Friday Night Ringers

1946 What’s a star running back from San Antonio doing on Odessa high’s championship team?

There was a time when recruiting football talent in Texas was almost as common, if not as socially acceptable, among high schools and among colleges. Outlaw football practices seemed to be at their peak during big oil booms. Whether that proves that oil money actually passed hands, or merely the boomtowns attracted working families likely to have big kids, might be argued forever. The pattern was such that I suspect boomtown leaders of chicanery. If you establish a tent-and-tin-shack city, you may want to give it instant recognition and a quick history, and what better way to do that, in a land where football is almost a religion, than to import youths who are agile, mobile, and hostile?

My suspicions might have something to do with the games I had to play against tough old boys like Byron “Santone” Townsend, who led Odessa to the state championship in 1946. Townsend got his nickname because it was alleged that he had been spotted by Odessa scouts while a junior high stud in San Antonio and rapidly spirited west. In the three years Townsend was a starter for Odessa, the Broncos defeated Midland by a combined score of 149-0; as a member of two of those Midland squads, I believed anything anyone wanted to tell me about how Odessa got Townsend—whatever he might have been paid wasn’t too much.

Bill Shoopman, a commercial photographer in Odessa who photographed Townsend in action, recalls, “There was open talk his daddy had been lured to Odessa because of the boy’s football ability, but of course, nobody ever proved it.” Shoopman himself had played for the Eastland Mavericks in the thirties, and “every year or two, maybe four strangers would show up and play for us. If you hung around long enough, you might find yourself playing against them later on. There was kind of a gentleman’s agreement, I guess, that you wouldn’t blow the whistle on them.

“One year a guy named Rex Clark suddenly showed up to play for us. He was a hell of a back, but nobody knew where he came from. Rex drove a good car, wore good clothes, and had money to rattle, so we all assumed somebody was paying him pretty good. The homegrown locals damn sure didn’t have cars and money.”

The Ranger Bulldogs of that era housed a goodly percentage of their squad in a local fire station. Town merchants fed them and supplied walking-around money. In 1934-35 tiny Haskell had a heck of a fullback named John Kimbrough. In mid-season of ’35, Kimbrough magically appeared in Abilene. There was gossip and sniping from Haskell fans about under-the-table money, but Abilene partisans said they didn’t know what those Haskell malcontents were talking about. Kimbrough went on to become an all-American at Texas A&M, but he never admitted more about his high school transfer than that Abilene seemed like a nice town to live in.

High school football recruiting finally ended in the late forties when the Interscholastic League sternly enforced a rule, much maligned in recent years, that a student moving to another town couldn’t compete in varsity sports for a full calendar year. Maybe it was just a coincidence that the wilder oil booms quit at about the same time.

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