HOUSTON — For a moment, on a warm Wednesday morning 57 years ago, John F. Kennedy made Rice Stadium the center of the American ambition.
As dignitaries seated behind him fanned their faces and wiped their brows in a futile effort to combat Houston’s humidity, the nation’s 35th president delivered a speech for the ages.
The race for space was front and center, and the moon was the goal. As 45,000 people watched, Kennedy eloquently outlined his plan and the reasons for it. New knowledge to be gained. New rights to be won. To become the world’s leading space-faring nation.
“But why, some say, the moon?” Kennedy said. “Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?
“Why does Rice play Texas?”
As the home crowd reacted, with smiles, laughs and applause, Kennedy — clenching the lectern with his left hand and pumping his right fist — emphatically spouted the signature line of that speech:
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon and in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy but because they are hard.”
Kennedy’s speech, delivered on Sept. 12, 1962, is remembered as one of the greatest presidential speeches in history. Its legacy remains, as this summer the country celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.
But for those at Rice University, it isn’t just the moonshot that lives on. Whenever the Owls play the Longhorns, which they will at 8 p.m. ET Saturday at NRG Stadium, Kennedy’s words resurface. Their spirit carries on.
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“Rice University, from that day until today,” said Terry O’Rourke, a Rice graduate who attended the speech, “Rice has always been an underdog in every single game playing the University of Texas.”
The Rice-Texas line was a last-minute addition. It isn’t typewritten in the original copy of the speech, which was composed by Ted Sorensen. Kennedy himself added it, said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, author of “American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race.”
In tiny, blue ink, he penned “Why does Rice play Texas” in cursive directly above “We choose to go to the moon.” A minuscule arrow, pointing before the “we,” indicates where the line belongs.
“Kennedy was a big football fan,” Brinkley said. “He was deeply interested in college athletics. It’s a line that’s perfectly fitting with Kennedy’s brand of humor.”
Once he took his spot in the middle of the football field, Kennedy spoke for nearly 18 minutes. The crowd applauded him 11 times as he detailed his bold vision. The Soviet Union had beaten the U.S. to space in the previous decade with the 1957 launch of Sputnik I, the world’s first satellite, and in 1961, the Soviet Union first put a human, Yuri Gagarin, in space.
That day at Rice, Kennedy declared that the U.S. would be first to the moon — and before the end of the decade.
“It’s the greatest speech of a president that deals with public discovery, space exploration,” Brinkley said.
Bob Gomel, a former Life magazine photographer who covered the speech, recalled a captivated audience.
“When he went into the stadium, the roar was unbelievable,” Gomel said.
O’Rourke, then a high school sophomore who skipped school and rode his bike to hear the speech, called it “truly inspiring.”
“It changed my life,” said O’Rourke, now an assistant county attorney in Houston.
While America was trying to win the space race, the Owls were busy holding their own on the gridiron. Rice might be an underdog in 2019, but in coach Jess Neely’s era, the Owls went toe-to-toe with their Southwest Conference brethren.
They won four SWC championships — two of them outright — in an 11-year span under his watch. Neely, who died in 1983, has more wins than any other coach in Rice history, is the longest-tenured and owns the second-highest win percentage among those who coached multiple years.
In 1950, Rice Stadium opened, and it was an architectural marvel, seating 70,000, the league’s largest on-campus facility at the time. Texas A&M played the Owls there annually for a decade because it was much larger at the time than the Aggies’ home, Kyle Field.
Rice fans saw a competitive outfit. The Owls defeated then-No. 1 Texas A&M at home in 1957. They finished in the AP top 10 three times (1949, 1953, 1957).They played in six bowl games from 1946 to ’61. From 1930 (10 years before Neely’s arrival) to 1966, his final season, Rice actually held an 18-17-1 edge over Texas.
“Back then it was a pretty even series all along,” said Gene Walker, who played for Neely from 1962 to ’65.
But it’s almost as if Kennedy’s rousing speech was prescient. At the time, the Owls had won five of the past nine games against the Longhorns. The teams tied about six weeks after Kennedy spoke, but then Texas went 30-1 in the next 31 games against Rice. Following the 1966 season, Neely became Vanderbilt’s athletic director, and the Owls’ gridiron success evaporated, with only two winning seasons in the next 28 years.
Still, JFK’s memorable line persisted, especially as the gap between the two programs grew or when they moved to new conferences (Texas went to the Big 12; Rice went to the Western Athletic Conference for nine years before joining Conference USA in 2005).
“It would come up every year, whenever we played,” Walker said.
It still does, but so much has changed in college football. Texas is one of the nation’s richest football programs and has access to a national championship via its Big 12 membership (winning the league title gives the team a shot to make the College Football Playoff). Rice’s budget is a fraction of Texas’, the Owls haven’t had a winning season since 2014 and have won just three total games since the beginning of 2017. Rice and Texas may as well be on different planets.
Current coach Mike Bloomgren, in his second year after seven as an offensive assistant at Stanford, is trying to build the program back up to the point that it can win Conference USA, something it last did in 2013. Even if the Owls accomplish that, its chances at even a New Year’s Six bowl bid is slim.
Facilities are improving: In 2016, the program opened the Patterson Center, a team headquarters complete with a new weight room, locker room, meeting rooms and all the other essentials. Rice Stadium still stands, but it seats only 47,000 now. One end zone was knocked down for the Patterson Center, and the other is tarped off (the Owls’ average attendance has hovered between 18,000 and 20,000 in the past decade).
But the program is nowhere near comparable footing with Texas. Given the school’s status — it’s a private school with high academic standards and an undergrad enrollment of fewer than 4,000 — it’s a tall task. Yet the teams still play. Conference realignment means it’s no longer annual (Saturday will be the teams’ 13th meeting since the SWC dissolved in 1996), but it’s still a series that makes sense for both programs.
Texas aims to play one Power 5 conference team and two Group of 5 conference teams in its nonconference schedule, athletic director Chris Del Conte said.
“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?”
President John F. Kennedy, Sept. 12, 1962
“If you can play a Group of 5 opponent in the state, whether it’s Rice, UTEP or UTSA, you keep the economic dollars in the state of Texas,” said Del Conte, who was once Rice’s AD. “With Rice, we have a history. We should play them.”
Said Rice athletic director Joe Karlgaard: “I think playing old Southwest Conference foes is important, and the University of Texas has a long and great tradition in college football. So I know for our fans, certainly it’s something that they look forward to anytime we get the opportunity to renew that rivalry.”
Earlier this week, Bloomgren cited the JFK line, saying Texas is a challenge “we accept, we embrace.” Karlgaard says that it’s part of Rice’s DNA, and they embrace those tough challenges as an embodiment of the spirit of the ’62 speech.
“We’re a small university that, in all areas, be it engineering, natural sciences, the graduate school of business or Rice athletics, we try to punch above our weight class,” Karlgaard said.
Rice is certainly aware of its recent futility against the Longhorns (two wins in the past 54 years; Texas leads the all-time series 72-21-1). But the game makes sense from a financial standpoint — it generates revenue whether at home or away for an athletic department that needs it — and it gives the Owls a nationally relevant opponent that serves both fans’ nostalgia and a program barometer.
Upsets, such as Appalachian State’s 2007 win over Michigan, are part of the charm of college football. The task can be daunting — like the country’s moon ambitions in the 1960s — but the idea of a David beating a Goliath makes its rare occurrences special.
When Rice plays Texas on Saturday, members of the 1994 Owls — the last Rice team to beat Texas — will be present to commemorate the 25th anniversary of their victory.
On Oct. 23, 1965, the Owls traveled to Austin to play Texas.
Rice was a 25-point underdog, and the game was not headed their way late in the third quarter, when a David Conway 33-yard field goal gave the Longhorns a 17-3 lead.
But fortunes soon changed, as then-Houston Chronicle executive sports editor Dick Peebles eloquently wrote in the next day’s sports section. “Sparked by a couple swifties named Chuck Latourette and David Ferguson, the aroused Owls, who always play their best against Texas, went 20 and 61 yards for second-half touchdowns to pull up even with the Longhorns at 17-17.”
The teams battled late into the fourth when Rice sophomore Bob Hailey intercepted Texas quarterback Marvin Kristynik and returned it to the Texas 19. With mere minutes remaining, tension built in Memorial Stadium as the Owls sensed victory.
With 48 seconds left, Richard Parker, a sophomore from Rialto, California, stunned Texas’ homecoming crowd of 63,000 with a 33-yard field goal. The Owls left victorious. The next day’s headline read: “Rice Owls Dehorn Mighty Steers, 20-17.”
The Owls celebrated. As they boarded their plane back to Houston, Neely even allowed the players to bring their wives and girlfriends on the flight home. Walker calls the win his No. 1 memory of his time at Rice.
“Whenever you beat the Longhorns in anything, that was it,” he said.
The noted line in JFK’s speech comes up whenever the teams meet, and it was especially present after Rice’s 1965 win, the last time the Owls won in Austin. Walker, who like several of his teammates was a freshman when JFK spoke at Rice Stadium, had the answer to the president’s question that day.
“That’s why Rice plays Texas.”
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