Brady Vardeman (from left), Joe Buettner and Spenser Davis on Sun Life Stadium field tonight after the Orange Bowl.

I’ve always loved sports. Once, as a fan. Now, as something that, to me, is greater.

Sports offer drama and tension, joy and sadness, heroes and villains, sure. But also growth and development, often inspired by leadership and motivation. And in the great teams you find a culture that manages to perpetuate success over time. Also, often, so much more (politics, money and crime, to name a few things) that enriches the undercurrent rippling just beneath the public stages we so intently watch.

So from a young age the storylines drew me in. Then one day, unexpectedly, sports became my job. And now, in part, I get to help teach others to maybe make it theirs, and maybe to love it as much or more in a way that exceeds any rooting interest.

This football season, which for the Oklahoma Sooners ended in a 37–17 loss in tonight’s Orange Bowl, I got to work closely with the guys in the photo above — Brady Vardeman​, Joe​ Buettner and Spenser Davis. They, along with a small circle of folks drawn in as our season progressed (particularly Scott Hiney), became a team of its own and one I’ll always love.

They took up any and all challenges. They were hungry to get better and did exactly that. They are permanently marked by the experience in ways I know will make them stronger in the years ahead. They created an energy and a dynamic that was, in its own way, much like what you find on a special and successful team.

In September, on their own dime and initiative, they headed off to Knoxville, three college guys walking into an SEC venue of 100,000-plus and rubbing shoulders with national writers in the press box for a Saturday night ESPN game. And they — in double OT, with no wifi on the sideline, in a setting they’d never fathomed — shined. That’s when I knew we had something special developing, wherever this season might go. When they got back I told them they’d just made an investment in their careers I was confident would pay off.

Then in October, on the way back from Lawrence, Kansas, a deer ran onto the interstate on their way home and, frankly, we’re lucky they didn’t die. The pictures of the vehicle, after it rolled and maybe flipped across the interstate median coming to rest near oncoming traffic, make me ill. All were transported to hospitals in ambulances and Buettner, whose regular visits in my office to shoot the bull and flip each other shit I’ve come to love, fractured his spine in multiple places among other severe injuries. Short of the rare instance when my own wife or child has been hospitalized, I never have been more emotionally and physically devastated than the morning after their crash. But, somehow, miraculously, they all are healthy today.

In November, while Joe was on the mend, Scott, who was with them that night on the way back from KU, joined Brady and Spenser in Waco for what would be a pivotal win against the Baylor Bears. (I fretted every single minute they were on the highway as though they were my own sons.) And then Brady, Spenser and Joe went to Stillwater as the Sooners won the Big 12 Championship and a berth in the College Football Playoff. And everywhere they went, their growth — as young men, as journalists, as a team in their own right — was palpable.

I watched it unfolding, all their own doing, in awe and joy.

Since Stillwater, we knew the big stage waited. And while they might have had some nerves and fraught moments, I knew they were ready. Today, that moment came in Miami. I’ve been there as a professional before, covering Oregon at the BCS championship after the 2010 season versus Cam Newton’s Auburn Tigers. And I remember, as many of us may in new settings, feeling out of my element to a degree. I know, to one degree or another, they all felt out of theirs at times. But as readers, I must say, I don’t think you’d know it.

They were simply magnificent.

Early in the day, news broke that a key defensive player might miss the game due to a concussion. These guys confirmed it, posted it and coordinated with their colleagues working remotely in other states to send a push alert — all while on a bus — and got the news out faster than ESPN or the two leading professional newsrooms in our state. And this was hours before kickoff. They just got better as the day progressed.

I could go on, but now, writing this as 2015 rolls into 2016, I’m just sorry this season has ended. Not for the football team, but for them. Because of their momentum, because of this groove, because of this extended moment of greatness.

I’m so thankful it happened, to have been along the fringes for the ride and to see where they all go next.

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