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.

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

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