You heard me right: Come in. No, you won't disturb a soul in this locker room. They're all lost in that place most folks go maybe once or twice in a lifetime, when their mamas or daddies die or their children are born, a place they don't go nearly as often as they should. Trust me, these boys will never know you're here. All right, maybe that fellow in white will notice, the one looking your way, but Willard McClung would be the last to make a peep.
See, that's one reason we picked this, out of all the crackerjack sports pictures we might've chosen, as our favorite of the century. Not claiming it's better than that famous one of Muhammad Ali standing and snarling over Sonny Liston laid out like a cockroach the morning after the bug man comes. Or that picture of Willie Mays catching the ball over his shoulder in the '54 World Series, or any number of others. But you can walk around inside this picture in a way you can't in those others, peer right inside the tunnel these boys have entered. Their boxer shorts are hanging right there, on the hooks behind their heads, but their faces are showing something even more personal than that. Almost reminds you of a painting by Norman Rockwell.
Can you smell it? No, not the jockstrap sweat, or the cigar reek wafting off the coach, Orthol Martin—better known as Abe, or Honest Abe—in the brown hat. It's the smell of men about to go to war. What I'm inviting you into is 12:50 p.m. at the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1, 1957, just a few minutes after the boys have returned from pregame warmups, just a quarter of an hour before a legend is born. A roomful of young men from Texas Christian University are about to try and stop the best football player in history, a fellow from Syracuse by the name of Jim Brown, in his last college game—but only his second in front of the entire nation, thanks to the NBC cameras waiting outside.
No denying it, a lot of folks might whip right past this in a collection of sports pictures, rushing to get to those slam-bang plays at home plate or those high-flying Michael Jordan circus shots. But it's funny. The older you get, the more you realize that this is what sports are most about: the moments before, the times when a person takes a flashlight to his soul and inspects himself for will and courage and spirit, the stuff that separates men such as Jordan and Ali from the rest more than anything in their forearms or their fingers or their feet. Who am I? And, Is that going to be enough? That's what you're peeking at through the door, and believe me, those are two big and scary questions, the two best reasons for all of god's children to play sports, so they can start chewing on them early. Because once the whistle blows and a game begins, everything's just a blur, a crazy ricochet of ball and bodies that springs—inevitably, you might say—from whatever it is that these boys are discovering right here, right now.
July 25, 1999
But you're still hesitating, a little intimidated by all those cleats and helmets and knees. Come on, there are things I want to show you. See? Told you nobody would bat an eye. You're in.
Maybe it was like this for you, too, back when you played. All the posturing and bluffing and the silly airs that human beings put on get demolished in a moment like this. A team is never more a team than it is now, yet look at the looks on the Horned Frogs! Ever see so many guys look so alone?
Look at Buddy Dike, number 38, just behind old Abe. He's the Frogs' starting fullback and inside linebacker, and he's just gotten a good look at Jim Brown's 46-inch chest and 32-inch waist in warmups. Doctors advised Buddy never to play football again after he ruptured a kidney tackling another phenom of the era, Penn State's Lenny Moore, two years earlier. The kidney healed and hemorrhaged four more times, doubling Buddy over with pain, making blood gush out his urethra, bringing him within a whisker of bleeding to death, yet here he is, with a look on his face that might not be seen again until the day he loses his 18-year-old son in a car wreck.
There are 32 more young men suited up in this room, besides the 17 you're looking at. Almost every one's a kid from a small town or ranch or farm in west or south Texas, where all his life he's watched everyone drop everything, climb into automobiles and form caravans for only two occasions: funerals and football games. Nine of the 11 TCU starters—remember, they have to play both ways—are seniors, most of them staring into the biggest and last football game of their lives. Eleven wars are about to burst out on every play, because that's what football is, and what those wars hinge on, more than most folks realize, is the question lurking in the shadows of this room: Who has the most tolerance for pain?
That's a loaded question about manhood, and a matter of geography too. Jim Brown be damned, the Southwest Conference team that loses to an Eastern school in the Cotton Bowl in the 1950s might as well run right past the locker room door at the end of the game, exit the stadium and just keep going, till it's lost in the prairie.
Let's take a good look at old Abe. Country boy from Jacksboro, Texas, who played end at TCU in the late 1920s and kept to the grass on campus, claiming the sidewalk was too hard for his feet. Some folks take him for a hick, but be careful, every shut eye isn't asleep. Notice, Abe's not working the boys into one of those tent-preacher lathers. Not his style. The season after this one, just before the Horned Frogs take the field at Ohio State with 80,000-plus fans licking their fangs, all Abe will tell his boys is "Laddies, you're playin' the best team in the United States of America"—then walk away. Another game, what he'll say is, "These are big guys. Hope you don't get hurt." He's a master of the subtle psychological ploy, a man who lacks both the strategic genius and the double-knotted sphincter of your other big football honchos, but who maneuvers a college of 4,700 students, most of them female, into three Cotton Bowls in four seasons between '55 and '58 and humbles elephants such as Southern Cal and Penn State and Texas along the way. "You just believe in human beings, that they're all pretty good folks, and you just try to keep 'em that way"—that's how Abe sums up his coaching philosophy in the Cotton Bowl program they're hawking outside that locker room right now.
In practice he'll drop to his hands and knees and crawl into the huddle, gaze up at his gang like a gopher and declare, "Boys, run a 34." Late in a game, when the Froggies are driving for a score they need desperately, old Abe will come down off the chair he always sits on—fanny on the seat back, feet on the seat—take another chomp of the unlit cigar he alternately sucks and rolls between his palms until it disintegrates, and walk down the sideline murmuring to his troops, "Hold your left nut, laddies—we need this one."
Oh, sure, Abe can get riled. But the vilest oath he ever musters—with his fist clenched and his thumb in an odd place, on top of his index finger instead of around his knuckles—is "Shistol pot!" which is a spoonerism for pistol shot, in case you need a translation. Usually Abe just walks a player away from the group with an arm around the boy's shoulders and quietly says, "Now, you know better 'n that." You know what troubles the fellows most at a moment like this, 15 minutes before kickoff? The thought that they might let Abe down.
All right, let's be honest, not everyone's dying to please the boss, not in any locker room in the world. See number 67, Norman Ashley, sitting third from the left against the back wall? He's in Abe's doghouse for late hits in practice and for tackling quarterback Chuck Curtis so hard one day that Curtis peed blood. Ashley will never play a lick, and he knows it. He'll end up spending four decades in Alaska flying a Piper Super Cub just big enough for him, his rifle, his rod and his hunting dog, searching for places where there are no whistles and no quarterbacks to flatten. And over on the other side, second from your right, that's center Jim Ozee, who started all season, till today. Damn near half a century later, when he's a grandpa tossing raisins to the mockingbird that visits him in his backyard in Fort Worth each day, he'll still remember, "That's despair on my face. I'm offended by Abe at this moment. I couldn't figure why I wasn't starting. I didn't hear anything he said. . . ."
". . . wanna thank you fellas. Seniors in this room . . . no need to tell you how I feel 'bout you. You were my first recruitin' class, came in green just like me, and accomplished some great things. Now you're 'bout to split up, go your separate ways, and this'll be the game you remember the rest of your days. Life's about to change, laddies. You're never gonna capture this moment again. . . ."
Two in this room will end up in early coffins when their hearts quit: Dick Finney, on your far right, and John Mitchell, second from your left, the lad inspecting the fingernails he's just chewed. Two other players will lose sons in car accidents, which is worse than a heart attack. Another, Jack Webb, seated in the deep corner just to the left of the youngster holding his chin in his hand, will relish the tension of moments like this so much that he'll become a fighter pilot, only to lose his life when his jet crashes in the Philippines. Two will get rich, then go bankrupt. Allen Garrard, number 84, the guy seated on the floor near the corner, will get multiple sclerosis and draw on moments like this 40 years from now, when his car blows a tire in a rainstorm in the dead of night and he has to hobble painfully on his cane far beyond the 200 feet he's usually able to walk. Of course, Abe himself, when he's in his 70s, will be found draped across his bed by his wife one morning when his ticker quits.
See that fellow on the floor behind Abe, number 53, Joe Williams? Can you tell? A year ago he lost his mom, who attended every game he ever played, in a car accident, and he's worried sick about his dad, sleepwalking awake ever since she died, who's somewhere in the stands high above this room. Here's what Joe will say 42 years from now, when his hair's as white as snow and arthritis has racked his joints with pain and stolen his right hand: "I should've expressed my gratitude to Abe. I'm still living by the principles he taught us. I'm not gonna give in. I'm still coming out of bed swinging even though I might not hit a thing. He guided us through those years. He looked out for us the way our parents presumed he would.
"You know something? Nothing ever again will match the intensity, the passion of moments like this. What it takes to overcome yourself—because if you listen to your body, you'll always be a coward. Don't get me wrong, I love my wife and kids, but I'd give anything to go back. More than who you're looking at now, that guy in the picture, that's me. That's who I really am."
" . . . hasn't been an easy road for us this season, laddies. Stubbed our toe real bad, and a lot of folks started calling us a second-rate team. But we didn't roll up in a ball, and by going through what we did and coming together, we're more a team now 'n we've ever been. . . ."
This is how the boys will recollect Abe's speech four decades later. The coach doesn't dwell on details, but here are the facts: You're listening to a coach who was hung in effigy and made it to the Cotton Bowl in the same season. Right now, as Possum Elenburg, the fellow gnawing his knuckles on your far left, puts it, "Abe's done a rare thing—got all his coons up the same tree." He's got them all ruminating on a season that began with the Horned Frogs as heavy favorites in the Southwest Conference, returning a slew of starters from the nation's sixth-ranked team the year before, busting out to a 3-0 start with a 32-0 blitzing of Kansas, a 41-6 crushing of Arkansas and a 23-6 spanking of Alabama. Next came TCU's blood enemy, Texas A&M, with Bear Bryant at the wheel, the team that had handed the Frogs their only regular-season defeat the year before.
So now it was payback time, a gorgeous Saturday in College Station, the Aggies' stadium jammed and the 3-0 Frogs cross-eyed crazy in their lockerroom. And what happened? Sometime during the first quarter, all the friction between the two squads was more than the sky could hold, and the ugliest wall of black clouds you ever saw came rolling in from the north. The wind began to howl so hard that flagpoles bent into upside-down L's, and the ref had to put a foot on the ball between plays to keep it from sailing to Mexico. The rain came in sheets so thick that the subs on the sideline couldn't see the starters on the field, and then the rain turned to hail so helmet-drumming heavy that the linemen couldn't hear the signals from the quarterback screeching at their butts. Postpone the game? This is Texas, y'all! This is football!
The Frogs knifed through winds that gusted up to 90 mph, penetrated the A&M two-yard line on three drives behind their All-America running back, Jim Swink—and couldn't get it in! On one series Swink crossed the goal line twice—the Frogs had the film to prove it—but either the refs couldn't see or it was too slippery to get a good grip on your left nut in a monsoon. TCU finally scored in the third quarter but missed the extra point, and the Aggies stole the game with a fourth-quarter touchdown, 7-6.
Ever drive a car into the exit of a drive-in theater when you were 16, not knowing about those metal teeth? That's the sound that leaked out of the Froggies after that. Miami rocked them 14-0 the next week, Baylor scared the daylights out of them before succumbing 7-6, and then Texas Tech, a team that didn't belong in the same county with the Frogs, pasted them 21-7. Another ferocious storm fell on the team bus on the way home from Lubbock, and the Frogs crawled through it, wondering if their senior-laden squad had lost focus, become more concerned with the honeys they were fixing to marry and the careers they were fixing to start than with the mission at hand.
Back on campus, there dangled poor Abe from a rope lashed to a tree not far from the athletic dorm, brown hat and sport coat over a pillow head and sheet body. It was a startling sight at a university that many players had chosen because it had the homey feel of a big high school, a cow-town college where guys felt at home wearing cowboy hats and boots, or jeans rolled up at the cuffs and penny loafers. Just like that, the dispirited Frogs had a cause. Their starting quarterback, Chuck Curtis—that's him, number 46, sitting two to the left of Abe—along with end O'Day Williams and backup end Neil Hoskins, the youngster two to the left of Curtis, with his chin in his hand, went out to do a little rectifyin'. Curtis slashed down the effigy with a pocket knife, then led his mates, rumor by rumor, to the perpetrator, who turned tail after a little shouting and shoving. Two days later the Frogs called a players-only meeting at the dining hall, where the subs vented their frustration over lack of playing time, and Cotton Eye Joe Williams, the captain, promised to take their beef to Abe. The players all agreed that an attack on Abe was like an attack on their daddies, and they closed ranks.
To Cotton Eye's suggestion that the second fiddlers fiddle more, Abe said, Great idea. To the notion that the boys were steamed about the hanging effigy, Abe said, Couldn't've been me—I'm a lot better lookin' than that. To the proposition that the Froggies might still make it to the Cotton Bowl (A&M had been hit with NCAA sanctions for recruiting violations and wouldn't be eligible), Abe said, Let's go make hay. That's what the Frogs did, slapping Texas in the face 46-0, elbowing a ripsnorting Rice squad by three and thumping SMU 21-6 to finish 7-3, second to A&M, and scoop up the Aggies' fumbled Cotton Bowl bid. Then came a month to heal and prepare, a half-hour Greyhound bus ride to Dallas a few days before the big one, the formal dance and then the downtown parade on the fire engine, eyeing that big load on the other fire truck, the one that scored a record-breaking 43 points against Colgate: Jim Brown.
Finally all the buildup is over. The Southwest Conference princesses in convertibles and the high-stepping high school bands are drumming up one last buzz among the 68,000 waiting outside the locker room. But here inside there's only quiet, broken by a soft sob just outside the frame, from the Frogs' All-America lineman Norman Hamilton—who'll swear decades later that no matter what his teammates recollect, he didn't cry before games.
Quiet, broken by the calm drawl of Honest Abe. Whose calm is a lie, so keep your eye on him, because any minute he might just sneak off to the john and throw up. That's what Virgil Miller—he's number 18, the little guy in the dark corner with his head down—will find Abe doing before a game a few years later, when Virgil returns to visit the coach. "Ever get nervous like that?" Abe will ask Virgil. It's safe, since Virgil has graduated and gone.
It's almost like going to church, being here, isn't it? Nope, it's more religious than church, because half of the people here aren't faking it. Maybe folks who never played can't understand how you can be 15 minutes from tearing somebody's head off, 15 seconds from vomiting and a half inch from God, all at the same time. But Chuck Curtis knows. Forty-two years from now, when this picture is placed under his eyes, he'll say, "Look at us. Compared to players today? We weren't great athletes. But we were a team from top to bottom, all giving entire respect to our leader and wanting the same thing wholeheartedly. A sin-cere group of young men. It'd take a miracle to get the feeling we had in that moment again. With that attitude,there's not a sin that's not erased." When he looks up, there will be tears in his eyes.
Henry B. (Doc) Hardt, he'd understand. He's the old-timer wearing his brown Sunday best and that purple-and-white ribbon on his left arm, so lost in his meditation that he doesn't know that his pants leg is climbing up his calf and that three decades have vanished since he last suited up for a football game—he'd snatch a helmet and storm through that door if Abe would just say the word. That's reverence, the look of a man with four Methodist minister brothers and a missionary sister. Doc's the head of the TCU chemistry department and the Frogs' NCAA faculty representative, the man who makes sure the flunkers aren't playing and the boosters aren't paying, and he's so good at it that he'll become president of the NCAA a few years after this game. Huge hands, grip like a vise and a kind word for everyone, even when he hobbles on a cane to Frogs games a quarter century later. Nice to know he'll make it to 90.
But you need to meet the rest of the boys. Just behind Doc's left shoulder is Mr. Clean: Willard McClung, the quiet assistant to renowned trainer Elmer Brown. Brown's busy right now shooting up guard Vernon Uecker's ankle with novocaine, but Willard would be glad to go fetch a glass of Elmer's concoction for those whose steak and eggs are about to come up, a cocktail the boys call "the green s---." Trouble is, Elmer's green s--- usually comes up along with everything else.
Willard's the only man here who never played, the only one not crawled inside himself—no coincidence there. His ankles were too weak for him to play ball, but he was determined to jimmy his way into moments like this, so he climbed aboard a train his senior year of high school, a fuzzy-cheeked kid from Minden, La., and rode all day to reach the National Trainers' Convention, in Kansas City. Trainers were so thrilled to see a kid show up that Elmer Brown finagled him a scholarship at TCU.
That's Frankie Hyde just behind Doc Hardt's right shoulder, the blond studying the hairs on his left calf. He's the Frogs' scout-team quarterback and an all-around good guy. Doesn't know that he'll hurt his shoulder a few months from now in spring training, that he'll never suit up for a football game again. Doesn't know that Abe's steering his rudder, that he'll end up coaching football just like six of the 17 players in the picture. That he'll end up guiding wave after wave of teenage boys through this moment, some who'll start chattering like monkeys, some who'll go quieter than the dead, some who'll slam their shoulder pads into lockers and poles, some who'll pray like a priest on his third cup of coffee, some who'll get too sick to play. Take it from Frankie: "People who don't experience this don't know themselves like they should."
Or take it from Hunter Enis, the handsome raven-haired boy leaning forward in the dark corner, the one who'll make a bundle in oil: "Sure, there's times in business when you'll work together with a group of men to meet a goal. But that's not about anything as important as this. It's just about money."
Or Possum Elenburg, the sub on the far left, sitting there thinking, Heck, yes, it'd be nice to get in and quarterback a few plays on national TV, but heck, no, I don't want to have to play defense and risk getting burned deep like I did against Texas Tech. Forty-two years later, here's Possum: "This is reality stripped to its nakedness. There's no place to hide. Time is standing still. It's funny, but all your life people tell you that football's just a game, that so many things more important will happen to you in life that'll make sports seem insignificant." Listen to Possum. He's a man who came within a quarter inch of losing his life in '60 when an oil rig crashed into his skull and paralyzed his right side for a year, a man who lost a fortune overnight when oil prices crashed on his head two decades later. "But it's not true, what people tell ya," he says. "I'm fixing to be tested in this moment, and I'm gonna be tested again and again in my life, and I'm gonna get nervous and wonder about myself every single time. Your priorities as a kid are just as important to you as your priorities as a 60-year-old man, because all your aspirations and goals are on the line. At any age, each thing that's important to you . . . is important to you, and each fight needs to be fought with every effort."
We're looking at a roomful of bladders fixing to bust, but it's just a hoax—any doctor could explain the phenomenon. It's just anxiety sending a surge of adrenaline to the nerve endings in the bladder, causing it to tighten and creating the feeling that you gotta go. These boys are like a pack of hunting dogs spraying all over the place just before the hunt, only dogs are lucky enough not to have all those laces and hip pads and jockstraps to fumble with.
" . . . don't need to remind you, laddies, what happened to us in the Cotton Bowl last year, and what that felt like. Not many folks in life get a second chance, but we've got it right here, today . . . the chance to redeem ourselves. . . ."
Redemption. That's all that thumps through the hearts and heads of two players who happen to be sitting elbow to elbow: Chuck Curtis and, on his right, Harold (Toad) Pollard, number 16, with the dirty-blond crew cut and the eye black. See, Toad's missed extra point was the margin of defeat inTCU's 14-13 Cotton Bowl loss to Mississippi last year. And Toad's missed extra point in the monsoon at A&M cost the Frogs that 7-6 heartache.Before you get the idea that Toad's a lost cause, you need to know that he led the nation's kickers in scoring last season and that his nickname is Abe's bungled version of Toad's true moniker, the Golden Toe. But ever since that wide-right boot in the Cotton Bowl, Toad has walked around imagining that the entire campus is thinking or saying, "There goes the guy who missed the extra point." Every morning last summer, before his 3-to-11 shift as a roughneck in the oil fields, he toted a tee to a high school field and kicked 40 through the pipes, alone, to prepare for his redemption. "It's a lot more hurt," he'll admit years later, "than a person would realize." Especially since Toad always seems to be clowning, doing that dead-on Donald Duck imitation. But right now he's more nervous than he's ever been, trying to swallow back the notion that he could bungle another critical extra point and be stuck with seeing himself in the mirror every time his hair needs combing the rest of his life.
It's a double-wide hot seat over there, cooking Chuck Curtis's fanny too. Because it was in this very room, at this very moment at the Cotton Bowl last year, that Abe concluded his pregame talk by reminding Chuck-a-luck, as he was fond of calling his quarterback, that he was absolutely not to run back the kickoff, that he was to pitch it back to Swink. But Chuck-a-luck, who believed fiercely in his ability to perform or charm his way out of any fix, walked out of this room and fielded that kickoff on the run, down near his shins, and decided that all that forward momentum shouldn't be wasted on a backward lateral, and actually traveled a few yards before—crunch!—he took a lick that cracked three ribs and partially dislocated his shoulder, and the Frogs' star quarterback was gone on the game's first play.
Of course, Dick Finney, the backup quarterback—that's him on your farthest right, the one who used to call audibles with fruits instead of numbers ("Apples! Oranges! Bananas!")—came trotting into the huddle with that bird-eating grin of his and declared, "Have no fear, Finney's here." But fear truly was in order, because although Diamond Dick ran like a jackrabbit, he also passed like one, and Ole Miss stacked everybody but the trombone players on the line to create a terrible constipation.
Imagine what that did to Chuck Curtis, a strapping 6'4", 200-pound All-Conference signal-caller, a Pentecostal preacher's son who could sell a bikini to an Eskimo. In a few years he'll be buying cattle like crazy, owning a bank, winning three state championships as a high school coach and selling automobiles to boot, joking with a former Frogs teammate who protests that he can't afford to pay for a car, "Hey, ol' buddy, I didn't ask you to pay for a car—I just wanna sell you a car." In the '70s, when he comes up on charges of making false statements on bank-loan applications, there will be preachers preaching in his favor on the courthouse steps, alongside his Jacksboro High football team, cheerleaders and band, all crooning the school's alma mater, and he'll get off with a $500 fine. But no amount of preaching or singing or selling can hide the fact that Chuck-a-luck's ego, more than Toad's blown extra point, cost his teammates the '56 Cotton Bowl, and that he'll have to wear that around like a stained pair of chaps for the rest of his life . . . unless, in about 10 minutes, he can maneuver the Frogs past Jim Brown.
Now turn around. It's long past time you met Marvin Newman, the well-groomed fellow with the side of his snout pressed against that camera. Nearly forgot about him, he's been so quiet, but none of this would've been possible without him. Funny guy, Marvin: your classic pushy New Yorker whenthere's something he really wants, but when what he really wants is to disappear into the woodwork—presto, Marvin's a mouse. You can barely hear the click of that Leica he's pointing toward Abe.
He can't use a flash—that would be like taking a hammer to a moment like this. So he has to spread his legs, brace his knees, lock his elbows against his sides and hold his breath to keep that camera stone still. He has to become the tripod, because the quarter second that the shutter needs to be open to drink in enough light is enough to turn Chuck-a-luck and Toad and Buddy and Joe into a purple smear if Marvin's paws move even a hair. Doesn't hurt that he's only 29, because the hands won't let you do that at, say, 59. Doesn't hurt that he rarely drinks, either, because more than a few magazine shooters would still have the shakes at 10 minutes to one in the afternoon on New Year's Day.
He's a Bronx kid, a baker's only son who knew at 19 that he wasn't going to keep burying his arms to the elbows in a wooden vat of rye dough, wasn't going to do what his father and grandfather and great-grandfather had done, even if his old man nearly blew a fuse when that first $90 camera was delivered to the door. Marvin was too brainy, having jumped two grades before he finished high school, and too hungry for something he couldn't even give a name to, so he surprised his old man again, telling him he'd go to Chicago and study art at the Illinois Institute of Technology on his own dime, not that he owned one. Crawled right out on the limb and then had to prove to his dad that he could dance on it.
Who knows, maybe that's why he lies in hotel beds for hours, boiling with plans A, B, C and Z on the night before an assignment, brainstorming about how to come home with an image nobody else would have thought of. Maybe that's why his gut's already working on that ulcer. Could be why he hangs around the photo department at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, promoting ideas that might snag him a color spread worth $600, till finally the photo editor nods, or maybe his head just sags in exhausted surrender. See, Marvin was one of the first to figure this out: If you're technically sound and willing to invest in the best equipment on the shelf—all those long lenses and motor drives just coming out—and if you played some ball and can anticipate where the next play might go, you're a hundred miles ahead of the posse of freelancers dying to land an assignment from SI.
But a tack-sharp action shot won't be enough to satisfy Marvin. He has to come up with something at this Cotton Bowl as heart-touching as the picture he nailed at last year's, that classic shot of Ole Miss's Billy Kinnard coming off the field after beating TCU by one point and planting a kiss on Ole Miss cheerleader Kay Kinnard, who just happened to be his new bride. So, recollecting from last New Year's Day how mouthwatering the light was in that locker room, Marvin made it his first item of business when he saw Abe in Dallas to start schmoozing, start persuading Abe how discreet he'd be, how lickety-split he'd get in and get out, and how much his boss was counting on him . . . so could he please slip into the Frogs' locker roomjust before kickoff? Heck, Abe didn't need schmoozing. Sure, Marvin! Why not drop by at halftime too?
Guarantee you, Marvin can smell and taste his own pregame heebie-jeebies from that year he played end on the Brooklyn College football team at a preposterous 125 pounds, and from all those times just before he ran the 800 when he'd start hacking so much that he even tried sucking on a pebble, and he cut a deal with his gut not to bring up breakfast and lunch until he was just past the finish line, first more often than not.
Sure, he'll take snaps more famous than this. He'll bag that black-and-white shot of the World Series-winning homer soaring off Bill Mazeroski's bat as the scoreboard shows all the pertinent facts—3:36 p.m, ninth inning, score tied—of Game 7 between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Yankees in 1960. He'll catch eyes all over the country with his picture of the newly widowed Jackie Kennedy clutching John-John's hand as they watch JFK's coffin go by. But 40-plus years after this New Year's Day in Dallas, long after his knees and hips have grown weary of all the kneeling and contorting and camera-bag banging, long after he's left sports photography to specialize in travel and city-skyline shots, and even after his pictures have been exhibited in all sorts of important places, he'll remember this picture almost as if he took it yesterday.
"They completely forgot about me," he'll say, sitting over the photo in his Manhattan apartment at age 71. "When photography works well, you can go inside the psyche of the people in the picture. You can see beyond the moment. I always loved this picture. I knew it was special. There hadn't been many photographs taken inside locker rooms, so I knew I was privileged. I couldn't have been standing more than 10 feet from Abe Martin. . . ."
" . . . but we're not gonna shut down Jim Brown, boys. Not with one tackler. We're gonna have to swarm him. We'll slow him down. We'll go right at him when we've got the ball. He's not a great defensive player. We'll tire him out. We won't stop him. We'll outscore him. This game can put us right back where we belong, with the best teams in the country. Look inside yourselves and ask, Do I really want it? If you do, laddies, the goose hangs high. Now let's have the prayer."
Some of you might not quite grasp what's sitting and waiting for the Frogs in the room down the hall. Jim Brown stands 6'2" and weighs 225 pounds, which is at least 35 pounds more than the average halfback of his day, not to mention 22 pounds heavier than the average player on the biggest line in the country, Notre Dame's. He runs 100 yards in 10 seconds flat, high-jumps 6'3", hurls the discus 155 feet and once won six events for Syracuse in a track meet, which gave him the notion that it might be fun to enter the national decathlon championship, which he did on 10 days' practice and placed fifth. He scored 33 in a Syracuse basketball game and will be drafted by the NBA's Syracuse Nationals, not bad for a fellow who at the time was considered to have been the greatest lacrosse player in U.S. history. He's just finishing up a senior season in which he averaged 6.2 yards per carry, and he will average a record 5.2 yards per carry for the Cleveland Browns over the next nine years, leading the NFL in rushing in eight of those, before he'll hang it up, as MVP, at age 30. Forgive me if you knew all that, but some legends get so large, the particulars get lost.
Now, some of the Frogs are deeply worried about Brown. Others have been fooled by the three game films they've seen, because Brown looks slower on celluloid than he does when you're reaching for his heels. Still others think he's very good, but he can't possibly be better than John David Crow of Texas A&M.
Brown's sitting very still and silent right now. He's the sort of man who contains a lot more than he lets out, till he steps on the field, and maybe some of what he's holding in has to do with a question that's struck you already, looking around the TCU locker room: Where are all the black folks?There's not one playing football in the Southwest Conference, and there won't be one on scholarship till nine years down the road, after Chuck Curtis becomes an SMU assistant coach and recruits Jerry Levias. In fact, it was only two years before this that the first blacks played in TCU's stadium, when Penn State brought Lenny Moore and Rosey Grier to town and they had to sleep at a motel way out on Jacksboro Highway, because the team couldn't find a downtown Fort Worth hotel that would have them.
That wasn't going to happen to Brown. He decided before the Orangemen arrived in Dallas that he'd refuse to be separated from his teammates, but it hadn't come to that. Syracuse was staying in a hotel on the edge of Dallas that accepted the whole squad.
Sure, Brown's thoughts are fixed on football right now, 15 minutes before kickoff, but it would be a lie to say that another question isn't nibbling on his mind: What's going to happen when he's circled by nearly 70,000 white Texans, some of them wearing cleats? Abe hasn't said a thing to his boys about color. Before the game against Moore and Grier in '54, all he said was, "They're darn good football players, so it wouldn't make much sense to say something to get 'em mad."
Brown will never be the sort to live on the fumes of his past, or reminisce much. But even at 63, when he's running across America directing Amer-I-Can—an organization he founded to tackle gang problems and help prisoners get ready for life outside the walls—some of what coursed through him in that Cotton Bowl locker room will still be with him.
"I was concerned how their players would carry themselves, if there'd be any epithets," he'll say. "But I wasn't going to make that any kind of extra motive, or try to prove something. Racism is sickness, and I'm not gonna prove something to sickness. I was a performer with my own standards, and living up to them was all I worried about. For me, the time just before a game was always tense, like going to war without death. I always felt humbled. It's a very spiritual moment. I'd try to go into a pure state. No negative thoughts, even toward the other team. No rah-rah, because rah-rah's for show. Your butt's on the line, and you either stand up and deal with it, or . . . or you can't. You become a very difficult opponent for anyone or anything when you know that you can."
Let me tell you what happened that day, right after Marvin's last click. Chuck Curtis went wild. He called a run-pitch sprint-out series that no one expected from a drop-back quarterback without much foot speed, and he threw two touchdown passes to stake the Frogs to a 14-0 lead.
Then it was Brown's turn. The tip that TCU coaches had passed on to the Frogs after studying film—that just before the snap Brown leaned in the direction he was about to go—was accurate, but it wasn't worth a Chinese nickel. As Brown carried a couple of more Frogs for rides, Abe spun toward his boys on the sideline and nearly swallowed his cigar, then howled, "Shistol pot! Can't anybody tackle him?"
Against Brown, everything the Frogs had learned about hitting a man in the thighs and wrapping him up went down the sewer—there was just too much power there. First tackler to reach him had to hit him high, delay him for a second, take some of the forward momentum out of those thighs, then wait for reinforcements to hit him low.
Brown bashed in from the two for Syracuse's first touchdown, kicked the extra point, then hurled a 20-yard pass that set up his own four-yard touchdown run and booted another point after to tie the ball game 14-14 just before intermission. Lonnie Leatherman, a backup end for the Frogs, would shake his head from here to the year 2000, yelping, "He ran through the whole stinkin' team! That man was bad to the bone! He was unbelievable! These are great football players, and they couldn't tackle him. Norman Hamilton was an All-America and couldn't tackle him."
A savage moment came early in the second half. Syracuse was on the TCU 40 and rolling—Brown had just made another first down on a fourth-down plunge—when Buddy Dike, with his battered kidney, threw caution to the wind. He hit Brown head-on, producing a sound Hamilton would never forget. "Like thunder," he'd recall. "Never heard a sound that loud from two men colliding. I thought, How can they ever get up?"
Dike's face mask snapped in two, the pigskin burst from Brown's grasp and TCU recovered it. Brown would not miss a play. The inspired Froggies again targeted Brown when he was on defense, flooding his side of the field with three receivers. Years later Leatherman would make no bones about it. "Brown was horrible on defense," he'd say. Joe Williams would be a trifle kinder: "Maybe their coaches didn't want to offend him by teaching him defense."
Curtis closed a drive by sweeping around the left end for a score, and Jim Swink found paydirt for the Frogs a few minutes later. Toad Pollard stepped on the field for the extra point. He was 3 for 3, and his side was up 27-14, but with nearly 12 minutes left and Brown yet to be corralled, the kicker's gut quivered with evil memories. To Jim Ozee, finally getting a few minutes at center, it seemed like eternity between his snap and the thud of Toad's toe against the ball. "What took you so long?" Ozee demanded seconds after the kick sailed true.
"I wanted to be sure," Toad said, breathing heavily—as if he knew that Brown would rip off a 46-yard return on the kickoff, then slam in from the one and bust open Toad's lip a few moments later. As if he knew that Syracuse would roar right down the field on its next possession, finally figuring a way to reach the end zone without Brown, on a touchdown pass with 1:16 left. As if he knew that Chico Mendoza, the lone Mexican-American on the Frogs' roster, would storm in from right end just after Syracuse's third touchdown and block Brown's point-after try, making the team that lost by one extra point in the Cotton Bowl in 1956 the winner by one extra point in 1957, by a score of 28-27. "All those white boys out there," Leatherman would point out, "and the Mexican and the black were the key players."
Brown would finish with 132 yards on 26 carries, three kickoff returns for 96 more yards, three extra points, the whole country's admiration . . . and no slurs. "They were nice human beings," he'd say of the Frogs. But Chuck-a-luck, who finished 12 of 15 through the air, would see Brown speak at the University of Texas-Arlington years later and leave sniffing that "he sounded like one of those Black Panthers."
Toad would remember "floating" at the postgame banquet, thinking he was saved from a lifetime of negative thoughts, but in his 60s that extra point he missed in the '56 Cotton Bowl would still occupy his mind more than the four he made in '57, and every kick he watched on TV would make his foot twitch up, as if the kick were his.
TCU? The Frogs wouldn't win another bowl game for 41 years. The rules changed on Abe: Free substitution and the end of the two-way player meant that a college needed at least 22 studs, and that a small school with a scrawny budget and even less national TV exposure had almost no prayer, no matter how sincere its players were 15 minutes before kickoff. When Abe quit nine years later, people said the game had passed him by.
Come 1999, that bare locker room would no longer be a locker room, that Southwest Conference would no longer exist, and that New Year's Day game would be known as the Southwestern Bell Cotton Bowl Classic, with a Web site.
One last thing. There's a saying Texans used to share about men in locker rooms awaiting battle, and pardon my French, but it goes like this: Brave men piss, cowards s---.
Which were you? Which was I? Guess I just can't walk out of this picture without asking questions like that. But I'll shut up now, in case you want to go back and catch Chuck-a-luck going watery-eyed as he leads the team prayer. Hurry, though. It's going hard on nine minutes to one.