Legends of the Fall

Before I spent the day with football old-timers Sammy Baugh, Darrell Royal, Doak Walker, and John David Crow, I figured they’d left the game behind. But they still know how to play.

November 1997By Comments

Nobody on the small plane rising in the air above Austin glances down at the stadium. It’s on all the passengers’ minds though. Even Doak Walker and John David Crow, who won their Heisman trophies at Southern Methodist University and Texas A&M, respectively, are sensitive to that disaster scene: the University of Texas’ Darrell K Royal—Texas Memorial Stadium. Six days earlier, a Longhorn team with early season national championship airs and a credible Heisman trophy candidate—running back Ricky Williams—had endured a 66–3 horror down there at the hands of unranked and previously winless UCLA. The debacle sums up the state du jour of college football throughout Texas: how far the mighty have fallen. Walker and Crow leave the graveyard humor to the man for whom the stadium is now named.

“Which one of you bastards is gonna bring up that score?” Royal asks. The boyish-looking coach who won three national championships at Texas has been out of the game twenty years now—exactly as long as he held that job. At 73, Royal is attired in walking shoes, khakis, a plaid short-sleeved shirt, and sunglasses that he’ll keep on most of the day because of the prior morning’s cataract surgery. “They come out there and score on six straight possessions,” he says of UCLA, still amazed. “By halftime it’s thirty-eight to nothing. Somebody asks me, ‘What’s that coach [UT’s John Mackovic] gonna do now?’ ‘Well, he sure don’t need no chalk.’”

Royal, Walker, and Crow are flying to Abilene for lunch because, as Walker explains it, “Abilene won’t come to us.” What he means is that the fourth old horseman, Sammy Baugh, generally declines to roam too far from his ranch near Rotan. The gathering, besides being the first time all four have been together at once, is a chance to coordinate book signings for a series released this fall called Dan Jenkins’ Texas College Football Legends—a joint effort of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Masters Press of Indianapolis. The first four volumes (each priced at $29.95) contain a wealth of photographs and texts written by veteran Dallas–Fort Worth sportswriters: Whit Canning on Baugh, Best There Ever Was, and Walker, More Than a Hero; Mike Jones on Royal, Dance With Who Brung Ya; and Steve Pate on Crow, Heart of a Champion. Four more volumes will come next year, and four more in 1999.

The series was the brainstorm of writer and Fort Worth homeboy Dan Jenkins and Mike Bynum, who has been publishing sports books since he was a student manager for Bear Bryant’s University of Alabama teams in the late seventies. Last year, while attending the U.S. Open golf tournament, Jenkins scribbled some thoughts for Bynum on a napkin and in short order became the editor of the series. Jenkins is 68 himself now and predisposed to favor the talents of those who buckled on their chin straps a long time ago. As a result of this rather hoary bias, Earl Campbell is the only black player among the first eight subjects, and quite a few are deceased. I guess you can’t be a legend if you can still run wind sprints.

I had spoken to Jenkins about this a couple of days before the flight to Abilene. My hair’s as gray as slush, and I have never seen so much as a film clip of Slingin’ Sammy Baugh throwing a football. He is 83 and starred at Texas Christian University six decades ago. I asked the editor if he arrived firsthand at his judgment of the best of all time. “Yeah, I saw him play,” Jenkins replied. “I was six or seven years old. I was so hooked on the Frogs I used to watch practice. What bothers me is that I can remember that better than what happened yesterday.”

The books are entertaining, if not probing, and the book signings will provide a lot of enjoyment for nostalgic fans on weekend outings with their grandkids. But larger themes beckon here. Texas football, especially as it was showcased in the now defunct and too-long segregated Southwest Conference, may be the last of our parochial conceits—that dogged and, to others, obnoxious belief that things Texan are separate, distinctive, and superior. We had a major conference with periodic national champions in which all but one school was located in a single state. Great while it lasted, but who can believe in that myth now?

The big schools had to go begging to be absorbed by the Big 8, which in years not too long past was commonly derided hereabouts as Oklahoma and the Seven Dwarfs. Texas upset Nebraska in the thrilling high point of an 8—5 season last year in the new Big 12; three games later they were bonked back to reality, 66—3. Now you have to search to find mention of castoffs SMU and TCU in the Sunday sports sections of most Texas papers. What happened, where did it go? And what of the galloping boys enshrined by that myth who’ve lived long enough to find themselves aching and gimpy old men? Are they indifferent, sentimental, sour? Let’s have lunch and see.

Old football stars, it becomes apparent on the plane, don’t fade away, and they don’t stop playing—they take up golf. Royal relates with pride that he played 65 holes on his sixty-fifth birthday. “Hard to keep count though,” says Crow, “because he doesn’t play them in sequence. Sees a hole with nobody on it or waiting, he just wanders over there.”

At 62, Crow, the Aggies’ only Heisman trophy winner, is the most imposing of the bunch, and with spit-shined penny loafers, starched khakis, and a black knit shirt, he is the most dapper. He says that if the next knee surgery doesn’t work, he’s going to have an artificial joint installed, but at a trim-waisted 230 pounds he still doesn’t look like somebody you could tackle. Crow grew up in a tiny town in northwestern Louisiana, rumbled off-tackle for Bear Bryant’s Aggie teams, and following his Heisman year in 1957, played eleven seasons for the NFL’s Cardinals and 49ers. He was a scary opponent because of not only his bulk but also his visage. When he was born, he was almost strangled by the umbilical cord, and the resulting nerve damage rendered the left side of his face slack and his eyelid fixed and drooping—a distinct disadvantage as an athlete, because he couldn’t blink away sweat and dirt.

A past athletic director at A&M, Crow now directs the foundation that raises money for his alma mater’s athletic programs. “I went to A&M because a man on Bear’s staff had coached my brother at a little college in Arkansas. I knew about Southwest Conference football though. The paper in Shreveport mostly covered Doak Walker and SMU when I was a kid. Doak was my idol.” He looks at the smaller man and laughs. “Hell, he still is. He lives in Steamboat Springs.”

In the Abilene airport, Walker, 70, stands with his short legs bowed and his thumbs hooked in the belt loops of his jeans. After Walker left SMU, he played six years with the Detroit Lions and his lifelong pal Bobby Layne and then retired because he could make more money working for a construction company in Denver. He’s made his home in Colorado the past forty years. He still wears cowboy boots and a tooled Western belt and looks very much a Texan, though only the diamond-studded 1948 Heisman ring on his hand might suggest to passing strangers that he’s a famous one.

Walker’s hair is combed straight back, and he speaks in a high, soft tenor. His pale blue eyes are set wide apart—one of the facets of Walker’s individual myth is his almost lizardlike peripheral vision. This, combined with his speed and agility, made him extremely hard to grab. However he did it—I’ve never seen his highlight films either—he came out of the game relatively unscathed. “I’ve got both my knees, all my teeth, and most of my faculties,” he tells me as we arrive at a country club and walk up the porch steps to greet Sammy Baugh.

The legend is tall, rail thin, and he has one of those West Texas faces that looks like it was hewn by an ax. He wears jeans, a knit shirt buttoned at the throat, a TCU baseball cap, and a pair of remarkably pitted and cracked running shoes. We take seats at a table next to a window with a pleasing view of a golf course. Baugh, who still plays at least three rounds of golf a week, expresses himself with much profanity and a high nasal drawl. He prefers “Sam” to “Sammy.” When he starts talking about football, it’s like he knew the game at the dawn of time, and in a way he did.

Baugh played high school ball in Sweetwater. He was a TCU sophomore when Coach Dutch Meyer unveiled the offense that resembled today’s shotgun spread and made the forward pass more than an act of third-down desperation. “We were sitting in a classroom trying to make sense out of writing on a blackboard. ‘Short.’ ‘Safe.’ ‘Sure.’ Dutch comes in and says, ‘We’re going to be playing teams that can score on us every time they have the ball. The only way we can match them is to keep the ball away from them. And we’re going to do it with short passing.’ Everything I learned about football came from TCU and Dutch Meyer, and I still think he was way ahead of his time. When I got to the pros, they had these little rules that were supposed to protect the passer, just like today. But the real rule don’t ever change: ‘Quarterback tries to pass, you put his ass on the ground.’ All you hear from coaches now is ‘Stay in the pocket. Stay in the pocket.’ Sonofabitch can get killed staying in the pocket.”

The old-timers whoop and rattle silverware and pound their fists, and for the next hour this genteel joint is roaring. Their lives were all shaped by the Depression and World War II. Baugh had a campus job sweeping out a music room when he led the Frogs to a national championship in 1935. He played sixteen seasons with the Redskins and led them to NFL titles in 1937 and 1942. (The only other quarterbacks who have claimed both college and pro titles are Joe Namath and Joe Montana.) Royal grew up in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl town of Hollis and watched caravans of the luckless rolling west with mattresses roped on the car roofs; his own family went out to California as fruit pickers for a while. During the war he played football in the Air Force and, on the strength of that performance, hitchhiked around the country reviewing his scholarship offers, pocketing the travel cash. “Those days, if you had on a uniform, you had no trouble getting a ride.” He signed with Oklahoma and starred as a halfback and quarterback in the next offense that revolutionized the game—Bud Wilkinson’s split T.

The blue collar Highland Park of Walker’s upbringing scarcely resembles the kind of privilege and assumption found in that posh enclave today. Both Walker and Bobby Layne had dazzling high school careers there, worked for a while, then went to college. Layne signed with Texas to play baseball and suited up for football only because his baseball scholarship was good for just one semester. Walker signed with SMU because his dad convinced him it would help him make a living in Dallas later on. They played against each other in November 1945. Both played offense and defense, and both played all sixty minutes. “I intercepted one of his passes,” remembers Walker, “and he intercepted one of mine. I scored my first collegiate touchdown in the first half, but they beat us 12—7. Still don’t know how we did it.”

Layne, who died in 1986 and will be the subject of one of the books in this series, was an All-American pitcher and an All-Pro quarterback. He was also a legendary drunk and rounder. That wasn’t Walker’s style, but from boyhood on he counted Layne as his best friend.

“Baseball scholarship,” marvels Royal, who was a rival Oklahoma Sooner in those years and then, as a young UT coach, reinvigorated the Longhorn program while Layne was in the pros. “I’ll be damned.”

As we’re eating our salads, Royal starts talking about something that has always amused him. “I wasn’t near as anti-pass as my reputation made me out to be. We worked hard on it, and every big game we won—every one—the turning point was a completed forward pass. All that got started one day when I was kidding around with the press. Some guy said, ‘Well, when are you going to start throwing the ball?’ I made a flippant remark: ‘When you pass, three things can happen, and two of them are bad.’ After that, I was so conservative I had to look two ways before I’d cross a one-way street. And I kind of enjoyed the banter. But at the time the guy asked the question, we were leading the nation in scoring! I thought that’s how they measured offense.”

His legacy as an innovator began in 1968, when he and his staff invented the wishbone formation. They did it because they had three great running backs and didn’t want any of them on the bench, and for years after that the quarterback’s triple option of handoff, pitchout, or keep was the rage of the game. Oklahoma and Barry Switzer copied it precisely so they could stay on the field with Texas. Even Bear Bryant, who had enjoyed great success in the sixties with passing teams built around quarterbacks like Joe Namath and Ken Stabler, switched to the wishbone after guidance from Royal.

But Royal’s greatest wishbone team in 1969 was ultimately tainted by the stigma of being the last national champion with an all-white roster. Texas lagged behind other conference schools in integrating its athletic programs, and rival recruiters quietly condemned Royal as a racist, taking what advantage they could get. Royal put all that to rest by successfully courting Texas’ all-time high school football star, Tyler’s Earl Campbell. Royal won the confidence of the youth and his mother because the coach clearly knew what it was like to live in rural poverty. Campbell won his Heisman in 1978, the year after Royal retired.

The infusion of remarkable talent that had come with integration in the sixties and seventies failed to breathe sufficient life into the Southwest Conference. By the eighties its best teams still ranked high in the polls and sent a parade of players to the pros, but it had become a league of haves and have-nots, with the small private schools unable to compete against the big public institutions. Unscrupulous recruiters and alums brought the conference to shame trying to restore competitive balance within the league, and the cheating became a sorry game of macho one-upmanship. Because of repeated violations, SMU became the first college in the country forbidden to put a team on the field, and Rice and Baylor were the only Texas members not in hot water with the NCAA.  (Baylor got in serious trouble because of its basketball program.) I ask the legends if the recruiting scandals of the eighties were the coup de grace.

To a man, they dismiss that theory. They insist that the death of the Southwest Conference was inevitable and even merciful. “It was television and money,” Royal proclaims. “And I don’t see the evil in that. If you’re not making money, you’re out of business.”

“It got to where some of us were beating the others every year,” says Crow. “A&M didn’t play many games that appealed to a TV audience. Before the conference broke up, I remember talking to an alum about the need to move the A&M-Texas game from Thanksgiving to the next Saturday so it could be on TV. Fellow said, ‘You mean to tell me, John, it’s gotten to where the bottom line is the dollar.’ I said, ‘I guess that’s the reason I got up and went to work this morning. How about you?’”

But can football survive at TCU, SMU, Rice, and Houston—the schools that weren’t invited to the Big 12 party?

“Gonna be hard,” Baugh says mournfully.

Having finished our salads, we move through the buffet line; Baugh passes on that in favor of his Red Man chewing tobacco. One of the pleasant surprises for me is that they don’t endorse their editor’s tacit premise that the NFL variety is less worthy than the game they knew as collegians. Football is football to these guys.

Baugh raises his sharp chin and tells them: “Fellow wrote me a letter a while back. Said he had discovered that pro quarterbacks today make more money in one game than I did playing sixteen goddam years! I couldn’t believe it. But good for them. I was born too soon.”

Crow agrees. “When I got drafted, the Cardinals offered me a thousand dollars to sign and a fifteen-thousand-dollar salary—if I made the team. It was every nickel I could get.”

They do take pride in some things of their era though. They all played offense and defense. “I just had to play defense in practice,” Crow says of his NFL years, “because the squads were so small. I guess [Philadelphia linebacker and center] Chuck Bednarik was the last one who really played both ways. Except for this hot dog [cornerback, receiver, and kick returner Deion Sanders] they got in Dallas.”

For all the vaudeville and flash Sanders brings to the pro game, he logs almost all of his time covering pass receivers, and the delicacy with which he approaches other defensive chores—such as tackling—inspires grumbles and jibes from this crowd. “He don’t play contact,” Crow growls.

Someone observes that Baugh led the NFL one year in passing, punting, and interceptions. “Yeah, ’cause I had the chances. I played safety and had two great cornerbacks on either side of me. They threw at me all day long.”

Baugh releases brown juice from his lip into a cup. “Talk about making money—ranching sure ain’t the way to do it. I bought my place in 1941. There was an old man named Mr. Kennedy. I had to go through three of his gates and by his house to get to mine. I stopped one day and got to talking to him on the porch. He was in a rocking chair. ‘Mr. Kennedy,’ I told him, ‘this is the rainiest goddam country I’ve ever seen, and the grass is tall, and the wind’s blowing, and it’s pretty. I’ve never seen such grass.’ He said, ‘Well, I came here in ’03, and it’s as good as I’ve ever seen. And you’ll never live long enough to see it this good again.’ Appears he’s gonna be right.”

Baugh’s wife passed away several years ago. A daughter and a grandchild live with him on the ranch, and one of his sons—Snyder’s high school football coach—helps him keep it going. He doesn’t ride horses anymore. In the warm months he seldom goes outside the house at night because the rattlesnakes are moving around. He reads a lot. He’s got a TV satellite dish, and during the fall he starts watching football on Saturday morning and keeps on till Monday night. “I like to see what they’re doing,” he tells me. “It’s a better game now. You know who I’d like to play for? [University of Florida coach] Steve Spurrier.”

Our lunch is over, and we head for the cars. “Oh, I don’t get to see you guys much anymore,” Baugh says in farewell, and his friends embrace him.

“I never told you this,” Royal says. “When my first son was born, I named him Sammy Mack Royal.”

“Shouldn’t oughta done that to him,” the legend replies.

As we watch him amble through the lobby, I ask Royal, “You named your son after him? Did you know him?”

“No, I didn’t know him. And I never saw him play. But he was my hero.”

“He was the only quarterback I ever heard of,” says Walker, blue eyes gleaming.

Maybe that’s the worth of it, I think, while the others go on and I stop at the office to settle our account. The game’s the bond that enables them to stay in reach of that time when the stadium grass was fragrant and pretty and they were fleet and honored boys.

Moving around the office as I wait for my change is the manager of the country club. “Football,” he says with disdain to workers in the office. “I don’t care a thing about it. I’ll tell you what I do when it comes on. I cook. I do the laundry. I’d never heard of any one of those guys.”

It’s your misfortune, mister. And none of my own.

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