A Texas Love Story: Edith Royal, widow of legendary coach Darrell Royal, recounts their long life together
When Edith Thomason met Darrell Royal, he wasn't yet a football star. He hadn't yet served in the Army. And he wasn't a legendary Texas coach.
Darrell was just an Oklahoma teenager who lived with his grandmother, shined shoes on city streets and worked odd jobs to make ends meet. Edith says he was "real poor." She says she was, too.
"We were just so poor we could barely make it," said Edith, who turned 90 on Oct. 27. "From one crop to the next is how we lived. So did all of our neighbors."
She marvels at how their life changed.
When Darrell coached Texas from 1957 to 1976, football fields replaced cotton farms. Their close friends ranged from President Lyndon B. Johnson to Matthew McConaughey. Each year's football team became de facto members of the Royal family. Players were like sons.
Thus the 1969 national championship resembled a family celebration. When All-American safety Freddie Steinmark's was diagnosed with bone cancer and had a leg amputation six days later, it was a family hardship. The movie My All-American, released Friday, chronicles Steinmark's story. Darrell's is closely intertwined.
But the Royal family tale dates back earlier.
Darrell and Edith met almost as a fluke. The two were both "in town" in Hollis, Oklahoma, and Edith was staying at a friend's house. When Darrell's brother walked Edith's friend home, Darrell and Edith fell into step together. They began dating and continued when Darrell wasn't at army bases. In July 1944, Darrell received a 10-day furlough and invited Edith on another trip to Hollis.
"I said, 'Darrell—that just wouldn't look right. We can't go to Hollis. We're not married,'" Edith said.
Darrell got the license the following day. Edith Thomason became Edith Royal. They told their families after.
Before long, football consumed Darrell's life. He made the third Air Force team in 1945, played as a Sooner from 1946-49 and coached at Mississippi State and Washington before taking the Texas job in 1957.
Through each step, family remained central to his life. When Edith was pregnant with their first child, Darrell requested she not give birth on July 19—his first day of practice at Air Force. She did.
"I was in the hospital in labor and he was practicing football on the field that was close by," Edith said. "He'd get a little intermission and he'd run over to see how I was doing at the hospital. It was something else."
The pursuit for work-life balance didn't end there. Their son, David, would roam the Texas stadium while his father coached practices. Players took the Royal kids fishing and skiing. Edith remained by Darrell's side, soaking it all in.
She claims she knew little about the game through the years—Darrell told her "just watch the ball"—but anecdotes remain fresh in her mind. Edith remembers Darrell expecting state-of-the art facilities at Texas only to find a barbed wire patch of grass to practice on and a leg of his desk wrapped in tape. She remembers when Julius Whittier became Texas' first black player in 1969 and uncertainty swirled: Who would room with the lineman? She remembers Darrell's brother, Don, proposing the wishbone formation.
"He sent him a formation one day and said, 'This won't work in high school but I believe you can use it in college,'" Edith said.
Don believed correctly. Texas introduced the wishbone—a triple-option offensive scheme—in 1968 and ran it to perfection en route to the 1969 championship. The offense, discussed at length in My All-American, joined Steinmark's pair of tackles to secure Texas' 15–14 victory over Arkansas. Through it all, Edith says, Darrell remained calm.
"He wasn't any more tense for a big game than he was for a little one," Edith said. "He just wanted to win all of them. There was always a good reason to win every game."
And Darrell did win most games, posting a 167–47–5 record through his 20 seasons in Austin. But the championship—and much of his ingenuity, character and success in between—elevated Darrell from the Oklahoma shoe-shiner Edith once fell in love with to a state and sport legend.
"A pretty interesting life," Edith said.
Jori Epstein is SI's campus correspondent at the University of Texas. Follow her on Twitter.