Unsporting Aggie

Book Review by Robert Heard:


This is an important book. Not a good one. Important.

I am grateful for the opportunity to illustrate and then to answer the worship of a macho religion, whose messiah is John Wayne. I’ll be quick. Many of you are busy and want the short answer. I will quote one paragraph, from page 61. That’s all the summary you need. I’ll go on and display my wisdom or ignorance — as you choose to view it — but you can stop after that paragraph.

A brief backgrounder for the paragraph. In the fall of 1954, A&M football coach Bear Bryant wanted to get away from College Station and do something special, and brutal, to gain the attention of his charges. So he chose for his first drills the small, western Hill Country town of Junction. Bryant picked Junction because he wanted isolation in which to focus his players’ attention on football, specifically his brand of football. Supposedly he shunned the press, although young Mickey Herskowitz, then a new sportswriter for the Houston Post, was allowed not only to cover the practices but to live in the same Quonset-hut environment (and Herskowitz bent to the will of Bryant on at least one occasion, calling in the coach’s “corrections” to a story). For sure, Bryant did not want any mommas or poppas hanging around who might be inclined to stick back on an arm or leg that had been torn off. Bryant’s “Junction Bunch” became the foundation of a team that would win the Southwest Conference title in football two years later, in 1956, including in its run the first win over Texas in Austin’s Memorial Stadium (34-21).

On the first day, September 1, 1954, a lineman named Henry Clark failed repeatedly in a two-on-one blocking drill. Clark’s legs wobbled from near exhaustion as he staggered back to his feet. Bryant grabbed Clark’s shoulder pads and shouted, “What is your name, son?” Breathing heavily, Clark stuttered his name. Bryant blew his whistle to get the attention of the players. “I want all of you sonsabitches on this practice field to stop and listen up, because this boy tells me his name is H-Henry Clark. Now I want you to see how a fart blossom named H-Henry Clark handles himself.” Dent tells us the players could see Clark’s legs trembling as Clark dropped into his stance, and one player, Charles Hall, even questioned the example Bryant prepared to make of Clark: “How can we all stand here while this man abuses our teammate like this?” Another player, Elwood Kettler, told Hall to shut up, “or you’ll be next.” Clark was again flattened by two blockers. Bryant grabbed Clark, pulled his face close and said, “You ain’t worth tits on a boar hog. And you call yourself a Texas Aggie football player.” Neither Hall nor Kettler nor any of the other players could have known the degree of barbarism that would follow.

The man with the leather exterior [Bryant] had rehearsed in his mind this little theater that would teach all of the boys a lesson in toughness. He ripped Henry’s helmet from his head and grabbed the back of the boy’s head with two meaty hands. “Now I’m gonna show you how to do this goddamn drill.” Bryant then butted Henry in the nose with his forehead. He yanked his head forward again and again, bashing his skull into Henry’s nose, lips, and eyes. Blood poured down Henry’s neck and began to soak his white jersey. Even from forty yards away, players could hear the sickening thud as Bryant’s forehead slammed into the boy’s face. Finally, Henry fell like a sack of potatoes onto the hard ground.

Bryant, with three cuts on his forehead, yelled for trainers to “Get your butts over here and fix this boy’s broken nose.” A trainer tried to revive Clark by snapping an ammonia capsule under his nose, now pushed an inch to the right. But the capsule couldn’t work, because of coagulated blood massed on the player’s face. The trainer cleared a breathing passage with a large swath of cotton, then snapped another capsule, which awakened the brutalized young man.

There has never been and will never be justification for Bryant’s behavior.

Winning is important, of course. Otherwise why keep score? But to make winning the only thing, and losing the greatest sin, perverts sports. There has to be a loser. Usually it is the less-talented person or team. If you succeed, through Bryant-like brutality, in enabling a team inferior in talent to outscore a more-talented but less-traumatized team, what have you accomplished? Isn’t this evolution in reverse?

You will find in this book numerous instances of the poor kids who survived Junction, including players with terrible injuries. Their families could not afford college tuition.

Rather than spend much more time on this book, I want to address issues related to its macho philosophy that I have thought about for many years. But I will say one thing more about how Bryant got some of the better players he recruited to A&M. In his 1974 book, Bear: The Hard Life and Good Times of Alabama’s Coach Bryant (“co-authored” by John Underwood), Bryant admitted, “… that first year was brutal. We could hardly get anybody to come to A&M, and I know some of our alumni went out and paid a few boys.” And later: “I’m not sure how many of our boys got something; I guess about four or five did. I didn’t know what they got, and I didn’t want to know, but they got something because they had other offers and I told my alumni to meet the competition.”

Ah, the old “Everybody’s doing it” alibi.

It turns out, according to Dent’s book, that when Bryant first met with five heavy-hitters (named in the book, pages 11-12) among the alumni, he organized the cheating. After he won the commitment of money to buy players, Bryant told them: “A couple of years ago, the N.C.A.A. got cute and started an enforcement division…. So I’m asking you boys to keep your mouths shut.”

In 1954-57, or even within the decade following, this orchestrated cheating by Bryant himself would have made sensational news, the way it would today if we learned David Broder is a Communist. Time makes folk heroes of bad guys: Jesse and Frank James, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, John Dillinger, and Al Capone. We even have our most-popular movie stars play some of those guys: Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Robert DeNiro (and, as fictional Mafia dons: Marlon Brando and Al Pacino). Nearly half a century has passed, so the Aggies, who brag about believing more in morality, mother, country, and apple pie than others, especially those pot-smoking hippies at U.T., now yawn and say Bryant is ancient history.

At one place in Bear, Bryant says twenty-seven of 115 players survived Junction. At another place he says twenty-nine. In the back of The Junction Boys, thirty-five are listed. Dent should instead have run a list of the nearly 100 kids with sense enough to walk away from a rattlesnake. Hey, guys, you Aggie “quitters” of 1954, you’ve waited all this time for someone with sense, humanity, historical perspective, and some knowledge of the game to come to your defense. I just did. You can begin to come out of the woodwork now, just as leather-lunged, sidewalled robots do whenever the Aggies start winning big in football.

There are those who naively defend brutality in sports by reference to the awful demands of combat. William Manchester, distinguished author and a Marine veteran of the bloody fighting on Okinawa, wrote once about a visit by John Wayne to the paraplegic ward of a military hospital near the end of World War II. Those men had seen earlier Wayne movies like the later Sands of Iwo Jima (1950), as big a piece of bullshit bravado as ever wasted celluloid. Those terribly wounded men booed and catcalled and Bronx-cheered Wayne until he felt it necessary to leave without uttering a word. If Wayne had indeed wanted to bare the breast of his personal bravery, he could have enlisted in World War II (as did many other stars, like Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, and Jack Lemmon, to name four).

I know something about Iwo Jima. Just last November, I dedicated a Texas Historical Marker for Marine First Lieutenant Jack Lummus of Ennis. On March 8, 1945, Lummus singlehandedly wiped out three Japanese pillboxes on Iwo Jima before stepping on a land mine that inflicted fatal wounds. Lummus won the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously. There is a huge difference between what the Junction Bunch endured and what combat soldiers go through. Combat soldiers seldom talk about their experiences, except occasionally to each other. Mainly that’s because they know they cannot convey to people listening in a living room, who have not experienced combat, how scared shitless mentally healthy people are in combat. Nothing in sports compares with that.

(One additional aside on the fallibility of a smartass, control-freak football god. Bryant recruited Ken Hall of Sugarland, who still holds the all-time career rushing record for high schools in this country, more than 11,000 yards. Because colleges returned to one-platoon football in the early fifties, Bryant insisted Hall play linebacker. Hall couldn’t hack it at that position. Bryant should have lived with it, to gain the incredible offensive talent the boy possessed. He ruined Hall’s career.)

Dent does not use footnotes or endnotes, nor even an index, and anyone who would write a nonfiction book without an index ought to be forced to drink a gallon of ink. He speaks in an “Author’s Note” of “more than a hundred interviews with persons intimate with the subject.” And he cites three biographies of Bryant and refers to five other works, but he stresses mainly “numerous conversations” with Gene Stallings in the eighties, when Stallings served as an assistant coach with the Dallas Cowboys and Dent covered the Cowboys for the Dallas Times Herald. But we don’t know the source(s), for example, for the paragraph on page 61 that sums up for me the worst of the “win at all costs” coaching philosophy.

A&M, with the Junction Bunch as seniors, ranked Number 1 in the nation before playing Jess Neely’s Rice Owls in late 1957. The quiet-spoken and gentlemanly Neely, sick of hearing all the talk about Bryant’s “hard-nosed” football, coached a masterpiece and beat Bryant, 7-0. In the next game, the season-ender against the University of Texas and its new coach, Darrell Royal, the Aggies again fell 9-7. Bryant then left to coach at Alabama, where he had played in the thirties. He won four or five (depending on who’s counting) national titles at Alabama.

None of those national titles nor anything Bryant accomplished at Texas A&M justified what he did at Junction. Not even close.

Why do we glorify guys like Bryant? What is it in us that wants to boast we can absorb more brutality than the next guy? It makes “men” of us, we say. We prove it by “winning” at sports, when, in reality, all we prove is that we can be more primitive than the next guy. So why don’t we give the trophies to the real lions and tigers?

Make no mistake. We do honor those perceived as the toughest-minded. Bryant battled for years with the N.C.A.A., yet toward the end of his life, Bryant’s longevity earned him the respect of his decades-long adversary at the N.C.A.A., executive director Walter Byers. Longevity also is the key to publication of accounts, such as this book, of what really happened in 1954. It’s like a brutal fraternity initiation. For years they talked about it among themselves and their closest friends. Henry Clark stayed, and played at A&M. For all I know, he bragged in later years about being the boy Bryant made an example of on that first day. Such pride I would liken to Battered-Wife Syndrome: look how tough my guy is, and how he won’t put up with my failure. Now, enough time has passed that they think they can openly boast of being among the select who survived. We ought to identify and honor those who refused to be cowed and brutalized, whose humanity demanded treatment less savage.

It’s probably true that George Patton saved more lives by pushing his men beyond what they thought they could endure — to deny the enemy time to concentrate his forces and present a more formidable defense. But who wants to volunteer to be in Patton’s spearhead, where casualty rates will be high? And what do you do with a Patton in peacetime, after you’ve made him a hero and he wants only to keep fighting? We have conflicted emotions about this. Facing an implacable and deadly foe like the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe, and the panzer tank divisions of Heinz Guderian or Erwin Rommel of World War II, we want Patton on our side. But we also want him to be able to follow civilian orders and stack arms when the two sides agree to stop fighting.

Reading this book, with its references to visits to the Chicken Ranch in LaGrange and its macho talk of physical exploits, reminds me of a friendly argument I had nearly thirty years ago with Molly Ivins. We each claimed first selection of one line in the 1971 movie, The Last Picture Show, as our favorite (maybe we tied). As I recall, a gang of high school students urge a retarded boy to have sex with a local prostitute. Ben Johnson, as Sam the Lion, deplores their cruel antic with these words: “I’ve been around that trashy behavior all my life.”

That’s what this book celebrates.

Robert Heard is the author of eight books, including four on sports. He also served as a Marine officer in Korea in 1952.