ENID — When he sat down to write the first letter 11 years ago, he didn't know. How could he have known?
Craig Box was unaware that this would become a weekly tradition for the next decade, sustained initially by superstition but ultimately entrenched because it was his chance to provide encouragement and impart wisdom before each one of his son Austin's football games.
The first letter found its way to his only son's room before a middle school game, when Austin was in seventh grade. The last one was extended in January in the Arizona desert, just before Oklahoma's Fiesta Bowl win against Connecticut.
There were dozens and dozens along the way from Craig, who had his own playing experience at Northwestern Oklahoma State. Some letters were a few lines, others a few pages. They covered all the twists and turns of a high school career at Enid and four injury-stained years at OU. Each one included a gift of some kind. Maybe a football card, sometimes a book, but there was always something with the note.
Austin liked the gifts, kept them all. But he cherished the letters. The recent ones were in the drawer of his bedside table.
The head of a household moving through mourning, Craig has been recently forcing himself to reread some of his own words.
“It was important to me to write them,” he said, “because of how important he was to me.”
* * *
Craig Box was unaware the last letter was the last letter. How could he have known?
Austin's life ended abruptly in May, after he ingested a lethal dose of prescription medications. The how and the why are still unsolved mysteries. They'll likely remain that way for the most part, although there was the revelation in a report this week that someone was supplying him with pain pills.
This much is known: Oklahoma's football season begins Saturday. It was to be Austin's fifth and final year as a Sooner.
And, for Craig, there is no letter to write this week.
“There's a lot of emptiness right now,” he said Wednesday, standing next to the family's formal dining room table, dotted with the old letters and gifts. “This is the first year we haven't had football, with him, since he was 6.
“It didn't define Austin, but it was just such a big part of the family. I just kind of feel lost right now.”
Sitting in their Enid home, it's three days before the No. 1-ranked Sooners' opener against Tulsa — and the Boxes honestly cannot tell you whether they are going.
Sure, they've received all sorts of invites.
They could sit in a plush suite. But would it provide true comfort?
They could go back to the parents' section they inhabited the past four seasons. But would that be awkward and painful, for the Boxes and the other families trying to enjoy the game?
There's their own plot of season tickets they've had since 1999. But they're easily recognizable there, too.
No, there's no secret cave from which the Boxes can watch the Sooners in anonymity.
In addition to all of Austin's away games, the family has been to 74 consecutive games at Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. It began when their oldest daughter, Courtney, enrolled as an undergrad. Now the Boxes are at least considering an end to something that coincided with Bob Stoops' arrival. It would have been unthinkable a year ago, a few months ago. But, well, things have changed.
“I don't know,” Craig says, his expression going blank with each syllable. “I probably won't know until Saturday.”
* * *
That's the way this has gone for the Boxes. They wake up that day and figure out what sort of day it's going to be.
“Sometimes you'll think you're going to have a good day and then it'll hit you,” said Whitney Box, the middle child and one of Austin's best friends in part because their times at OU overlapped. “Then you don't have a good day.”
It could be a photo. It could be a song. It could be almost anything. So that's why going to a football game where he'll be repeatedly remembered in front of 85,000 – and the family will be reminded and reminded — is a daunting proposition.
It's this swirl of difficulty, having your son or brother honored in such a public manner. It is hard. It is flattering. It is meaningful. It's all of those things, with the emotions shifting and shaking from second to second.
Even when it's tough to take, the family makes it very clear it deeply appreciates the outpouring from everyone, and in particular OU's football team.
Soon after Austin died, Stoops called the Boxes and let them know Austin's locker would be kept intact. They wept when they saw on ESPN's All-Access program that, during pre-practice stretching, his teammates leave his spot open and place his helmet in the void.
Words from the Sooners about Austin have been touching to them. They received a photo book this summer from the team, with several messages from players and coaches inside the front cover. Stoops talked about how much he appreciated the time with Austin, on and off the field. Teammates wrote about the lessons he taught them, battling back time and again from injury, and how they've applied his toughness to their own adversity.
A No. 12 Box jersey, signed by the whole team, arrived a few weeks ago. His degree in sociology came Aug. 15, five days after what would have been his 23rd birthday. That one got to Whitney, who knew how fiercely Austin had worked to obtain it.