It was a night that did the state of Texas proud, so clear, so starry, so mellow, so perfect and, yes, so big. And while the time was 1983, the mood was, more appropriate for such a pristine night, 1940s. As hundreds of students at Texas A&M walked with their dates and friends toward the Grove, a spectacular outdoor theater, the recorded music wafting overhead was Little Brown Jug and Pennsylvania 6-5000. Admission was 75¢. That's correct. Everyone sat on park benches, and excitement was high.
The students had gathered at the Grove to see a scratched black-and-white print of a World War II movie called We've Never Been Licked. Shot on the A&M campus in College Station, the film unabashedly glorifies the school and the travails of its ROTC members during the war. Its message is clear: At the heart of A&M is tradition.
The movie started and the Aggies went nuts. Of course the film broke, and the Aggies went nuts again. After it was repaired, the students whooped for the good guys and hissed the bad guys. Planes overhead drowned out the sound at times. So did a freight train that moved along behind the screen. No matter. Almost every Aggie has every line of the movie committed to memory (although one of the actors, Robert Mitchum, says he has never bothered to see it). For example, Les Asel, a senior, was viewing it for the 12th time. "Don't you love it?" he exclaimed amid whoops. Aggies whoop a great deal. "It's what A&M is all about—integrity, loyalty, tradition." That We've Never Been Licked is awful doesn't matter. Cotton candy is awful, but we keep buying it. Aggies buy tradition, always have, always will.
None of the traditions glimpsed in the movie is more revered than the Twelfth Man. The students are the Twelfth Man, and they remain on their feet throughout every home football game—standing ready to help in any way asked. This tradition started on Jan. 2, 1922, when the Aggies were playing Centre College, a national power at the time, in the Dixie Classic, the forerunner of the Cotton Bowl, in Dallas. So many A&M players got hurt in the game that Coach Dana X. Bible summoned a student from the stands to put on the uniform of an injured player. The student, E. King Gill, was—if truth be told—a former football player who had dropped off the team six weeks earlier to concentrate on basketball. Bible told him, "Boy, it looks like we may not have enough players to finish the game. You may have to go in and stand around for a while." Said Gill, in typical A&M style, "Yes, sir."
One member of that 1922 team. Tackle Tiny Keen, now 83, recalls how several players held up a blanket so that Gill could change along the sidelines. The Aggies won 22-14, and Gill wasn't needed. "But," says Keen, "he was ready. That's the point."
Current A&M Coach Jackie Sherrill, who played at Alabama, says, "They've been standing ready a long time." So, in an action that makes Aggies everywhere clutch at their tradition-filled hearts, Sherrill has called on the Twelfth Man for the first time in 61 years. On Sept. 3, when Texas A&M opens its season in College Station against California, the kickoff team will not be composed of regular members of the football squad but of student volunteers. They'll go down the field on every home kickoff this year.
One of them may be Asel, a member of the A&M Air Force ROTC unit and student-body election commissioner. He's a straight arrow who was named Outstanding Citizen and Outstanding Student at Houston's Stratford High. He arrived at last April's spring game, which he played in as a Twelfth Man tryout, with his Economics 311 textbook, Money and Banking—Economic Analysis of Banking, under his arm. He is an Aggie to the core. Says Asel, who stands 6'2" and weighs 225 pounds, "Coach Sherrill has put out the call that we want you and need you, and I'm answering that call. This is what college football should be."
Indeed it is, and that's what makes the Twelfth Man concept so wonderful. Here's a bunch of guys who came to Texas A&M, by far the friendliest school in the nation—the main hazard is being howdied to death—to get an education and, after being ensconced on campus, decided to give football a whirl: "Hey, Coach, I think I'll come out." Just like in the '40s. Next thing you know they'll be swallowing goldfish. It makes you feel good all over.
Except, of course, that the Twelfth Man stands a good chance of being a lights-out failure. Send engineering students, who are a little slow, a little light and a lot inexperienced, down the field against recruited college football behemoths, and.... Well, the biggest and fastest and strongest don't necessarily win everything, but they're not a bad bet to do so on every given Saturday against the Twelfth Man. Almost all the Twelfth Man hopefuls played high school football, but none of them got any more than a smile from college recruiters. One of the Twelfth Man candidates, freshman Rodney Pennywell, says firmly, "Failure is disgraceful. Aggies don't let Aggies fail." But they do. Last year A&M hired Sherrill for $1,602,000 over six years—$267,000 a season—which made him the highest-paid football coach in the land. He then directed the Aggies to a 5-6 record. Says Sherrill, "Five-six isn't in my vocabulary. I was upset. I'm a lot better coach than that."
At the very least he's a lot better respecter of tradition than that. It all started last November, when Sherrill wandered by the preparations for the legendary Aggie Bonfire, an annual tradition that's in the making for six to eight weeks before the Texas game. The fire requires more than 4,000 logs—a stack that reaches nearly 70 feet. Some 10,000 students contribute to the effort, and it goes on around the clock during the final two weeks.
Sherrill was handed a pair of pliers so he could help wire the logs together—"They told me the pliers were 50 years old," he says—and then he was hoisted to the top of the monumental pile of logs. Screamed one student, "Don't hurt our million-dollar coach," Before long Sherrill was yukking it up with the students, eating barbecue, feeling the bonding. Then he watched the secret—and rather inane—initiation procedure of the Red Pots, an informal fraternity that assembles once a year to direct the building of the bonfire. In the rite of passage called Beating Butt, the senior Red Pots, known as the fathers, paddle the junior pledges, or the sons, with ax handles. Suddenly Sherrill's idea was born. "If these kids are this tough and this crazy and give so much back to their school," he says, "then I can find 10 to go down the field on my kickoff team."
Originally, Sherrill planned to select the best 12 players from among the 2,327 members of the Corps of Cadets. When he announced his idea to the cadets at Duncan Dining Hall on Nov. 30, the young officers-to-be went bonkers. So did the school's 33,000 noncorpsmen, but they went bonkers in anger. They too wanted a chance. Sherrill immediately opened up the call to everyone. In February, the athletic department paid $197.10 to the student newspaper, the Battalion, to run an advertisement for three days. It read, in part, "All persons interested in trying out for the Twelfth Man Kickoff Team need to report to the Kyle Field Football Dressing Room on Monday, Feb. 21, at five p.m."
To make sure he had plenty of questionnaires to go around at the initial meeting, Twelfth Man Coach David Beal, a former Aggie quarterback, ran off 200. He was 52 short. The students came from everywhere and in all shapes. Two women showed up. "But they were really just waitin' for somebody to tell them to leave," says Beal. Somebody did. The group, already emotionally wrought up, went clear around the bend when Beal said he was looking for people "willing to sprint down the field and sacrifice their bodies for Texas A&M." They all were ready to damage themselves, of course, because an Aggie has Never Been Licked. Asel was typical. "Football has always been fun," he says, "and I have always been a little bit crazy. Our opponents don't realize what's coming down the field. I'm going to put the hurt on somebody. I don't care about my body."
A lot of the bodies weren't worth caring about: They were way too fat, too thin, too slow or too everything bad. After putting the 252 hopefuls through speed and agility drills, Beal whittled the number to 70 and then, just before spring practice, to 40. He made the final cut last week. Fifteen made the Twelfth Man squad, with the top 12 receiving Nos. 1 through 12, as well as a special Twelfth Man insignia for their jerseys.
The most unlikely member of the final 40 was David Bishop, a 5'11", 150-pound electrical engineering major from Austin who had never played football. "The helmet gives you a headache the first few days," he says, "but I'm starting to get the hang of it." Things did pick right up for him when somebody showed him how to put his thigh pads into his football pants. After Beal told one candidate that he wasn't quick enough or fast enough, the youngster said, "Wait till you see me with pads on."
During spring practice, Beal imparted to his charges the basics of tackling—keep your head up, put your helmet between the runner's numbers, lock your arms high around his chest—and stood back to watch. "They didn't do any of those things," he recalls. "They looked like two freight trains running into each other." Very small freight trains, of course, as in narrow-gauge. But their enthusiasm goes to the heart of college football. Says Twelfth Man finalist Barry Stevens, "I just had to come out and see if I still had the right stuff." Another finalist, Keith Dunn, adds, "This is just another shot at something I like to do." Says Dennis Burns, a 165-pound engineering technology student who can hardly talk for smiling, "I've always wondered what it would be like to get hit by those big guys and get up. I'm still getting hit and still getting up." But Beal also noticed something perhaps more important than their lack of skill. "They always want to practice longer," he says. "And they try so hard to do everything you tell them." Compare this attitude with that of regular football players.
The regulars don't seem to know what to make of all this. Quarterback John Mazur, a starter at USC two years ago before transferring to A&M, says, "I hope it works." Adds Linebacker Jerry Bullitt, "I'd like for them to be a little bit bigger and stronger, but...." Defensive Back Domingo Bryant sees some silver in the storm clouds, saying, "They're running up and down the field busting people. They'll give me a chance to rest." The starters don't mind the Twelfth Man because they'll get plenty of action. The reserves, however, see the Twelfth Man as cutting into their playing time on special teams. But with all the hoopla, no one wants to step forward and publicly ridicule the newcomers. Furthermore, because of travel restrictions the Twelfth Man team will appear only at home games, although the captain of the unit will participate on the kickoff team at away games.
The only real football player on the kickoff team, Kicker Alan Smith, says of his Twelfth Man colleagues, "They impress me more than I thought they would. They're pretty bloodthirsty, but kind of green." Beal figures that Smith, who has an exceptionally strong leg, "should kick the ball out of the end zone 90 percent of the time, and the coaches may feel relieved if he does." Asel sees things differently. "We're hoping the Lord blesses us and gives us a 50-mph wind against our kicker every time," he says. Even Sherrill admits, "Frankly, I have no idea what's going to happen the first time we kick the ball."
The Twelfth Man members remain uncertain of their status with the regular players. "They talk to us like we're their friends," says Asel. "They slap us on the butt like everyone else. None of them know my name but I know theirs. What we do is sit back and listen. We don't really know what to think of them, and they don't know what to think of us. But if we ever screw up, we'll never be accepted. They perceive us as students. We perceive ourselves as students—and football players." Tom Bumgardner, the shiniest diamond in this very rough-cut group, says that for a long time "we didn't even look at the football players because we didn't want to see if they were scoffing at us."
Nobody scoffs at Bumgardner, a 6-foot, 180-pound junior from Cosby, Texas. After walking on at Houston to yawns and then walking on at Stephen F. Austin to more yawns, Bumgardner decided to walk on at A&M as a Twelfth Man candidate. Nobody yawned. A rugged and sure hitter, Bumgardner played half of spring practice with a fractured left wrist. Still, he survived the preliminary Twelfth Man cuts and also earned a spot as a second-string cornerback. He's one of only two Twelfth Man candidates who have shown enough ability to play anywhere but on kickoffs. "I'm fortunate I got a chance," says Bumgardner. "There's just something about knocking people down that's fun."
The fun for the Twelfth Man finally got unleashed on April 16 in the Aggie spring game against a team of Former Students. (Former Students—in this case erstwhile varsity players—are another A&M tradition. Aggies aren't ex-students, as they are at hated Texas, nor are they alumni, as they are at most other places.) The atmosphere in the Twelfth Man locker room—the unit didn't dress with the varsity—was electric. Said Beal to his troops, "You can't be looking up into the stands at the girls. I'll do that. Remember, a lot of people are here just to watch y'all. We're here to have a good time and ricochet some folks around."
A player screamed, "No pain, no gain."
Beal: "What we want you to do is go down and splatter people."
Another player, at the top of his lungs: "No guts, no glory."
And onto tradition-rich Kyle Field they rushed. Said Twelfth Man Robert Crouch, during warmups, which were separate from the real players' loosening-up drills, "We live on motivation, and the sight of blood.'
The first trip down the field for the Twelfth Man was futile because Smith booted the ball out of the end zone. Two others were a lot more fun. With 14:41 to go in the second quarter, Tom Bevans, a 205-pound junior, swooped down and got a big, tough hit on the 18. "I was trying to stay out of everyone's way so I wouldn't get blocked," said Bevans. "I just can't wait to see the film. And to think I always thought I was too small." Later in the same quarter, Asel led a contingent that stopped the ballcarrier on the 19. "I was just doing my job, like all the other football players," he said.
But doing it against an odd assortment of Former Students and your own teammates—some of the varsity players switched sides to help the outmanned alums—in a spring game in which the rules are altered to reduce the chances of injuries is one thing. Doing it against Cal and Texas and SMU and Arkansas is another. Therefore, Coach Sherrill, what if Cal runs back the first three kickoffs for touchdowns on Sept. 3? "Well, what if the Twelfth Man team knocks the snot out of somebody, they fumble, and we get the ball on the one?" he says.
That's the way Pennywell looks at the Twelfth Man, too. "Is there a chance we will fail?" says Pennywell. "I'm an engineer, so I have to think in terms of probabilities. I say there is a possibility but not a probability." Lieut. Colonel Don Johnson, assistant commandant of the corps, says of the Twelfth Man, "I think they will have a commitment and a silent pact that nobody will score on them." And Lieut. Colonel Joe T. Haney, director of the corps band, says of Sherrill, "He's smart enough to know what he's doing. This may be the best kickoff team we've ever had."
Still, there are more skeptics than you can say grace over. John David Crow, winner of the Heisman Trophy in 1957 and the most legendary of Aggie heroes, was asked what went through his mind when he first heard about the Twelfth Man. Says Crow, "I thought, 'Goodness gracious, Coach Sherrill has gone crazy.' " Bill Allison, a junior from San Antonio and a Twelfth Man candidate, recalls that "everybody was talking about how Jackie Sherrill was making us the laughingstock of the nation. But we've got a lot of people who think they can do the job. We also know he's taking a big risk putting us out there. If I were him, I wouldn't do it." North Bardell, College Station city manager and an Aggie graduate, says, "This is a new chapter in the tradition book. I just hope it doesn't burn the coach."
On his way out of the Grove after the movie, Asel said, "All of us have our dreams, one dream, and it's of us going down the field, making the hit, the ball coming loose and all of us jumping on it. Then we will take the ball and get it bronzed."
It will be great if Asel's dream comes true, because Sherrill is striking a significant blow for the concept of college boys playing a little football on the side. The Twelfth Man has been waiting for 61 years, so it certainly should be well rested. Keep in mind, too, that these guys have Never Been Licked.