Big 12 Sports Articles

HCS Op-Ed: Longhorn Dom Espinosa Grows Through Disappointing Season

Each August, as Texas Longhorn football begins its season, there is an air of optimism and renewed faith – some years more than others. This year, its peak was on Saturday, August 30th. In true Texas fashion, it felt more like a scorching 2 p.m. in the middle of July. But it was 7 p.m. at Darrell K Royal stadium, a lingering 90 degrees, and time for kickoff. Texas was a large favorite against the North Texas Mean Green, but this game was about more than a score. It was the first glance into a new era of Texas football. For senior center Dominic Espinosa, it was the beginning of the end of his five-year journey at Texas.

Espinosa had started at center every game the past three years. This year’s offensive line was coming in young and inexperienced, but he was the outlier. With 39 games under his belt, he could lead the way.

Also with that experience came confidence. He went into the season opener with a certain swagger – something he wanted to transfer throughout the rest of the offense. In the second quarter, receiver John Harris tried to drive the ball against five defenders. Texas players rushed to push the Harris mound forward and Espinosa speared himself into the white-and-green. As he received his first ever personal foul, Espinosa couldn’t help but crack a smile underneath his helmet.

While an avoidable penalty may seem like a careless act, Espinosa doesn’t do careless. “I wouldn’t have done it any other year, but I wanted to get the guys going. I wanted to tell them, ‘let’s go have some fun’,” Espinosa said. He may have gotten a penalty, but it was arguably the best possible time, place, and game to get one, and he knew that. This was the year for a bold leader.

In the third quarter, Texas was up 28-0. Like every game before, Espinosa lined up and began analyzing the defense in front of him. Texas was going to run an outside zone play, requiring he evaluate every little detail. He snapped the ball, blocked his defender, and set up a huge gap for the running back. His part – what he could control – was perfect. What he couldn’t control was North Texas linebacker Anthony Wallace. Wallace dove to stop the run but missed, landing on Espinosa’s right ankle. Gray escaped out of bounds, Wallace punched the field, and Espinosa did not get up.

After about a minute, two trainers helped him up. He attempted to meet his right foot with the ground, but quickly retracted. Espinosa had dealt with an ankle sprain before and at first, this felt similar. But when trainers could feel the bone in his ankle go in and out, signs pointed toward a fracture. He was carted off to the locker room.

Jake Raulerson, a redshirt freshman, was his backup. Not having stretched or warmed up, he went in to play his first college game at one of the most important positions on the field.

As soon as Espinosa was brought back to the athletic building, he had an MRI and x-rays done. His father, Art Espinosa, met him there and his mother, Kelli Espinosa, was rushing over from their home. Thinking there were plenty more games, she had given up her ticket so that her son’s high school teachers could come watch him play. While he sat on a medical table waiting for the results, he turned on the television in front of him to watch the remainder of the game. The very first play he saw, Texas was backed up to their 1-yard line in the fourth quarter. Raulerson and Ash didn’t connect on the snap, the ball flew out, and North Texas recovered it to give them their only touchdown of the night. He watched the worst-case scenario for an offensive line unfold right in front of him and couldn’t do anything about it. When he couldn’t move after his ankle injury, his face showed nothing. But this was different. The winning score didn’t matter; it was a glimpse into the future of a team without him.

“That’s when it got bad,” Espinosa said. “I just kept thinking that’s on me; that’s my fault.”

His father came back in the room to tell him his ankle was broken. “You’ve had a great career,” he said.

That career began at Cedar Park High School where Mack Brown and then-offensive line coach Mac McWhorter recruited him. He received offers from an estimated 20 schools, 10 of which were from Division 1 schools including LSU, Texas A&M, and Stanford. For him, nothing topped getting an education at the University of Texas.

After redshirting his freshman year because of two shoulder injuries, he wanted the starting spot. It wasn’t just any spot, it was center. Mack Brown refers to it as the “quarterback of the offensive line”. The center has to read the entire defense within seconds, adjust the protection, and occasionally even call plays. It requires wit, strength, and leadership – qualities Espinosa showed early. He earned the spot in fall camp that year.

But what can’t be taught in practice is the experience of playing in front of 100,000 people against some of the best defenders in the country. When it came time for games, he was still undersized to most of the defenders he blocked against. Physicality combined with a high-pressure position made for a tough year. But what he lacked in size, he made up for in aptitude. He knew his assignments, he played smart, and he outplayed his way through 39 games.

Despite the majority of his time going toward football, it never consumed his identity. He started a wine club with friends, where he would dress up in a tuxedo and play Frank Sinatra. When flying to games, he would read for his book club. He built his own computer one summer. Then in his free time, he would rather watch Parks and Rec than a football game on TV.

Even in a football setting, he made a name for himself beyond his talent.

“He had a little flair about him,” Mack Brown said. “He would try and be cute and a smart aleck, but he was a guy you could pick on a little bit and he would come right back at you.”

Every year during fall camp, standing in 102 degree Texas heat in full pads, he would try and lighten the mood. He’d ask the other players, “Where else in the world would you rather be than here?”

This is who led the offensive line the last three years. He had a very clear role within a team he knew well. They went out together; they celebrated birthdays together. On the field, they could communicate without words. At the end of the 2013 season, Espinosa watched most of the guys he played with enjoy their senior night, and he watched his coach of four years leave. With his graduation approaching in May, he debated whether he should even come back for another year. Then he met Charlie Strong.

“Everything he wanted to do, we needed, and I wanted to be a part of that,” Espinosa said. “I wanted to be able to say I played for Charlie Strong.”

So Espinosa took on a new role. He mentored the young offensive line and became a paternal figure on and off the field. Even though he trusted they knew what to do for each play, he would shoot out quick reminders to make them feel sure. With his experience, he was able to read the defense and set the young players up for successful plays. When they weren’t at practice, he would send a text just to make sure they were doing okay.

This is what made his injury the hardest. In that trainer room with a broken ankle, he watched his offensive line lose faith in themselves without a leader. And when his teammates piled in after the game, he noticed the fear in Raulerson’s eyes as he accepted that Espinosa would be out. It was the same fear he had felt going into his first game.

One after another, players offered their support in that room. After a win, it naturally seemed like Espinosa was the one in need of consolation. But as a leader, his own troubles were in the back of his mind and the comfort felt misplaced. For every player that came up to him, that was another teammate he wouldn’t be able to play for.

“I was fine with getting hurt, I was fine with being done for the year, but that right there is what really killed me,” Espinosa said.

Four days later, he had to have surgery. Although the x-rays showed it was broken, the injury was much more damaging than they thought. He fractured his right tibia bone in three different places. The physical recovery began with seven pins, a plate, and two wires.

While he went home for two weeks to recover, he watched his team play from a television. As if his injury caused a chain reaction, that same week Ash went out because of a concussion, and then two more offensive linemen were suspended and eventually dismissed from the team. He had to watch his teammates get run over by BYU for a second straight year and lose 41-7. Then he had to watch an almost-win against UCLA get stolen from them in the last quarter. He was home for two weeks and forced to deal with guilt he couldn’t shake. It was never about not being able to play football; it was about not being able to help his team.

But being home also gave him the opportunity to think about himself. Football was never his entire life. Espinosa was one of the fortunate ones to recognize the difficulty of making it to the league, and even then, the short duration of most NFL careers. So every summer he participated in internships and focused on a career outside of football. Even after graduating with a degree in corporate communications, he came back another semester to complete the Texas Real Estate Certificate Program.

When he began to realize his educational accomplishments, as well as his three successful years on the field, his perspective began to shift. There was still the option of applying for a sixth year of eligibility, or he could choose to be done. He had to ask himself whether his heart was really still in the game, or if it was just in the team he mentored and loved. The answer was the latter.

“I realized I’ve done my part,” Espinosa said. “I’m going to be a 24-year-old man next year. I need to figure out what I want to do next and let these guys have their time.”

When he returned to campus, he gradually stopped attending road games and practices. He still offered his advice and support whenever needed, but this wasn’t his team anymore. He let the offensive line figure out its identity without him. Even before he announced he was done, he started to call himself a ‘fan.’ It’s a title that carries the weight of loving a team from the outside looking in.

Even after distancing himself, the internal pressure to help the team lingered. Amongst a team plagued with depth issues, Strong said Espinosa was the team’s biggest loss. And after an injury scare at practice, an assistant told him, “We need you bro, it’s bad.”

“Come on, don’t tell me that…I was having a good day,” Espinosa said.

But each game, he watched them push past whatever the setback of the week was. Finally, they became bowl eligible when it almost seemed unattainable. Replacing that guilt he felt with pride was much easier after wins.

The week before senior night, Espinosa made it official. He released a letter explaining why he wouldn’t be applying for a sixth year of eligibility. He said the hardest thing – “good-bye” – without being asked.

Thanksgiving night became Espinosa’s senior night. Instead of taking the field in full uniform to play the season opener under a hot sun, he walked out with his burnt orange jersey over warm-up sweats. As 32 seniors ran on the field one-by-one, some cried, some beamed, and all were engulfed in cheers. But when Espinosa ran out, the crowd seemed a little bit louder.

Running on the field felt unfamiliar to him. It felt more like an alumni ceremony than senior night. At the end of the tunnel, Strong said, “You’ve been ready for this since that first game, huh?”

He watched as the TCU defense sacked Tyrone Swoopes four times, each time quicker than the last. The Texas offense was plagued by pressure and could only muster 90 rushing yards the entire game. All Espinosa could do was offer encouragement as the offensive line returned to the sideline.

After a 48-10 loss, Doyle approached Espinosa. “I’m sorry your senior night ended like that,” he said.

But for the first time after a defeat, he didn’t blame himself. Instead, he appreciated what his teammates had accomplished: wins that weren’t supposed to happen, a bowl game during a rebuilding year, and for the offensive line, growth without their leader. Guilt didn’t make sense anymore.

“Even if the scoreboard didn’t show it that one game, they had a successful season and I have peace with that,” Espinosa said.

After five years in the program, Espinosa deserved a senior year – but he never needed it. He has moved on; the team has moved on; and come August, the air will once again be filled with optimism and renewed faith.

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