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What if she had said no?

I’ve been asked that question numerous times about the day I dropped down on one knee in front of 25,000 people and asked Rachel Cockrell to marry me 23 years ago.

To be honest, I don’t have an answer.

A little background.

In September of 1997, I was a few days from leaving my job as sports editor of the Lufkin Daily News and moving to Longview to join the sports staff at the Longview News-Journal. As part of my going-away gift, friends took me to Houston to watch the final game of the Major League Baseball regular season between the Houston Astros and Pittsburg Pirates at the legendary Astrodome.

Rachel was invited to the game, but it was understood she was tagging along to meet another one of our friends. The general consensus was Rachel deserved so much more than a sportswriter who had spent the last 12 years finishing in the Top 5 on the list of biggest heathens in East Texas.

I couldn’t argue those facts, and to be honest, I wasn’t interested in meeting someone from the town I was about to leave.

Then Rachel showed up, and “Single Man” (faster than a daddy’s shotgun. …able to leap long commitments in a single bound) was smitten. By some miracle, Rachel was at least a little intrigued by the end of the day.

Flash forward two months.

The Longview Lobos, unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the state in Class 5A Division I, had a date to face the Katy Tigers in the state championship game on Dec. 13 at the Houston Astrodome.

The Lobos had ascended to No. 1 shortly after I arrived in Longview midway through the season, and it was the biggest story in town. As the Longview News-Journal planned its coverage for the big game, I hatched a plan to ask Rachel to marry me at the same venue of our first meeting back in September.

During my time in Lufkin, I covered the Astros often and became friends with some of the folks who handled the media. I called in a few favors on that end, and then formulated a plan with the newspaper.

Jo Lee Hammer (now Jo Lee Ferguson) and Rachel were best friends, so Jo Lee agreed to get Rachel to the big game – and to keep the proposal a secret. After picking Rachel up in Lufkin and renting a car after Jo Lee’s car decided to die, they arrived a few minutes before kickoff.

I covered the first half of the game from the press box, and then went into the stands to “visit” with Rachel for a few minutes. When the bands cleared the field, the words “RACHEL, WILL YOU MARRY ME?” appeared on the scoreboard across the field from us.

As Rachel’s eyes adjusted and the words sank in, I pulled a ring out of my pocket, got down on one knee in the aisle and said something romantic like “Well? How about it?”

I wish I could tell you the rest of the day was a sappy Hallmark movie, but here’s what really happened.

Rachel said yes. I got a quick smooch, flashed a thumbs-up to the crowd around us and then hustled back to the press box to finish covering the game.

After the game, Rachel and I — along with the large contingent of News-Journal folks covering the game — hustled next door to a hotel and began cranking out stories and photos to fill a four-page special section featuring our game coverage.

All of this had to be done on a tight deadline (our coverage won first place for deadline reporting in the annual Best of Cox Enterprises competition, by the way), and while we worked, Rachel sat on one of the beds looking at the ring on her finger and pondering what she had gotten herself into.

That was 23 years ago today, and I’m sure Rachel still occasionally asks herself that same question. That’s why I’m not offended when folks ask me “what if she had said no?”

I still don’t have the answer to that question, but I am thankful that’s one story I didn’t have to write.

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Jack Stallard is Sports editor of the News-Journal. Email: jstallard@news-journal.com; follow on Twitter @lnjsports.