle Rick Ingraham grabbed McEachern's jersey and pulled him facemask to facemask. "You give the (bleepin') ball to Earl," Ingraham growled, "and get the hell out of the way. You understand?"
McEachern understood. Like he had a choice.
On the first play, he handed off to Johnny "Ham" Jones, who lost three yards. On the next play, UT punted.
OU led 3-0 heading into the second quarter and McEachern's first two plays had netted minus-4 yards. Aune came back in, but his knee couldn't hold up.
McEachern gained 7 yards on his first carry of the next possession. The drive stalled, and Russell Erxleben kicked a 64-yard field goal to knot the score. Two possessions later, McEachern hit Alfred Jackson for gains of 23 and 18 to set up Campbell's 24-yard touchdown.
The rest of the game was a blur of Longhorn defense and McEachern opportunism. He kept the Longhorns out of trouble, Campbell ran for 68 of his 124 yards and the defense held OU to a field goal. McEachern wound up completing 4 of 8 passes for 59 yards and Texas won, 13-6.
"McEachern showed a lot of courage and poise, coming in for the first time ever in a big game and doing a great job running the team," Akers told reporters outside a euphoric Longhorn locker room. "He made some decisions on the field that were tough, but they were right."
McEachern, the unlikely hero, stayed at quarterback most of the year as the Longhorns went into the 1978 Cotton Bowl against Notre Dame ranked No. 1. However,the Irish took advantage of six Longhorn turnovers, including three McEachern interceptions, and upset them, 38-10.
Crossing the Red River
Years passed. Randy and Jenna got married. They had two children, daughter Bailey, who went to Auburn, and Hays. When Jenna wanted to work off her baby weight, she took the children in strollers to UT's Memorial Stadium, where she'd walk the track while the band practiced. They got season tickets to Longhorn football and basketball games, securing prime seats -- near the ice cream stands.
Before Hays' senior season for the Austin High Maroons, he and Randy sat down to discuss what Hays wanted out of football in college. Hays wanted to play Division I, if only to prove he could.
Jenna sent out about 30 videos of Hays' highlights, but only one scholarship offer, to Air Force, came of it. Walk on opportunities dribbled in. Arkansas and Auburn liked what they saw. A&M offensive coordinator Les Koenning, a former Texas teammate of Randy's, was interested. Bobby Jack Wright, a former Texas assistant now assistant head coach at OU, was intrigued.
Then Hays got a personal note from Longhorn offensive coordinator Greg Davis. Jenna felt sure he was hooked.
"I watched Hays' face," she recalled. "I just knew when he read that note he'd say, 'Heck, I'm going to Texas.'"
He said no such thing. Instead, he narrowed the pick to A&M or Oklahoma. The Longhorns never really had a chance.
"I kind of steered away from Texas," Hays said. "It was all I knew. I wanted something different. And I wanted to play for a big school, just to prove I was as good as the guys who were recruited.
"I might have wanted to go to UT if I hadn't grown up in Austin. If I'd grown up in Dallas or San Antonio, I'd probably have gone there."
It was as simple as that. When the time came to take Hays to Norman for two-a-days his freshman year, Jenna packed up the family car -- the one with the Longhorn sticker -- and made the trip. Looking in the rearview mirror after dropping Hays off at his dorm, she reached for her cell phone and called close friend Laura Kelly, blurting, "This is the single weirdest experience of my life."
"If he thought he was getting away from his dad's legacy," Jenna says, "he probably walked into it bigger when he went to OU."
On the day the freshmen introduced themselves to their teammates, Coach Bob Stoops joked that the team had a spy in its midst. Stoops knew who McEachern's father was, even if few of his teammates did.
The connection wasn't lost on folks posting on the Sooner message boards, and the conspiracy theories of a burnt orange infiltrator flew. The McEacherns were confounded by the speculation, but still purposely avoided attending too many practices, Longhorn or Sooner.
Hays says he gets very little razzing from his teammates, just the occasional inquiry from one who's just heard what his daddy did in 1977. Jenna and Randy get it a little more. Randy once snapped at a client he didn't recognize at a Texas game who affected an Okie accent and asked how he could let his son go to OU. (He later apologized). Jenna laughs off her families' jibes on how she allows her son to "live an alternative lifestyle."
Though she cheers for her son and -- within reason -- his team, Jenna can't bring herself to wear OU colors. Last year Randy, who wouldn't wear the colors of Hays' high school because maroon was also the primary hue of Texas A&M, broke down and wore a white shirt with Hays' No. 14 on the sleeve and an interlocking O and U -- what Jenna calls "the paperclip" logo -- on the chest. ("Well, doesn't it look like that?" she says disarmingly.)
Randy occasionally will call their annual matchup the OU-Texas game, reversing the Longhorn nation's preferred order of the school names, but he's trying to cut back. He draws the line at singing "Boomer Sooner," even though he's memorized the words. Both of them.
Like father, like son?
Everything had to fall into place 30 years ago just for Randy McEachern to get his chance. Ted Constanzo, who was the third-team quarterback in the preseason, tore up his knee playing racquetball. Akers, given the option of going with freshman Sam Ansley, who was standing next to McEachern on the sideline, chose the senior.
In the dream McEachern had a few nights before the game, the breaks weren't so defined. When he told his family that he'd dreamed about the game, they asked how it came out. "I don't know," he said sheepishly. "I woke up before the dream was over."
Hays McEachern enters Saturday's game against Texas is similar fashion as his dad did 30 years ago this weekend. He's an undersized, overachieving fourth-year junior; at 5 feet 11 inches and 185 pounds, he's only two inches and 10 pounds bigger than Randy was. He's got the same boyish look, the same mop of brown hair. Like his father, he has almost no prayer of taking a snap under center. For two years he's been the holder on placekicks, and has only attempted one pass, on a fake. It was incomplete.
If there's one thing that holds constant in this multi-generational Walter Mitty story, it's that Hays McEachern has dreamed, too. He knows how it comes out. In his vision, he throws a touchdown pass against his dad's old team. He's not sure if it comes on a fake field goal or from under center as a quarterback, but he's not going to quibble.
"That would be amazing," he says, his voice becoming animated. "That's something I definitely thought about. It would be cool to score a touchdown against Texas."
It's like Randy McEachern says. "I'd always tell Hays that it's boring being a backup. You never get action. The best thing you can do is visualize every play, because you're only a couple of plays away."
"My dad's living proof of that," Hays says.
Mark Wangrin is a freelance writer who lives in Austin. He has covered the Big 12 since 1996.