The ball was on the 50 and the big scoreboard at the south end of Memorial Stadium in Austin showed a little more than nine minutes remaining in the second quarter when Texas Christian went into its huddle. The quarterback, a young man named Sonny Gibbs who looks a bit like the state capitol dressed in shoulder pads, called a pass.
"Go out like you were going to block," Gibbs told Buddy Iles, the right end. "Then blow down that field. I'll try to get the ball to you."
Gibbs faked his halfback into the line, then faded back as Iles fled. The orange jerseys of the University of Texas poured in. Gibbs drew back his arm and threw. He is 6 feet 7 inches tall and it has been said that he does not really pass the football, he hands it downfield to his receivers. He didn't hand this one. The ball went 50 yards through the air and when it came down, Iles met it on the eight, behind Texas Halfback Jerry Cook, behind every Texas defender. He was tackled on the goal line but bounced across, and the official threw up his hands. TCU 6, Texas 0. That was the only touchdown of the day.
It was enough to score the major upset of the 1961 college football season, and knock the No. 1 team in the land flat on its illustrious pants. Texas had been a tornado in eight previous games—undefeated, untied and unmolested. The Longhorns had scored 266 points and led the nation in rushing with 316 yards per game. Never had they been held to less than four touchdowns, never had they won by less than three. They called their offense A-B-C because it was so simple: 50 yards and a cloud of dust. The defense was frightening. "Making a mistake against Texas," wrote Mickey Herskowitz of the Houston Post, "is like bleeding in front of a shark." Yet when TCU won, hardly anyone was surprised. Texas fans cried a little maybe, but that was all.
November 27, 1961
The Southwest Conference is an organization dedicated to fratricide. Not since 1938-39, when TCU and A&M went undefeated, back to back, has the league produced a national champion, and the reason is simple enough: regardless of intersectional success—and Texas, for example, had splattered California 28-3, Washington State 41-8 and Oklahoma 28-7 this year—it is almost impossible for anyone to survive the murderous eight-team round-robin conference schedule without defeat, often by an opponent voted least likely to succeed. "They aren't much impressed by press clippings down here," says Jess Neely of Rice. TCU was a 23-point underdog on Saturday, but TCU long ago passed its apprenticeship in confusing the odds. Texas was temporarily No. 1 in the nation in 1941 until Baylor tied the Longhorns and TCU came along to administer the only defeat. In 1959 Texas won eight straight—then lost to TCU. The 1961 Horned Frogs had lost four games before Saturday but they had also tied Ohio State, the only blot on the Buckeye record, and handed Kansas one of its two defeats. Before the game Coach Darrell Royal of Texas shook his head. "I'm as nervous as a pig in a packing plant," he said.
The TCU victory on Saturday was not so much due to the pass—although this is all that will remain in the record books 50 years from now—as to the furious defense that the Horned Frog line, led by Iles, threw against Texas' racehorse attack. Texas was stopped one yard from the TCU goal in the first quarter, on the seven in the second quarter, on the eight in the fourth quarter. TCU was able to do this because it found a defense against James Saxton. TCU didn't stop Saxton; nobody stops Saxton. He gained 85 of Texas' 138 yards rushing and caught a pass for 45 yards. But TCU did the next best thing. The Horned Frogs hit Saxton so hard he was knocked out. Twice. That must have slowed him down.
The first accident occurred early in the first quarter. Saxton took a short pass from Mike Cotten and wiggled 45 yards down the right sideline. He was finally tackled on the 10 by Donnie Smith, and then, as he rolled over on the ground, in came Bobby Plummer, a 220-pound tackle. "I was trying to miss him," Plummer said later. He failed. His knee hit Saxton in the head and Jimmy was knocked unconscious.
Five minutes deep in the third quarter, after Saxton had broken loose for 22 yards on one of his marvelous jittery runs, he was flattened again. This time he went into the middle of the line, and when all the big bodies had been removed one small one remained on the ground. In all, Saxton missed almost 40 minutes of the ball game. After it was over, both Plummer and Gibbs apologized. "There was nothing dirty about it," Saxton said, grinning, "but you guys sure do hit hard."
The defeat shattered Texas' hopes for a national championship, but it did not altogether ruin the season. A victory over Texas A&M this week, on Thanksgiving Day, will guarantee the Longhorns at least a share of the conference championship with Arkansas, which must still beat Texas Tech. Since Texas has already humiliated Arkansas 33-7, the Longhorns would go to the Cotton Bowl. "It's no disgrace to get knocked down," said Darrell Royal, "so long as you get back up. We've had some happy dressing rooms this year. Maybe we can have one more."
They will—unless Texas A&M, too, manages to find a solution to James Saxton. Saxton looks less like a football player than a walking endorsement for Blue Cross. He weighs a scrawny 165 pounds and talks with a squeaky drawl. Sometimes he squeaks when he walks, too. He has a bad shoulder, a trick back and an allergy to grass and dust that causes his sinuses to run like the University of Texas fountain every time he gets within sight of a football field. He is so nervous that he can't sleep the night before a game. It is all a disguise. James Saxton is actually some sort of small nuclear device. Hand him a football and you may not see him again for a week.
In action, Saxton resembles a knuckle ball more than anything else. He is fast—he ran the 100 in 9.8 in high school, 50 yards in 5.3 and is surely even faster now—but it is his inhuman quickness that sets him apart. At the end of two strides he hits top speed. He slithers through holes that other ballcarriers couldn't find with a road map. In an open field he would be hard to hit with a handful of rice. "He's like one of those toy balloons you blow up and turn loose," says Royal. "Lord knows where he's going."
"Let me tell you about Saxton," says John Seals, who played for the Longhorns last year. "We were working on a ranch up in North Texas one summer, cutting hay and clearing brush. James drives up on a tractor and he's holding this cottontail rabbit in his lap. 'Where'd you get him?' I asked. 'I ran him down,' James said. Well, I'd heard about guys who were supposed to be able to do that, but I'd never seen one yet. So I just laughed. The next day, darned if he didn't come in with three rabbits. He'd run them all down."
How to catch a rabbit
"It's not so hard," says Saxton. "I'd jump them in this alfalfa field where there was a lot of stubble. I'd get off the tractor and chase them. You stay with them and pretty soon they just poop out. They flop over on their sides and lay there puffing and you can pick them up with your hand.
"I caught a half-grown jackrabbit once, too, but never a full-grown one. And I've tried. You can stay with a jackrabbit pretty well when his ears are standing up; he's just idling along then. But when he puts those long old ears back flat against his head, he just takes off and disappears. No human being," says Saxton, "can catch a full-grown jackrabbit."
Few human beings can catch James Saxton either. In nine games this season he has played just 148 minutes, or less than a quarter a game. He has carried the football only 95 times. Yet he has gained 791 yards rushing, an average of more than eight yards a try, scored nine touchdowns, furnished runs of 80, 78, 66, 56 and 49 yards, and turned several football games completely upside down.
Saxton was born May 21, 1940 in College Station, of all places, the home of Texas A&M. His family moved to Palestine, in East Texas, when he was 5. "I used to run through the woods, dodging pine trees," he says: "Maybe that helped." He ran track, scored at a 20-point clip in basketball and was a 140-pound tailback on the high school football team. "I didn't dream I'd be good enough to play college football. Then Texas offered me a scholarship."
"The first time I ever saw him run," says Mike Campbell, the Texas end coach, "my hair stood straight up on end. The only trouble is that we didn't know what to do with him. He only weighed 150 pounds."
As a freshman, Saxton was a third-string quarterback who couldn't pass. As a sophomore, he was a third-string quarterback who worried himself half to death that he might call the wrong play. "I'd never called signals before," he says. "I used to take long walks around the campus at night, talking to myself. I couldn't sleep on Friday for worrying about the game and I couldn't sleep on Thursday because I dreaded Friday so much."
"We still didn't know what to do with him," says Royal, "but he had to play. You never saw such an exciting runner. He was sensational, even when he lost three yards. He would dance around and dodge and go back and forth across the field three times. The fans loved him—and I knew one thing: if we lost with Saxton sitting by me on the bench, I was going to get a lot of mail."
That year Saxton gained 271 yards in 55 carries, an average of 4.9. He threw four passes and completed them all; he punted 12 times for a 43-yard average. "He can still kick a football farther than anyone on the team," says Royal, "but you never know. It might go back over his head." On the Friday before the Oklahoma game Saxton leaned over to tie a shoelace. He couldn't straighten up.
"We took him to the hospital," says Royal, "and the next day he tore Oklahoma apart. You should see the films of that game. 'This is your life, James Saxton.' "
Saxton made a play that year that he still considers the best of his career. It was on defense.
"I was playing safety against SMU and Henry Christopher came down on a look-in pattern. Don Meredith threw him a pass. I hit him and knocked him loose from the football." Saxton also knocked Christopher loose from two teeth; he was sorry about that and told Christopher so later. Still, Saxton thinks that it was a good play. "Coach has a saying on pass defense: 'Take pride in your zone; man it with authority.' I figured I had."
Last year Royal moved Saxton to halfback. He was injured against Nebraska (shoulder), Arkansas (hip) and Rice (chest) and these three games Texas lost. But in between he pulled the team out of tough situations no less than eight times and learned to run in a straight line, a completely foreign maneuver that Royal had been trying to teach him for two years. He took a punt back 60 yards against Maryland; when he returned to the bench he grinned. "Gee, Coach," he said. "It works."
"He finally learned to run north and south," says Royal, "instead of east and west."
As a junior, Saxton ran for 407 yards in 76 carries, averaging 5.4. Never did he play as much as half of a game, however; he simply pooped out. It wasn't lack of condition but nervous exhaustion.
"He burns a different fuel than other boys," says Royal.
"I think I'm better this year," Saxton says. "I've learned to gear down. I hurt my back on a pass play the second week of practice and I was in the hospital four days. I've had to take it easy."
Because of the ease with which Texas won its first eight games and because of two superb replacements, Saxton has played less this year than in 1960. Jerry Cook, a 205-pound junior, is a bruising runner who would be a star back on almost any other team; his 509 yards rushing, in 89 attempts, puts him second only to Saxton in the entire Southwest Conference. Behind Cook, or perhaps on the same level, is sophomore Tommy Ford, a tough 180-pounder who runs like a rubber ball; Ford has gained 376 yards in 74 carries. When Texas' star fullback, Ray Poage, was hurt against Rice, Ford moved to that position, and now both of Saxton's substitutes have more playing time than James has. Only against TCU has Saxton played in the fourth quarter.
For weeks Saxton remained among the nation's leading ground-gainers simply by running with the football six or eight times a game. On successive weekends against SMU and Baylor, however, Royal turned him loose. He played 18 minutes, carried 16 times and gained 173 yards against SMU, setting a school record. Against Baylor he played 19 minutes, again carried 16 times and gained 171 yards. Saxton believes that the 80-yard run against SMU was his best.
The score was 0-0 in the third quarter when Saxton slashed into right tackle. "I was blocking ahead of him," says Ford, "and I would have sworn there was no hole. I know I didn't open one." Somehow Saxton emerged on the other side. He threw a fake at the SMU linebackers, which left several of them sprawling on the ground, then cut to his right and the sideline. Jack Collins, the wingback, came over to render one SMU halfback horizontal and Saxton outran another. Then, trapped by the safety man, Saxton reversed sharply, slipped past the tackier and scored.
"We needed that one," says Saxton. "It was important."
"He always plays well in Dallas," says Royal. "His girl goes to school at SMU."
No one, least of all Saxton, is able to explain what makes him go. Like all great runners, he does what comes naturally. "It's instinct, I guess," he says. "Some sort of radar, like a bat. Last season I missed going for a touchdown against Rice because I dodged the referee. I felt him coming up over on my right side, behind me, so I cut back into some tacklers. 'James,' Coach told me later, 'the referee wears a striped shirt.' I couldn't help it. I never look at uniforms when I run.
"I do know one thing. I run scared. I don't like to get hit. I think touch football is really my game."
On the Texas campus Saxton lives in Moore-Hill Hall and, aside from its occupant, Room 109 is no different from a thousand other college dormitory rooms across the land. It is about as large as a pool table. A radio blares constantly, there is a bar bell under one bed, a football on top of a filing cabinet and hair-oil stains from some long-departed predecessor on the floor. Neighbors drop in to borrow soap ("You'd think they'd stop," says Saxton. "We never have any") and stay to insult Saxton. "I see you lived through another game, you skinny little shrimp," they say.
Saxton's roommate for four years has been Kay Brockermeyer, a large lineman unable to play since his sophomore season because of an injury. "He doesn't give me much trouble," says Brockermeyer. "When he does, I stick him under the bed."
Saxton is studying business; he makes B and C grades and has a vague notion of someday pursuing a career in personnel management. At the moment he is thinking of playing pro football. "I hope they'll be able to use me as a slot back," he says, "or maybe even on defense, although I'm pretty small. I've tried everything to gain weight. One summer I got up to 178 pounds—and then I caught a virus and lost it." "I'd hate to have to feed him," says Brockermeyer. "He eats more than I do. You'd think every meal was going to be his last."
Seven other teams in the Southwest Conference would have been happy if three years ago James Saxton had starved to death.