On fourth-and-three from his 43-yard-line, his team down 14--8 with 4:47 remaining and the Arkansas fans as loud as they'd been all day, Texas quarterback James Street, who had led the Longhorns' wishbone running game throughout the 1969 season, wanted to make doubly sure he'd understood his coach. "Right 53 Veer Pass means we've got one guy going out, and that's the [tight end], and he's going deep," Street repeated to Darrell Royal. "That's the play we want to run?"
This is an article from the July 13, 2009 issue
Hell, yes is the reply Street recalls receiving from his coach on that damp Dec. 6 in Fayetteville, Ark., 40 years ago. "I was trying to make sure our thoughts were on the same page," says Street, 60. "I get in the huddle, and the first thing I do is tell them, 'You're not going to believe this play, but it will work.'"
The unlikely target was senior tight end Randy Peschel. "Everybody kind of went, You've gotta be kidding me," says Peschel of the moment Street relayed the play. "He said, 'No. This is going to work.'"
More than just a victory against a bitter rival was at stake. This was No. 1 Texas versus No. 2 Arkansas, and in attendance was President Nixon, who (much to the chagrin of Joe Paterno's undefeated Penn State) would crown a national champion out of the game. The stage couldn't have been any grander, and Texas's fourth down couldn't have been more important. So Peschel planted his foot to go deep. "Of course, we fooled them initially," recalls Peschel, "but with my lack of speed they caught up with me. I remember seeing the ball come down out of the sky and two [extra] hands up there. The ball just cleared 'em by six inches and came right to me." Did he ever doubt he'd make the catch? "No," says the 60-year-old Peschel, now a senior vice president at Texas Capital Bank in Austin. "It was right in the old breadbasket." Adds Street, who runs an Austin-based structured-settlement firm, "If you did it 100 times, you could not have done it better."
Peschel was dragged down at the Razorbacks' 13-yard line, and two plays later Texas halfback Jim Bertelsen scored on a two-yard run. Happy Feller's extra point gave the Longhorns the lead 15--14.
With just under four minutes left, Arkansas quarterback Bill Montgomery drove the Razorbacks to the Texas 39, another first down or two from field goal range. But then he threw to a tightly covered John Rees, and Texas defensive back Tom Campbell picked off the pass, allowing the Longhorns to run out the clock. "It was devastating," says Montgomery, 60. "We believed we had it wrapped up, and it just slipped away from us." Afterward, in the Arkansas locker room, the Reverend Billy Graham spoke to the disheartened Razorbacks, and then Nixon "talked a little bit about knowing what defeat felt like and that there would be another day," says Montgomery, a private investor living in Dallas. "But nothing anybody could have said at that time was going to lift the burden."
Over in the jubilant Texas locker room, Nixon specifically asked to meet Peschel. "Or to meet 'the guy who caught the pass,'" says the former tight end. "He didn't know my name, but he did shake my hand and say, 'Nice catch.'"
As Montgomery points out, it could have been just another reception in just another game. If top-ranked Ohio State had beaten Michigan two weeks earlier, the Buckeyes would have been the national champions. "It was the 100th anniversary of college football, in the final game [of the season], and when you add everything up, it comes out perfectly to set up this game," says Montgomery, who now counts himself lucky to have taken part in such a momentous event. "All these things fell into place." They certainly did for the Longhorns, who would go on to beat Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, while Arkansas would lose to Ole Miss in the Sugar. "The older you get," says Street, "the more you appreciate that you had to be in the right place at the right time. And then get a little lucky."