Everyone knows that football today is a far cry from what it was in the days of leather helmets and dropkicks, but it takes a book like Terry Frei's Horns, Hogs, & Nixon Coming to show how much the game has changed in just the last three decades. Frei does so by chronicling what might have been the final game of the God-Family-Football era, before shoe companies, superagents and TV networks turned the muddy old gridiron into a multigazillion-dollar business. That game was the Big Shootout, the Dec. 6, 1969 "national championship" match between undefeated Texas and Arkansas.
Many people remember the late 1960s as a time of protests, free love and acid trips, but in the football powerhouses of Dixie, players had traditional values, crew cuts and did what they were told, even if it meant spending hours doing drills designed to make them throw up. If a player broke his ankle on the practice field, a coach would holler for him to "shoot it up" and get back out here! In those days the culture of football was, for many, the epitome of all that was good about America: hard work, no complaints, and rewards commensurate with effort and talent. No wonder, then, that President Richard Nixon flew in from Washington, certain he would be welcome.
But there was a dark side to this mom-and-apple-pie stuff: In those days traditional values meant keeping African-Americans on the outside. There wasn't one black player on either team's varsity roster. In Arkansas a black student who was working to integrate the Razorbacks--and get the school band to stop playing Dixie, which many black students found offensive--was shot in the leg by racists.
Frei's book shows America undergoing changes. Even in the South youngsters were having a hard time staying obedient when obedience meant going to Vietnam to kill and die for a questionable cause. The Longhorns tried to prepare for the game, but after the Dec. 1 draft lottery the team was so rattled it could barely practice. On game day demonstrators arranged wooden crosses in the shape of the peace symbol on the hill above the northeast corner of the stadium. Into all of this dropped Nixon, who was politely applauded but looked like Nero, pretending nothing was wrong as the world caught fire around him. One macho Arkansas defensive end, Bruce James, was appalled at the sight of Nixon wearing makeup for a postgame TV appearance. Said James, "I was thinking, Man, the President of the United States has more makeup on than my date!"
The game, which Texas won 15-14, was a thriller that featured one of the gutsiest performances ever. Texas safety Freddie Steinmark played with what he thought was a left leg injury, but his ailment turned out to be bone cancer. The leg was amputated six days after the game, and Steinmark died two years later.
Frei's book, however eye-opening, fails to satisfy completely. It's hard to respect the shrug-it-off attitude that most players and coaches took to the issue of integration, something the author readily accepts. After all, how much was a national championship worth when African-Americans weren't allowed to play for it? In the U.S., sports has played an important role in integration and many other social developments. But the heroes of this book, for the most part, failed to get involved. Why? Writes Frei, "That's just how it was then."