Brothers in Lore
Forty years after halfbacks Dickie Don and Rickie Ron were the pride of the Corbett Comets, are their lives still just as unbelievable? Yewbet!
FORTY YEARS LATER, IT SEEMS like a fairy tale. It was 1962 when the Corbett Comets and their twin halfbacks, Dickie Don and Rickie Ron Yewbet, flashed for one shining moment across the Texas sky. Not that they were front-page news. To read about them you had to search through dozens of accounts of small-town football contests stacked in agate type on the sports page of the Dallas Times Herald, where I worked as a sportswriter. The Comets were undefeated, their record marred only by an inexplicable 0-0 tie with archrival East Dozier in bi-district. For the few of us who knew of their exploits, however, the ’62 Comets are as unforgettable as that pair of argyle socks you owned as a young dandy.
For years I’ve wondered what happened to the Yewbet twins, so last month I went looking for them in Corbett, an obscure flyspeck on the map to nowhere, lost among miles of cotton and cornfields, cedar breaks, and oil rigs. Near a water tower with the faded blue legend COMETS ’62, I stopped at a Dairy Queen to ask directions. Three boys in letter jackets were swiping fries through a bath of ketchup. When I asked about the legendary Yewbets, they gave me the blank look one would expect upon asking a teenager what he thought of the Warren Report.
“Hell, that bunch of clowns couldn’t carry the Yewbets’ jockstraps in a front-end loader,” a man with the name “Spud” stenciled on his hard hat called out. “They ain’t won a game in two and a half years.” Spud was drinking coffee with several other construction workers. When I asked how to find the Yewbets, he laughed and said, “Dickie’s probably sleeping one off in that haunted house on the hill. As for Rickie, ask Patsy Ruth here.” He nodded at the attractive blond waitress who was refilling their coffee cups. Patsy Ruth blushed but said nothing. “He’s your grandpa, ain’t that right, honey?” Spud smirked.
Her young face went hard as she intentionally let his cup overflow, spilling boiling coffee in his lap. “That’s what people say,” she replied matter-of-factly. “My granny, Wilmadean Hargrove, was a majorette in the Fighting Comets band. She got knocked up one night near the south end zone. Granny never said who the daddy was, but everyone in town says it was Rickie.”
“Interesting,” I said.
“Mister, you don’t know the half of it,” she said, an ironic smile crossing her lips. “Granny’s high school sweetheart was Dickie, not Rickie. Dickie was her first husband too. But it was Rickie who nailed her, or so they say.”
A man in a greasy John Deere cap suggested that I talk to the twins’ older sister, Betty Bob Yewbetovic.
“Yewbetovic?” I asked, not sure I’d heard correctly.
“That’s our real family name,” Patsy Ruth explained. “This old man at the school board named Sug Kempleman made ’em change it so it sounded better on the P.A.”
I found Betty Bob in back of her trailer, near the railroad tracks. She was a large woman with a ripe-apple nose, and she was field-dressing a possum, pulling back the skin with her teeth. “So you’re the one!” Betty Bob said, spitting tobacco juice between my shoes.
“That night at the Elks Club,” she said, squinting into the sun. “The one that warned Dickie who Wilmadean was doin’. If it wudn’t for you, he’d never have gone home that night, and the boys would still be brothers, and Rickie would have his right eye where God put it ‘stead of where his ear used to be.” If I wanted more details, she suggested, Sug Kempleman was the man to see.
I’d read about E. O. “Sug” Kempleman years ago, in Dick Hitt’s column in the Times Herald. Sug owned the Ford dealership and was the president of the Boosters Club (he donated the world’s largest bass tuba to the Fighting Comets band). Kempleman Motors was across the road from Easy Dzindjic’s Bar and Hardware, next to Corbett’s only working traffic light. Unfortunately, I was too late.
“Daddy passed in ’93—or was it ’98?” a skinny man with a bow tie but no chin told me. “I’m Little Sug, and I’m boss now. That’s my boy over there, licking the hood of that green Expedition. Randle, you stop that ‘fore you take off all the paint!”
He led me to his office, a glassed-off enclosure overlooking the showroom floor, where we drank Dr Peppers while we talked. After the ’62 season, Little Sug explained, Big Sug bought a beer distributorship for the twins. For nearly a decade money rolled in, and the boys lived high. Rickie Ron bought a Camaro and took his various girlfriends to Vegas, Memphis, and Bimini. Dickie Don married his high school sweetheart, Wilmadean Hargrove, and after the baby was born made a down payment on the old Graboski mansion. Then, in the summer of 1971, something happened that turned the twins into mortal enemies. “If you want the real scoop,” Little Sug said, “talk to Elroy Bun over at the Citizen.”
I found the editor of Corbett’s only newspaper in the back shop, working on a vintage Linotype machine. Elroy wore a green plastic eyeshade and stuttered when he spoke. “Th-th-that Wilmadean!” he recalled. “N-n-never could t-t-tell the twins apart. Dickie and some of us were w-w-watching the moon landing on the TV over at the Elks Club when he got a ph-ph-phone call. He went tearing out like his p-p-pants were on fire. When he got h-h-home, he found Rickie and Wilmadean buck naked, playing touch football with a t-t-teddy bear! Dickie grabbed a bowling pin and damn near t-t-tore off one side of Rickie’s face. After that Wilmadean ran off with a Mexican drug dealer and the boys—they never spoke to each other again.”
“Where are they now?” I asked.
Elroy shook his head in sorrow. “D-D-Dickie lives alone in that tumbledown m-m-mansion up the hill, d-d-drinking and brooding. R-R-Rickie lives in a cabin out by Lake Yewbet, running his speed lab and r-r-raising p-p-pit bull terriers.”
The cabin turned out to be an old school bus on blocks, its windows painted black. Rickie met me at the gate, a gaunt, gray man with a black patch covering one eye and an L-shaped scar where his ear used to be. At 58, he still had a spring in his step and retained a trace of the animal magnetism that once drove women wild. Eight or ten pit bull terriers were on the business end of heavy chains around the perimeter of the bus, and they watched with large, sorrowful eyes as he escorted me to a bench under a giant oak.
“I’ll talk about the ’62 season,” he said defiantly. “And that’s it.”
“Tell me about your brother.”
“He was the best.” Rickie smiled plaintively. “A goddamn mule—never looking left, never looking right, just lowering his head and giving it all he had. People remember me as a wildcat back then. But Dickie was the reason we went undefeated in ’62.”
“Sounds like you care for each other,” I said, picking my words carefully. “Why can’t you forget Wilmadean and get on with your lives?”
“Wilmadean!” he said, choking back a bitter laugh. “We forgot that tramp years ago. What Dickie can’t forget is what I done in that last game against East Dozier.”
“The scoreless tie?” I said. “You guys had averaged sixty points a game. How could you not score?”
“How come God didn’t put handles on footballs?” he asked in a flat voice. A woman in her early forties appeared for a moment at the door of the bus, then retreated. “How come I fumbled six friggin’ times?”
“I’m seeing your brother in half an hour,” I said. “Any message?”
“I think about him and . . .” He stopped in mid-sentence and wiped a tear from his dead eye. “Just tell him I said, ‘Hey.'”
The old Graboski mansion was the color of wood rot and looked like the set of a Hitchcock movie. I was surprised to see Dickie Don wearing a coat and tie. He was freshly shaven and had apparently made an attempt to tidy up, pushing whiskey and wine bottles under the dining room table and spraying the room with evergreen scent. Grossly overweight, he walked with the assistance of a hand-carved cane, and his vacant eyes were puffy and red.
“I reckon you want to know about Rickie and Wilmadean and all that crap,” he said, lowering himself into an overstuffed chair.
“No, I want to know about the ’62 season,” I told him. “What was it like?
“It was the best time of my life,” he brightened. “We were impenetrable, unstoppable—what you’d call a juggernaut.”
“And then came that fateful bi-district game with East Dozier.”
He stared at the floor for a full minute, saying nothing.
“You still love him, don’t you?” I said.
Rising slowly from his chair, Dickie Don led me down a flight of dark steps to a basement where, in the flicker of candlelight, I could make out an altar. Pictures of Jesus, Mary, and Rickie Ron were arranged in a triangle, and in the center was a cross with these words burned into the wood: “Better to die a baby than fumble that football.”
“How could anyone not love Rickie Ron?” he said in a tired, pitiful voice.
Driving back to Austin that night, I kept thinking about the girl at the Dairy Queen. She would never know the truth. Nobody would. Maybe it was better that way. In the hot glare of a living legend, truth always finishes second.