COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Much has changed for the Texas A&M football team over the last year.
But it’s clear that most things never do.
The 2012 season, for the 9-2 Aggies, has been one of spectacular debuts. Head coach Kevin Sumlin made the trip from Houston to College Station, replacing Mike Sherman and bringing with him a spread offense that has been dynamic, leading the Southeastern Conference in points per game.
Johnny Manziel has stepped off the bench and into the national spotlight, passing for 27 touchdowns and running for 17 more as a redshirt freshman, on the way to a likely trip to the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York.
The Aggies are playing for the first time in the SEC, after defecting from the Big 12 after last season. Their uniforms, too, are new this year.
But all those things, at 12:02 a.m. on Saturday morning, are lost in the lights at Kyle Field.
Before Texas A&M took on Missouri on Saturday at home for the third-straight season, thousands of fans flooded into Kyle Field late Friday night for the “Midnight Yell,” a tradition in College Station since 1931.
That’s what the school, and the football program, is built on — tradition. It’s heard in every cheer, seen through the eyes of every “yell leader” and felt every time the “Aggie War Hymn” forces the bleachers to shake on game day.
Once the Aggie faithful packed inside the lower level of the east bleachers late on Friday night, the Fightin’ Texas Aggie band began to play the school’s traditional fight songs. The yell leaders — junior and senior male students — led the fans in spirited cheers, motioning and yelling to the crowd as the sea of enthusiastic faces mirrored their movements and voices.
There are no cheerleaders here. The yell leaders are exclusively male, proof that this once all-male institution doesn’t break tradition lightly.
Each yell leader wears blue overalls during the “Midnight Yell” and white outfits on game day, following the example of those before them. They cheer, “Farmers fight!” even though the school’s teams haven’t been called the “Farmers” since the mid-'20s. Because after all this time, why change now?
The school is called “A&M,” even though it hasn’t been an agricultural and mechanical college since 1963. Even the school’s name, though technically inaccurate, is a reminder of a storied past.
The tents that hold tailgaters throughout Spence Park, just east of Kyle Field, announce each fan’s allegiance to the school and link to one's past. Signs routinely hang on the outside of the tents, listing the owners’ name and year of graduation.
John Ratcliffe '62. Fade '62. Mendoza '88. Tamra Deardruff '83. Mike Deardruff '84.
Here, among the names and years printed on tents surrounding the stadium, it becomes clear that this kind of tradition is not available to everyone. The alumni — all those that once stood in the east Kyle Field bleachers and yelled along with each cheer — truly understand and belong to the school’s sacred fraternity.
At 3:45 Saturday afternoon, thousands of fans surrounded Houston Street, which runs alongside the stadium, and waited for the football team to arrive on buses and then walk behind the band and corps of cadets into the stadium.
As the fans waited, the yell leaders sprang to life, once again initiating cheers that were echoed throughout the mass of maroon surrounding them.
In the midst of all the chaos stood an elderly man, his skin wrinkled, thick glasses obscuring his eyes. He wore a maroon Texas A&M hat and a maroon jacket and heartily cheered along with the vastly younger crowd of students and fans to his left and right.
After one cheer ended, he turned to a chatty bunch of teenagers behind him and barked, “If everybody would stop yelling I could do it right!”
About 10 feet to his left, a baby boy sat on a ledge along the street outside the Department of Student Activities, next to his parents. The baby wore an A&M jersey with the No. 12 printed on the front, representing the “12th man” student section that likely lies in his future. In his mouth, he sucked affectionately on a maroon pacifier.
This year, a few things have changed at Texas A&M.
But when you sit through the “Midnight Yell,” listen to the same traditional cheers ring through the same old stadium and read the list of names proudly announced on signs outside tailgating tents, it becomes obvious.
Things have changed. But the important things remain.