The teak-colored woman in the red blouse with the large buttons and the expansive red belt was the television man's on-the-spot celebrity guest, and despite her size and the babel around the stadium locker-room door she was a model of conscientious neatness and calm. As the mother of some 18 feet and 737 pounds of Oklahoma defense she was being pressed for revelations by the television man.
Yes, said Mrs. Lucious (Jessie) Selmon Sr., she was very proud of her baby boys, Lucious, Dewey and LeRoy. Yes, she knew they were respected and respectable, the pride and joy of Eufaula, Okla. (pop. 2,500) where they had grown up in the lap of poverty, on a sharecropper's farm, and taught "to be polite and treat everybody nice," to "take the world as they find it," and "not let anything excite them."
Did she get excited herself, watching the boys trammel opponents week after week? The television man asked.
"Yes," said Mrs. Selmon. "Very."
November 12, 1973
"We had a camera on you during the game and you didn't look excited," said the television man.
"Pictures can't see into the heart," said Jessie Selmon, placing a calloused hand on her Oklahoma-red blouse.
That particular scene occurred a couple of weeks ago, but it is no less accurate today to say that if the world was taken as it was found by Lucious, Dewey and LeRoy Selmon it is not likely to be left that way. Pictures will show, for example, that the world of Iowa State's football team was dumped on its axis last week by the Selmons and some other talented members of what used to be a justifiably unheralded Oklahoma defense.
Oklahoma won as expected, 34-17, after trailing 17-7, a temporary, albeit regular, malady the unbeaten Sooners seem to go through until the Selmons "establish a good body relationship" with the opposition, as Rod Shoate, their All-America linebacker, puts it. Or until Lucious "declares war," as Coach Barry Switzer puts it. Iowa State made one first down and a net 47 yards in the second half, and a freshman quarterback named Buddy Hardeman, who survived that stretch of purgatory, was heard to offer a now-familiar lament: "Every time I looked up I saw one of the Selmons."
Which, of course, is not nearly as bad as being hit by one.
The Selmons are not hard to see, being the logistic middle of the Oklahoma line. Before a play they stand there, three abreast, looking, with their mother's benevolent, impassive, slightly Oriental expression, like an alliance of shoguns on the wall of a besieged (but impregnable) city. Brother Lucious, the 5'11", 236-pound middle guard, is flanked by 6'1", 249-pound Brother Dewey on the left and 6'2", 252-pound Brother LeRoy on the right. Lucious is a senior, Dewey and LeRoy sophomores. The brothers Selmon are three equally lovable Smokey the Bears, says the Oklahoma defensive coach, Larry Lacewell.
But then they get down and into the action, and it is here, when the abstraction becomes a practicality, that the forest trembles and an awed adversary like Darrell Royal of Texas says, "You're three-fourths of the way there when you start with three Selmons." Kansas State Coach Vince Gibson found them "close to being the three best defensive players I ever saw on one team, let alone the three best brothers."
Gibson laughs ruefully at the recollection of his team's recent expedition against the Selmons. "My, my, the size and the quickness of those three. Great players. And what makes it tougher is they are surrounded by other great players. Three Selmons lined up together, and right behind them an All-America linebacker [Shoate]. I never saw so many fine athletes on a defensive team." Gibson's Wildcats wound up on the rocks, 56-14. Oklahoma, he said, was capable of beating anybody just as badly.
The team whose banner was stained with a two-year probation by the NCAA in August as penalty for altering the transcript of Quarterback Kerry Jackson—who was himself suspended for a year—is still loaded with talent and, obviously, high purpose. If they could not go to bowl games, Switzer told the Sooners then, nobody said anything against going for the Big Eight Conference title, or the national championship.
To that end Switzer, in his first year as a head coach, thumbed his nose at all the clouds (in September he even had his car stolen) and whistled up the sun. His offense is typically Oklahoma Awesome: Steve Davis runs the Wishbone in a style not even Jackson could fault, and has exceptional receivers, most notably Tinker Owens, who broke open the Texas and Miami games with long touchdown receptions. Rubber-legged sophomore Halfback Joe Washington, who plays in silver shoes, and Fullback Waymon Clark, a burly junior-college transfer, continue to deliver. Washington ran for 136 yards and two touchdowns against Iowa State. Switzer says Washington "thinks he can fly."
But it is the freshly Selmonized Oklahoma defense that has made the grandest difference. Just two years ago the Oklahoma defense was the perfect catalyst for the Oklahoma offense. Its weekly impersonation of an open gate forced the offense to win games by such scores as 48-27. Or lose 35-31.
"Now," says Larry Lacewell, "there are days when people know we do play defense." And nobody has enjoyed it more than Lacewell. Oklahoma fans pay $30 for a black and white picture of him and the defense, and he is asked around to lecture. "Three years ago I was a mediocre defensive coach," Lacewell smiles. "Now I'm a defensive genius." How do you get to be a defensive genius? Lacewell asks himself. You drive 90 miles to Eufaula and sign Lucious Selmon to a scholarship, he answers.
It was not exactly an epiphany, Lacewell admits. "The fact is, I wasn't impressed. Lucious was a 5'10", 220-pound fullback when I first saw him, and his brothers were already bigger than he was. The day I arrived he was sweeping out the halls of the high school. I asked him when we could talk. He said that afternoon, at the junior high. 'What do you do there?' 'Sweep that out, too,' he said. Lucious and his brothers were janitoring before school, at noon and after school, earning money for the family.
"No one up till then had offered him a scholarship. And we didn't need a janitor. But when I got to know more about him, I began to warm to the idea that he had to be a prospect for something."
What Lacewell got to know more about—and, ultimately, to appreciate—was the slightly incredible, totally wonderful Selmon family. Nine children raised in a tiny frame farmhouse west of Eufaula, in rooms no bigger than hotel closets. Without indoor plumbing, or even hot water until recently.
But Lacewell says he found the Selmon house spotlessly clean and neat—neatness is now the mark of the brothers' athletic dormitory rooms at Oklahoma—with little gardens of zinnias and petunias painstakingly groomed. Recently, when an ABC-TV camera crew wanted to photograph the Selmons at home, Mrs. Selmon made them wait. "I have to cut the grass first," Lucious explained.
Lucious Sr., now retired after a series of debilitating illnesses, was father to a home charged with familial devotion and self-respect. (Lucious Jr. makes this point so that "Mama doesn't get all the publicity.") To the townspeople of Eufaula, the Selmons are beloved. They speak of their good citizenship ("None of my nine children ever saw the inside of a jail," says Jessie Selmon, "and when it came 9 o'clock I always knew where they were. They were home"). They speak, too, in Eufaula of the Selmons' devotion to church and school. Lacewell recalls that the tiny television set in the living room was always dark from Monday to Friday. "When Mama said study, we studied," says Lucious.
Though wretchedly poor, the Selmons always paid their bills, and suffered the inconveniences of poverty. Without a tractor, the boys plowed with a harrow behind the family horse. Lucious, 2½ years older than Dewey, who is 11 months older than LeRoy, grew uncommonly strong. He could carry a 150-pound hog under one arm. "But I was no match for Mama," he says. "She caught me bringing in a can of beer one night and made me pour it into the hog slop." Lucious is now old enough to enjoy an occasional orange blossom cocktail, but he has not forgotten that the hogs once beat him out of a beer.
Lucious was the first Selmon to be exposed to football. He taught Dewey and LeRoy the game with a tin can in the side yard, and took them on, one-on-two. "He always won," says Jessie, "until we found out he was making up the rules." They had their scuffles—Lucious remained supreme—but none recalls ever engaging in a serious fight, or even a falling-out. "It was unthinkable," says Lucious. "It would be degrading to Mama and Daddy."
Ultimately, Larry Lacewell had to out-talk Colorado Coach Eddie Crowder for Lucious, but he suspected all along he had the inside track. When Lucious signed, Jessie Selmon admonished Lacewell with this: "You're recruiting my boy as a football player, but I'm sending him to Oklahoma to get an education. He won't be a football player forever." It was inevitable that Dewey and LeRoy would follow Lucious to Norman. Mama wanted it. But they accepted Crowder's invitation to have a look at Colorado anyway. For the plane ride.
The brothers Selmon, all of whom were running backs in high school, no longer dream of scoring touchdowns. Lucious said he'd much rather be "the chaser than the chasee," and Switzer obligingly surrounded his central jewel with Dewey and LeRoy, regretting only that he lacked the foresight to number them progressively—say, 97, 98 and 99.
There was considerable doubt early in the year that they would all make first string together. LeRoy, who as a 17-year-old freshman had started against Texas in the Cotton Bowl, was stricken with pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac around the heart. It was feared that Dewey and Lucious suffered from the same condition and they too were hospitalized. But their tests proved negative. LeRoy made a swift, almost frantic, recovery, and by the third game he was back in the lineup with his two older brothers.
And Switzer found himself caught up in the continuing contretemps of comparison. Lucious, he said, was the more experienced, the steadying hand, and maybe the stronger. Therefore the best. But then, Dewey had the closest thing to a mean streak one could find among the Selmons. Clearly the most aggressive. He was the best. And yet, here was LeRoy, a growing boy already bigger than the others. And faster, too. "When he finds out nobody can block him...." Switzer whistles softly over the prodigies he can see ahead for LeRoy.
In Eufaula, meanwhile, the townspeople eagerly await the latest dispatches on the brothers. At the J & M Cafe they gather daily and compare notes. Max Silverman, a retired merchant, is one of them. Max plays dominoes and, at opportune times, can be found holding good cards at the irregular meeting of "The Book Review Club."
Max goes way back. For a long time when the school kids of Eufaula were asked who the most famous Jew in history was, they would write "Max Silverman" instead of "Jesus Christ." Max can remember former Eufaula athletes who went on to play football at Oklahoma. Such as the late Joe Golding in 1946 and L.A. Cowling in 1942.
Eufaula was an agricultural center then. But the big dam built in 1965 changed everything. The town is mostly for tourists now, coming in to fish and boat on the local reservoir that pins it down on three sides. Most of the people don't remember that Max was a basketball star years ago and, in his unflagging support of local athletics, was once the only paid spectator at a high school game.
Max watched all the Selmon kids grow up and counseled most of them, and when he had his department store he extended the Selmon family credit. "They always paid me back," he says. When LeRoy was born, the ninth Selmon child, Lucious Selmon told Max he didn't know how he would manage, the cost of living being what it was.
"Lucious," said Max, "the thing you ought to do is quit having children."
Which is what Lucious did.
And Barry Switzer says if he'd known Max Silverman then he would have told him to please keep his big mouth shut.