In the dressing room after the game, even the normally calm, tough-talking Red Sanders seemed a little shaken by what he had seen. Mopping a reddened forehead on which glistened little beads of sweat and jerking his head nervously to the side like a horse whose bit is pulled, Red managed to overcome his wonder to opine hesitantly: "Knox has got a chance to be the best tailback we have ever had. He's real gifted, that boy...."
"Gifted" was precisely the word to apply to Ronnie Knox. For a youngster to come through under the gauge-shattering pressure he had been put to could hardly be done on sheer effort of the will, courage or even luck. When Tailback Ronnie Knox ran out into the middle of the floodlit Los Angeles Coliseum before 65,000 curious or even derisive spectators, he was more than just another halfback in turquoise-blue jersey and gold helmet. UCLA's "No. 18" was a marked man.
To make matters more intolerable, his team had already been conceded the national championship by the usually fallible but vocal football press. And the insiders knew that UCLA would be as good as Ronnie Knox and not much better. To be sure, the backfield was three-and four-deep, the first time in his coaching career Red Sanders has had layers of offensive talent. The trouble was the atomic line of last year, which used to blast such craters in the opposition that even mediocre backs could look like All-Americas, was gone.
Ronnie—as every sports fan in the country knows—had been pushed into this unenviable position by a frantic stepfather whose zeal for his son to become a football star has bordered on the incredible. Ronnie had played for three high schools and two colleges in his stepfather's quest for the proper coaching for his gifted boy. If Ronnie Knox felt as though he were being pushed out on a tightrope without a balance pole, he could be pardoned.
September 25, 1955
Canny Coach Sanders had done his best to take the heat off the youngster who is, although the public doesn't know it, the antithesis of his volatile stepfather. Ronnie Knox is painfully modest, matter-of-fact and gentle, almost a shambling big-brother type off the field. Stepfather Harvey Knox was livid when Sanders leaked to the press the "dope" that Knox, injured in the fifth day of spring practice with a broken index finger on his throwing hand, was actually his fourth-string tailback and a boy who would be lucky to see action at all in the opening game against Texas A&M.
The game was barely two minutes old when the transparency of Sanders' motives was perceived. Sanders' "first-string" tailback, a spirited but woefully short (5 feet 7 inches) gamester named Doug Bradley, fumbled the kickoff and the Texas Aggies' green but combative linemen recovered on the Bruin 20. The Aggies, no match for the Bruin first-string line, went rapidly backward from there and an interception gave the Bruins the ball seconds later.
First-Stringer Bradley lost 13 yards on the first play and the wiseacres in the stands, focusing their binoculars on the Bruin bench, saw Coach Sanders quietly get up and take No. 18 by the arm in a fatherly way. Sanders and his problem child knelt by the sidelines as a reverse gained six yards and a Sanders third-down punt seemed called for. Ronnie Knox went charging into the game. There were neither catcalls nor cheers from the crowd but a kind of curious, electric silence.
The first play was a fake punt with the wingback carrying the ball but the next was a real punt—a cloud-scraping 55-yarder by Ronnie which fell dead on the Aggies' 11-yard line. At long last, young Mr. Knox was blooded in a college game, and Sanders' cards were at last spread face-up on the gridiron.
Up in the stands, a dapper, cocky man in brown pork-pie hat, spread collar and checkered brown sports coat told his family and anyone within earshot, "That's nuthin'—wait'll Ronnie warms up."
Ronnie warmed up in the very next series of Bruin plays. Pitching with an index finger which is swollen thick from palm to first joint, he hit Wingback Jim Decker for 11 yards, then End Johnny Hermann for seven more. He called the plays skillfully and dismayed the Aggies by carrying the ball himself off a fake pass with a smashing, heavy-legged drive reminiscent of the Bruins' last All-America tailback, Paul Cameron. On the sidelines, Aggie Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant could be seen shaking his head. The worst had happened: Ronnie Knox was as good as Harvey said he was. The trouble was, Bryant was finding it out too late to install the necessary complex defense.
What the Knox come-through poses for Bruin opponents should keep their coaching staffs up far into the night and their heads between their hands on Saturday afternoons. Unless some desperate lineman can shatter the golden arm, the enemy is confronted with an impossible tactical situation. If they deploy to stop Knox's passes, the best fullback in the country, 210-pound Bob Davenport, and the best second-string fullback in history, the 202-pound Oakland Negro, Doug Peters, can be counted on to shred the undermanned line and secondary. For the first time in Sanders' history he has a team that can either go over 'em or through 'em. It was almost an anticlimax when Knox, a short time into the second quarter, ran spiritedly as though to sweep end, then on the dead-run fired a perfect pass to End Johnny Hermann for the Bruins' first touchdown. He was to throw three touchdown passes, more than most Sanders' tailbacks throw in a season.
The passes were enough to gladden the heart of a Paul Brown—soft, easy to catch, yet so accurate as to be un-interceptable. These were the passes Ronnie learned playing catch-football with his stepfather in a Beverly Hills public park when he barely was in grammar school, the passes which so caught the eye even of the great Frank Leahy in the East-West high school game that he went out of his way to seek out Ronnie as possible Notre Dame material, confessing that "When the game started I thought Ronnie threw the hall so soft he would have many interceptions but soon saw he wouldn't."
To be sure, Texas A&M, green and overmatched, was no true test of Knox as an All-America—or even as a big-league halfback. Ronnie will get his most corrosive test—as will all the Bruins—at College Park, Maryland this week when the Terrapins, coached by Jim Tatum, still smarting at the slickering he got from Red Sanders last year, will probably try everything including mayhem to stop Ronnie's success if not his career. But if Ronnie and Red get by the Terps, only Iowa stands in the way of a great season.
One man who sees no chance for Maryland—or anyone else foolish enough to run up against Ronnie Knox—is Harvey Knox. Standing outside the dressing room (to which parents are wisely not permitted by Coach Sanders), Harvey waxed expansive as usual. "Where would that game have been without Ronnie?" he demanded after hailing a friend. "Where? I'll tell you. Right here! [And he smacked his open palms together ferociously.] Right here! [Smack!] Nuthin' to nuthin' to nuthin.' Zero. Period.
"Maryland?" exclaimed Harvey scornfully. "That Goose [sic] Tatum. Why, if Ronnie doesn't throw for five or six touchdowns, I'll disown him. I'll cream him.
"Why, my goodness?" exclaimed Harvey who was off and running. "I didn't see nuthin' I haven't seen before. What did you expect? Tell me, what did you expect? You ol' son of a gun, did you think ol' Harvey was bulling you?...I'm not taking the credit. I started the kid off but Jim Sutherland [Ronnie's high school coach] is the one who taught Ronnie how to do it. Jim Sutherland, mind what I'm telling you." And Harvey Knox stepped back, waving an imaginary football, which he sent flying out in an imaginary trajectory after shifting his eyes from right to left like a tailback faking the end and the defensive secondary.
LONG, LATE SHOWER
In the dressing room, the cause of all the commotion, Ronnie, unconcernedly showered himself endlessly, remaining in the steaming room until long after almost the entire team had showered, dressed and drifted off to their homes or frat houses. "Ronnie always does that," grinned a newspaperman. "He stays in there hoping the press and all the well-wishers would disappear. It embarrasses him."
In a corner, surrounded by excited newsmen, Coach Sanders wearily put the finishing touches on the evening. What did he think of his team as a whole, he was asked. "That was about as good an opening game as any team I have ever had," he allowed sincerely. "We're very thrilled."
A reporter asked whether, during ail the spring and preseason practice, there had ever been any doubt that Knox would be UCLA'S No. 1 tailback.
"No," said Red Sanders.
If there was a cloud on Sanders' horizon, it was outside in the runway wearing a pork-pie hat and a big grin. For when Sanders got Knox (Ronnie) he also got Knox (Harvey). It is the one place where Red is not happy to have them two deep.
"If helping your kids isn't a career, what the hell is it?" demanded flamboyant Harvey Knox (center) in SI article (Sept. 6, 1954) introducing controversial Knox family. Knox's story, told in his own words and accompanied by picture above, related how he steered stepson Ronnie through three years of football triumphs at three different high schools, later yanked him out of the University of California when Coach Lynn Waldorf's system apparently failed to give proper display to Ronnie's talents. Ronnie moved to UCLA, lost year of eligibility because of transfer, and sat out 1954 season. But in 1955 opener against Texas A&M last week, Ronnie ran, punted, tackled brilliantly, and passed for three touchdowns. With Ronnie well launched toward football stardom, busy Harvey has also promoted a movie contract with Howard Hughes for his pretty stepdaughter Patsy (right).