Saturday’s 21-17 loss to Texas may have been the Kansas University football team’s seventh straight this season and 17th consecutive Big 12 Conference defeat in the past three seasons, but it proved memorable for another reason.
As the heartbroken Jayhawks made the walk from the Memorial Stadium turf to their locker room, KU fans lined both sides of the rope walkway to show their support for the effort, as KU led the Longhorns until 12 seconds remained in the game.
The show of support might not have eliminated the sting entirely, but it meant something, especially to the guys who had been here the longest and endured losing season after losing season.
“We recognize it,” said senior safety Bradley McDougald. “And we appreciate it.”
It was not just the support after the game that McDougald said meant something. He said the loud and proud Memorial Stadium crowd of more than 40,000 motivated and inspired the Jayhawks while on the field.
“It was the fourth quarter, we went back out there and you could just feel the excitement in the air, everybody was on their feet just ready to go,” McDougald recalled. “But the thing that stuck out to me was I looked over to the student section and there was a sign that said, “We Still Believe.” Even though we’ve been through our ups and downs, I know there’s still 5-10 percent of our fans that truly believe through thick and thin and those die-hard fans are the guys we play for.”
At 1-7 overall and 0-5 in Big 12 play, the Jayhawks now are officially eliminated from bowl contention, though nobody really thought such talk would come into play this season anyway.
Still, it bears mention because it demonstrates what these guys are playing for. Week after week, as the Jayhawks line up as double-digit underdogs in the tough-as-nails Big 12 Conference, there are no title implications on the line, no computer rankings to consider. Yet still, week after week, guys like McDougald and Toben Opurum and James Sims and several others lay it all on the line for themselves, their team, their school and their pride.
There are a dozen different statistics and areas of progress that point to the improvement this team is making and has made throughout the course of the 2012 season. But few of them are as important to the big picture as the fact that fans are still there.
Sure, you’ve already heard from the group that merely looks at football season as an appetizer to basketball, which begins its exhibition schedule Tuesday night at Allen Fieldhouse. But those fans are going to think that way year in and year out, no matter how well the football team does.
More impressive is the group that has continued to show up at Memorial Stadium on Saturdays. More than 40,000 watched KU nearly knock off Texas last weekend. A couple of weeks earlier, more than 31,000 showed up for the close call against Oklahoma State on a day that many players’ parents might not have made it out because of the weather. The best part about that one? Even after taking cover for a weather delay that lasted an hour and 19 minutes, many fans filed back in to support the Jayhawks and witness the near comeback.
From the time he arrived in town, KU coach Charlie Weis emphasized the role the fans would play in helping KU football rebuild. It’s clear, based on their support throughout a one-win season, that the die-hards heard Weis’ words loud and clear and have been happy to do their part.
Last Saturday, they almost were rewarded with a big-time upset of mighty Texas that had been 70-plus years in the making. It didn’t happen, but here’s betting what those fans saw during that one will inspire them to come back strong for KU’s home finale on Nov. 17 vs. Iowa State.
“I think the team knows, ‘Hey, we can hang with the big boys. We can beat the big boys,’” Weis said after the latest loss.
It seems the fan base now believes that, too. The win total may not improve, but, around here, getting the fans to believe is as big a step as any.