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Opinion: OU-Texas football without the State Fair would be weird. I've seen it — sort of

If the Red River Rivalry is played in October — seems a bigger and bigger if these days — we know it will go on without the State Fair of Texas.

Canceled.

That was the word out of the Lone Star State earlier this week. As coronavirus cases soared in Texas, and in Oklahoma for that matter, the fair decided to skip this year. No rides or games. No blinking lights or yelling barkers. And sadly, no corny dogs.

It will be weird.

I can assure you of that. Thousands of other Oklahomans would probably say the same, too. That's because fans of OU and OSU have attended games at Cotton Bowl Stadium over the years when the midway was silent.

The Cotton Bowl was played there for more than 70 years before moving to the palatial environs of JerryWorld, and now, the stadium is home to what is currently called the First Responder Bowl. Over the past two decades alone, OU played one bowl game at Cotton Bowl Stadium, the Cotton Bowl after the 2001 season, while OSU played two, the Cotton Bowl after the 2003 season and the Heart of Dallas Bowl after the 2012 campaign.

Sooner and Cowboys fans went and saw what a football game without the fair is like. So did I, covering all three games for The Oklahoman.

In a word: surreal.

All of the familiar landmarks of Fair Park are there. The exhibition buildings are where they always are. Same for the booths and the signs. Even Big Tex stands tall, looking across the fairgrounds.

But everything is shuttered and silent.

Back in 2012 before OSU's bowl appearance there, I asked fans who'd been to bowls at Cotton Bowl Stadium to tell me what they remembered of the experience. Steve Bullard, a lifelong Sooner fan, hit the nail on the head.

“It felt a little like Clark Griswold going to Walley World when it was closed,” he said.

Yes. 

A million times yes.

Going to the Cotton Bowl for a game when the fair isn't happening feels off. Like you're seeing something unnatural. Of course, the lights of the midway aren't on 365 days a year, but in your mind's eye, that's how they always are.

Until they aren't.

There's no avoiding the silent shells of Fair Park either. Fans still have to park in the massive lots that surround the fairgrounds, then walk through the gates and traverse across the grounds to get to the stadium. 

Feels a little like the morning after the rapture.

Everything's there except the people.

And if OU-Texas happens in October — again, a big if — you have to think the people allowed on the grounds will be limited to ticket holders. Texas has state mandates in place limiting the size of gatherings as it tries to slow the transmission of COVID-19, so it would be foolish to think the fair would allow anyone and everyone inside the grounds.

It might not even be legal.

Similarly, the total number of people with tickets could be reduced. Texas governor Greg Abbott has ordered stadiums to operate at no greater than 50% capacity, and that would mean about 50,000 fans for OU-Texas.

The day of the game last year, more than a quarter of a million people attended the fair.

From 250,000 to 50,000.

Talk about a different feel.

Once the game starts, I suspect things will feel more normal. The schools may even try to do some things outside the stadium — pep rallies or something similar — to give that area a feel more like a game day. Normally, there's no space to breathe, much less have a stage or a cheer squad or a band. But space will be much more abundant this time around.

The 2020 Red River Rivalry will be unique, unlike anything any Sooner or Longhorn fan has ever seen.

Unlike anything they'll ever want to see again, too.

Related Photos
The Cotton Bow is seen before the Red River Showdown college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the Texas Longhorns (UT) at Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. Oklahoma won 34-27. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]

The Cotton Bow is seen before the Red River Showdown college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the Texas Longhorns (UT) at Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. Oklahoma won 34-27. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-295c740e581083a6fb2c5a6e94866535.jpg" alt="Photo - The Cotton Bow is seen before the Red River Showdown college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the Texas Longhorns (UT) at Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. Oklahoma won 34-27. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]" title="The Cotton Bow is seen before the Red River Showdown college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the Texas Longhorns (UT) at Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. Oklahoma won 34-27. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]"><figcaption>The Cotton Bow is seen before the Red River Showdown college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the Texas Longhorns (UT) at Cotton Bowl Stadium in Dallas, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. Oklahoma won 34-27. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman]</figcaption></figure>
Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›

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