How’s this for trash talk: weeks before Burkburnett High’s Bulldogs began practicing for their 1972 football opener, a 78-year-old resident of nearby Wichita Falls marched onto their field, planted a stake in the turf, and soon after brazenly declared, “I am going to drill an oil well right in the middle of their damned stadium.”

The uncongenial intention of Samuel H. Walton predictably riled the town of 9,200 on the banks of the Red River. “I don’t think there’s been any violent reaction,” high school principal Bill Darland said, “but, sure, they’re upset.”

This conflict between the oil business and high school football, which have long been among Texans’ most traditional endeavors at work and play, became a huge storyline well beyond Wichita County or even Dallas, 156 miles away, where the Dallas Morning News reported the goings-on as its lead story. The spat between Burkburnett football and Walton, who’d been in the oil business since he was in his twenties, further attracted the attention of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Wire-service coverage popped up in newspapers as far away as Honolulu and Canada.

Burkburnett oil field
A Burkburnett oil field in 1920.Permian Basin Petroleum Museum/UNT Libraries Special Collections/Portal to Texas History

Let’s note that oil wells and pump jacks were plentiful in Burkburnett then and had been for decades. After all, it was “Boom Town.”

Oil was first discovered there in 1912, followed by major strikes in 1918 and ’25. Folks flocked to town by the hundreds to seek their fortunes. It all inspired a 1939 historical-fiction story in Cosmopolitan magazine titled “A Lady Comes to Burkburnett,” which inspired the 1940 movie Boom Town, starring Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Claudette Colbert, and Hedy Lamarr.

In fairness to Walton, the oilman considered himself sufficiently provoked. For one, his existing wells on the western edge of Burkburnett were on land that had been annexed by the city after he bought the mineral rights to the property. He was further miffed by the behavior of some BHS students who got their kicks by lodging sticks or pipes into the motors of two of Walton’s pump jacks that were located about twenty yards from Bulldog Stadium’s south end zone. (Reports at the time produced varying estimates of how productive the wells were, ranging from a barrel or two a day to four barrels of oil per month. They appeared to be low-output “stripper wells,” certainly not gushers.)

School officials also disapproved of the gooey mess around the wells. That’s what prompted superintendent James Pearson to send Walton a letter urging him to clean the mess and build fencing around the wells.

And that apparently sent Walton over the edge. So says John Brookman, who was a Burkburnett town employee then. I met Brookman, now 88, in mid-September at a late-morning coffee klatsch of town elders in the conference room of the First Capital Bank.

“I can tell you everything about it,” Brookman stated emphatically.

Also present at that gathering was Darland, who in the fall of 1972 was only months into his second year as Burkburnett High’s principal. He said he saw Walton only once through the entire squabble, an innocuous pass-by in a downtown bank.

Coach Bill Froman’s ’72 Bulldogs were listed fourth among the eight schools of District 4-3A in Dave Campbell’s Texas Football pre-season magazine, with district favorite Wichita Falls Hirschi projected to play for the Class 3A state championship. Burkburnett quarterback Sam Hancock, fullback Rick Bradley, and halfbacks Zac Henderson and Mark Bulla were considered the team’s top players.

Three days after the Bulldogs opened district play with a 28–12 win over Graham in early October, Walton received a permit from the Texas Railroad Commission to drill a well within the boundaries of the football field. It’s difficult now to determine exactly where in the field he planned to drill. Newspaper reports identified several locations: the fifty-yard line, which certainly proved to be the most provocative spot, one of the twenty-yard lines; and between the two goalposts in the south end zone.

The permit from the state agency was only the first contractual hurdle Walton was required to clear. He still needed the official blessing of Burkburnett’s city council, which he had not yet sought. But given the town’s leniency over the years in granting drilling rights, Walton might have considered that a mere formality.

Brookman said he was designated by city manager Gary Bean to serve as the town’s liaison in dealing with Walton. “They told him to build a fence around the pumping unit,” Brookman recalled. “He told them to go stick it, and you’d have to know Sam Walton. I went out and talked to Sam, and it was like talkin’ to that wall: ‘I ain’t gonna fence nothin’. Me and him almost came to fist city several times.”

The murmurs across town grew about somebody wanting to drill a well in the field at Bulldog Stadium. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs were putting together their best season in years. They completed October with a 4–0 district record and were 5–2 overall, both losses coming against Oklahoma schools. The dream of winning the school’s first district title since 1956 and making their first trip to the 3A playoffs was only three games away. But that would require beating both Hirschi and longtime power Brownwood and its legendary coach, Gordon Wood. Wood’s Lions had claimed the last five district titles and won five state championships from 1960 through ’70.

Burkburnett High School Principal Billy Darland
Burkburnett High School principal Billy Darland. Courtesy of Burkburnett High School
Burkburnett High School football team
The 1972 Burkburnett Bulldogs. Courtesy of Burkburnett High School

Bradley, the fullback on that Bulldogs team, also attended the September coffee klatsch, and he said that he and his teammates didn’t pay much attention to the drilling drama back then: “We didn’t care,” he said. “We just wanted to go play. He took care of it. [Bradley nodded across the room toward Froman, his former coach.] He kept us focused on playing.”

Froman said of Walton, “I never had a word with the man. My dealings were with the school board.”

In early November 1972, negotiations between Burkburnett officials and Walton progressed. The oilman was represented at school board meetings by attorney H. W. Fillmore (“In court,” Brookman recalled, “Fillmore would take out his chaw and put it on the table.”). During one meeting, Fillmore suggested the board buy Walton’s mineral rights to the land that included the high school and the football field, which seemingly would have ended the threat of a well being drilled anywhere in Bulldog Stadium. Soon after, the board offered $1,000, which Walton deemed inadequate. Fillmore said at the next board meeting, he’d bring data from oil-industry engineers to prove that the potential new well could be a big earner.

When the Bulldogs blanked Hirschi 13–0 on November 10, they were in position to win the district and the accompanying playoff berth—if they could beat Brownwood for the first time since being assigned to the same district in 1963. The day before Burkburnett traveled to Brownwood, the little town’s melodrama hit the front page in Dallas with the headline “Goal Line Defense: Fans Try to Stop Oil Well in End Zone.”

Even the University of Texas student paper, the Daily Texan, dispatched two staffers. Initially frustrated that they couldn’t locate Walton, the student journalists were tipped off to where Walton would likely stop for breakfast. When they caught up with him, Walton not only repeated his initial threat but also expanded it throughout the 256 acres of local mineral rights he owned. “I’m going to build some wells in the backyards of some of those houses over there,” he said. “I’m going to drill in the middle of the street.”

By then, a CBS News crew had joined the media frenzy. Walton yelled at some photographers (“Don’t take my picture, you long-haired son of a bitch!”) and tried to grab a CBS photographer’s camera. The network interviewed halfback Bulla on camera while the Daily Texan got a few words from quarterback Hancock. “He’s mad at something,” Hancock said of Walton. “The school board. The people. I don’t know.” Burkburnett assistant coach Charlie Seager delivered a zinger in his interview with the UT paper: “Right now, everybody’s just laughing that the high school needs a drill team to drill a well.”

At Brownwood’s Cen-Tex Stadium on the evening of November 17, Burkburnett built a 12–0 halftime lead over the host Lions, then pulled away to win 32–0. A photo of the scoreboard at game’s end made its way into the 1972–73 Burkburnett yearbook (titled Derrick).

As the Bulldogs began preparing for their first playoff matchup against Lamesa in Abilene, the dispute with Walton escalated, with school-district officials announcing the withdrawal of their $1,000 offer for Walton’s mineral rights. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs kept winning—first over Lamesa, then in a 7–6 victory over Dumas at home. It was the first time in school history that Burkburnett had won two playoff games. “You couldn’t have gotten another person in the grandstand,” Bradley, the fullback, recalled. “The whole town went crazy.” The Bulldogs advanced to the 3A semifinals and a date with once-beaten Lewisville at TCU’s Amon Carter Stadium in Fort Worth.

Two days before the game, the Texas Railroad Commission cancelled Walton’s drilling permit, which Texas Monthly learned thanks to Wichita County archivist Bryce Blair. J. Brooks Peden of the commission’s legal staff explained the decision in an article about the cancellation: “There were surface obstruction matters and possible safety matters and possible pollution matters involved in the proposed drilling location, which had not been brought to the commission’s attention.” Right. The proposed location was in a high school football field.

Alas, the Bulldogs’ playoff run ended against Lewisville, as the Farmers scored on their first two possessions and cruised to a 34–0 victory to end Burkburnett’s season. (Lewisville went on to lose the state final to top-ranked Uvalde.)

Thus ended the unlikely series of events on and off the field that made Burkburnett High’s 1972 football season one for the ages. Froman left the school after that season to coach at Corsicana High. Zac Henderson became an All-American at Oklahoma and played in the 1981 Super Bowl for the Philadelphia Eagles. Sam Hancock quarterbacked Baylor. Rick Bradley played briefly at Texas Tech but left early and became the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s youngest steer-wrestling world champion at age 22. And, incredibly, John Brookman, the town liaison to Walton, eventually became good friends with the Bulldogs’ onetime nemesis. “He was a pretty nice fellow,” Brookman said.

Samuel H. Walton died in May 1976 at home in Wichita Falls. He was 82.

But an ironic coda to the Burkburnett-Walton dustup is playing out unexpectedly this year in “Boom Town,” which now numbers about 11,000 residents.

Last March, a group of school officials was making a routine inspection of the stadium led by superintendent Brad Owen, who noticed cracks in the concrete on the visitors’ side bleachers. Coincidentally, Owen’s father, Gary, was among the BHS students who helped pour the concrete over the metal framework for the stands in 1963, when the facility was converted from a rodeo arena to a football stadium.

The superintendent enlisted a Dallas engineering firm to assess the structure, and the company struggled to fit an inspection into its pandemic-delayed schedule. The engineering report didn’t arrive until August 20, just seven days before the Bulldogs’ scheduled home opener this season. The document’s key finding was that the stadium was unusable—its interior pipes, which had been donated decades earlier by local oil companies, had rusted.

After Owen broke the news to first-year Bulldogs football coach Brad Boyd, the coach called Burkburnett athletic director Danny Nix (who had been an all-district basketball player for the high school in 1972–73). Nix called the five schools that were scheduled to visit BHS this season and arranged alternate facilities for the Bulldogs’ home games this season, while the stadium was slated for destruction.

Burkburnett’s final “home game” this year is scheduled for Friday, October 29, against Springtown’s Porcupines. They’ll play at Iowa Park, about fifteen miles from the BHS campus. Implosion of the concrete stands at Bulldog Stadium is scheduled to begin Monday, October 25. The new bleachers will be all aluminum, and capacity is expected to increase from 5,000 to about 6,700. Nix said the condemning of the stadium, though it caused a frantic scramble to rework this season’s schedule, “really was a blessing.”

All these years later, Big Oil finally managed to shut down Bulldog Stadium—if only by accident, and only for one season.

“It’s come full circle,” Owen said.