Login

'Shootout' always on my mind

Another Dec. 6 rolls around, and a certain journalistic itch must be scratched by someone whose life was shaped by something that happened on this date 49 years ago.

My beloved Sue did not understand fully my occasional laments that a part of me died that cold, foggy December Saturday. University of Texas football players -- James Street, Randy Peschel and Danny Lester to name three -- were co-conspirators in ripping the heart from a then child of 14 who loved the Beatles and Frank Broyles' Razorbacks in equal measure.

Texas' 15-14 win over Arkansas in the so-called "Big Shootout" of the 1969 college football season had a powerful impact upon everyone involved. Broyles, the Razorbacks' football coach for 19 years and for years afterward a patriarch of University of Arkansas athletics, is said to have never watched the game film before passing in 2017.

"If I were in his shoes, I'm not sure I would, either," then-Texas coach Darrell Royal, also deceased, said in a 1994 interview on the 25th anniversary of the fabled game in Fayetteville.

Royal's top-ranked Longhorns trailed 14-0 after three quarters at Razorback Stadium, where a longtime Texas aide once said that playing Arkansas was like "parachuting into Russia." Arkansas, undefeated like Texas, entered the game ranked No. 2 nationally.

They had dominated the Southwest Conference throughout the 1960s, and this was their biggest matchup yet: the winner to play Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl Jan. 1 for the national championship.

How big was the game? The sitting president of the United States and a future chief executive -- Richard M. Nixon and George H.W. Bush, respectively -- were seated near each other on the west side of the stadium. On the same row were Republican Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller and the state's two U.S. senators, Democrats J. William Fulbright and John L. McClellan. In the previous year's general election, Arkansas voters went for Rockefeller, Fulbright and independent presidential candidate George Wallace, a trifecta that still strikes this lifelong Arkansan as bizarre.

That Nixon, who played some football at California's Whittier College, would attend added intrigue to what remains the most ballyhooed athletic event ever staged in Arkansas. The Rev. Billy Graham delivered the invocation before Nixon and his party arrived, late, by helicopter from Fort Smith. By the time Nixon was seated, Arkansas led 7-0, which was also the halftime score.

Nixon, who as we would learn taped his White House conversations, was years away from the Watergate scandal that would topple his presidency. But the president's insight during a halftime chat with ABC announcers Chris Schenkel and Bud Wilkinson later made one wonder, like Watergate investigator Sen. Howard Baker, what did Nixon know and when did he know it?

With the insight of a football beat writer, Nixon predicted that Texas' true offensive might had not been unleashed and that a long pass might trigger something for the Longhorns.

One wonders if Nixon whispered into Royal's ear before the Texas coach made the most daring call of his career. A coach who preached that "three things can happen when you pass and two of them are bad," Royal turned riverfront gambler with his team facing fourth and four, less than five minutes to play, on its side of the 50 and trailing 14-8.

Fearing that time would run out before Texas' vaunted Wishbone offense could score the equalizing touchdown, Royal instructed quarterback James Street to throw deep -- but to tight end Randy Peschel, not the customary choice, wide receiver Cotton Speyrer. Peschel, the only man out on the pattern, got behind two Razorback defenders and watched Street's perfect pass sail into his hands 44 yards downfield.

Texas fans went into orbit while Arkansas fans predictably crashed. The Longhorns scored in two plays and Happy Feller kicked UT ahead 15-14, the score that went into the record books that day and remains indelibly burned upon the psyche of Razorback Nation.

It was a deeply traumatic game, college football's last major college contest played between two all-white teams. Freddie Steinmark, Texas' starting safety, would be diagnosed with cancer a week later and lose a leg. Steinmark died a couple of years before Lester, a cornerback who made a key end-zone interception with the Hogs poised to expand a 14-8 lead.

Nixon visited both locker rooms afterward, congratulating Arkansas on a gallant effort and presenting Texas a trophy as the national champion of college football's centennial season. Texas made it official with a Cotton Bowl victory over Notre Dame; Arkansas, meanwhile, ended a star-crossed season with a Sugar Bowl defeat to Mississippi, which had a dynamic quarterback in Archie Manning.

About his all-or-nothing call, Street's home-run pass to Peschel, Royal said simply, "Sometimes you have to suck it up and pick a number."

To learn more about the game, read Terry Frei's stirring account, "Horns and Hogs and Nixon's Coming," the title partly derived from a lyric by Neil Young written after the following year's Kent State tragedy.

Along with the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier heavyweight matchup in March 1971, the 1969 Arkansas-Texas football game is the most important athletic event of my lifetime. The game, which I witnessed from Section M of old Razorback Stadium, influenced my decision to become a sportswriter. It is part of my DNA despite repeated vows never to write another word about it. I wish it had ended differently but cannot quibble with the quality of Texas' victory.

It happened 49 years ago today. And giants, as we suspected then, truly walked the earth.

Sports on 12/06/2018

Log in to comment