(Editor's Note: Former Houston Post, Houston Press and Houston Chronicle columnist Mickey Herskowitz covered Jack Pardee--Texas A&M "Junction Boy," NFL linebacker and former Houston Gamblers, University of Houston and Houston Oilers coach--at nearly every stop. They also had a personal connection.
"We shared a bond, an unusual one and awkward to explain, for most of our adult lives," Herskowitz says.
Before baseball's opening day in 1964, Herskowitz wrote a story about Houston Colt .45s reliever Jim Umbricht, who had just died of melanoma at the age of 33. Pardee and his wife Phyllis saw the story in Los Angeles, and she insisted that he get a "black mole" similar to Umbricht's checked out.
"Their suspicions were confirmed," Herskowtiz says. "The mole was malignant. Within days of the test results, Jack underwent surgery, using a new technique – called perdusion, tying off the blood flow to the affected area – used for the first time in this country on Umbricht. The operation was a success, although they would not know for certain until five years later.
"For as long as we would know each other, Jack and Phyllis went out of their way to tell people that I had saved his life."
Pardee would go on to volunteer and raise money for the American Cancer Society; he told the story of reading Herskowitz's article when he received the American Cancer Society's "Courage Award" from President Richard Nixon in 1973.
Other than a minor recurrence in 1986, Pardee remained in good health until late 2012, when he was diagnosed with gall bladder cancer. He died on April 1 at the age of 76.)
As Gene Stallings left the rosary for Jack Pardee, his Aggie teammate for three years and a friend for life, he paused briefly to chat with others lingering in the aisle. He could not hold back a smile over a memory more than 50 years removed.
"As a sophomore," Stallings reflected. "Jack hardly said a word. We called him 'Gabby.'"
Fans, and the occasional critic, were frequently puzzled by the demeanor of the football legend who died of gall bladder cancer on April 1. They would ask, in print or on the air, "What's with Jack Pardee? How can a guy who played and coached for Bear Bryant and George Allen be so quiet and unemotional?"
We offer the short version of a sometimes complicated question. Pardee never needed to prove his manhood. He was less preoccupied than most people with the daily trivia of a world gone slightly daffy. He was that way in college and more so after 1964, when he was diagnosed with melanoma, black mole cancer, whose survival rate was then 10 percent.
In the end, he believed he had been given a bonus of 47 years.
"You'd rather not have it," he said, when I called after hearing the disease was back, "but I'm okay. I've had a great run."
He had several great runs, including a kickoff return of 85 yards for a touchdown that helped give the Aggies their first win over the University of Texas at Memorial Stadium. He never lost a yard from scrimmage in two seasons as a starting fullback. He may have been stopped for no gain once or twice, but a loss: never. Pardee did not see this distinction as a reason to boast. "Yeah, well, we didn't run the fullback traps in those days," he said. "We got the ball at the line of scrimmage and ran right at 'em. It was hard to lose a yard."
He was believed to be the first graduate of six-man football to perform as a professional. He was surely the first of that breed to grace the NFL head coaching faculty. To find a comparable story, you would need to locate an ex-singer of Western Union jingles, who later caught on with the Metropolitan Opera.
Born in Iowa, Jack was eight when his family moved to Christoval, a tiny community of dry-land farmers, whose sons were needed to push a plow, not a blocking sled. When the town enjoyed a brief oil boom in the early 1950's, the enrollment at the high school expanded to roughly the size of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleading squad.
In his senior year, Jack scored 57 touchdowns as one of two running backs on a team that employed a quarterback, two ends and a center. He was not to know a guard or tackle by name until he got to Aggieland, where as a sophomore in 1954 he fell under the influence of one Paul Bryant.
He was tall and gangly and shy and his coach couldn't decide where to play him. He wound up at end, and, according to Bryant in his autobiography, Jack caught the touchdown pass that produced the only points in A&M's only win, 6-0, over Georgia, in that 1-9 1954 campaign.
He was a Junction Boy, and Bryant's love for that band of survivors, and that team, has been well documented. How could it have been otherwise? They gave him his only losing season in 38 years of coaching.
I once reminded Jack of his unique status as the hero of the Georgia victory. He shook his head and said, "No, that's not right. Gene Stallings and I were the starting ends and Gene caught the pass for the touchdown. I caught a short one just before it."
Startled and unused to hearing his former players correct the Bear, I asked Pardee if his memory could be trusted.
"I believe so," he replied. "I also remember that we were driving for another score and I let a defensive man shoot the gap, throw us for a loss and kill the drive. That was when Coach Bryant decided to move me from end to fullback."
In truth, Jack was something of a mystery to Bryant. He didn't get mad no matter how much the coaches pushed him. The next spring some of the football players drove to Austin to cheer for the baseball team. Fights broke out all day, but the main event was between Pardee and a star Texas tackle named Buck Lansford. They brushed each other in the doorway of a restroom after Jack had turned away from the urinals.
Lansford snapped at him: "Don't they teach you to wash your hands at A&M?"
And Pardee retorted, "They teach us not to piss on our fingers."
They knocked each other sprawling over benches from one end of the bleachers to the other. The Aggies all thought Pardee won the fight.