The Junction Boys: How 10 Days in Hell with Bear Bryant Forged a Champion Teamby Jim Dent
The legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant is recognized nationwide as one of the greatest coaches ever. So why did he always cite his 1-9 A&M team of 1954 as his favorite? This is the story of a remarkable team - and the beginning of the legend.
The Junction Boys tells the story of Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant's legendary training camp in the small town of Junction/i>/p>
The legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant is recognized nationwide as one of the greatest coaches ever. So why did he always cite his 1-9 A&M team of 1954 as his favorite? This is the story of a remarkable team - and the beginning of the legend.
The Junction Boys tells the story of Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant's legendary training camp in the small town of Junction, Texas. In a move that many consider the salvation of the Texas A&M football program, Coach Bryant put 115 players through the most grueling practices ever imagined. Only a handful of players survived the entire 10 days, but they braved the intense heat of the Texas sun and the burning passion of their coach, and turned a floundering team into one of the nation's best. The Junction Boys is more than just a story of tough practices without water breaks. An extraordinary fellowship was forged from the mind-numbing pain. The thirty-five survivors bonded together like no other team in America. They profited from the Junction experience; the knowledge they took back with them to College Station, about themselves and what they were capable of, would be used for the rest of their lives.
In vivid and powerful images reminiscent of Friday Night Lights, Hoosiers, and The Last Picture Show, these young men and their driven coach come to life. The Junction Boys contains all the hallmarks of a classic sports story, and it combines America's love of college football with an extraordinary story of perseverance and triumph.
- Pat Summerall, Fox Sports
"I heard the story of the Junction Boys from gene Stallings when he was on my staff with the Cowboys. Those guys were some of the toughest to ever play the game. Jim Dent has really brough the story to life in a book any football fan would like to read."
- Tom Landry, former coach of the Dallas Cowboys
"...the best book on a sports topic I've read in years."
- Furman Bisher, The Atlanta Journal Constitution
- Sports Illustrated
"You'll want to laugh, you might even want to cry, but you'll know what legends are made of by the time you finish this book. They'll be talking about this book for a long time."
- Texas Aggie Magazine
"...highly readable...Dent manages to celebrate the myth and recreate the mystique of the Bear while not glossing over the consequences of the coach's uncompromising drive to win."
- The Birmingham News
- St. Martin's Press
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Read an Excerpt
The Junction Boys
How Ten Days in Hell With Bear Bryant Forged a Championship Team
By Jim Dent
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 Jim Dent
All rights reserved.
If you believe in yourself and have dedication and pride — and never quit — you'll be a winner. The price of victory is high, but so are the rewards.
— PAUL "BEAR" BRYANT
FEBRUARY 8, 1954
A bonfire licked the night sky as the mob surged in waves toward a grove of trees. Pvt. Gene Stallings sprinted across the campus, his spit-polished shoes stabbing the sidewalk. He heard the snare drums and the "yee-haws" and watched the rows and rows of handheld torches bobbing and flickering in the brisk wind as two hundred horns belted an old school song across the prairie. Half a football field away, Stallings joined the singing in a rich baritone voice:
"Good-bye to Texas University,
So long to the Orange and White.
Good luck to dear old Texas Aggies,
They are the boys who show the real old fight."
That morning, the skinny freshman from the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas had heard the name. It hadn't rendered up a face. It seemed that Stallings had been too occupied with practicing football, marching to meals, saluting upperclassmen, catching hell, polishing his shoes, and rising to reveille. Texas A&M's search for a successor to Ray George had turned up a man with a peculiar name — Bear Bryant. But it didn't ring a bell.
Stallings stuffed a black tie into the third button of his olive green military shirt and tucked his shirttail tightly into his light brown slacks. He'd be doing military push-ups until Sunday lunch if his uniform failed to meet code.
As a young boy, Stallings had sat mystified beside the family's RCA radio back in Paris, Texas, listening as the words and descriptions flowed from the melodic voice of Kern Tips on the Humble Oil Football Network. He grew to be tall and rail-thin, but with enough athletic skill and savvy to catch the eye of recruiters. He believed that both his destiny and his birthright were to play in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Day and then to someday coach the Aggies to that ultimate game. He had committed to memory the names of players and coaches in the Southwest Conference. But Bear Bryant, he wasn't from Texas, was he?
Bryant had arrived that night from Kentucky on a rocking windblown twin-engine plane just after dark and had been escorted onto campus by a howling, torch-waving contingent of Aggie cadets who drove their cars on both sides of the highway. There was much to know about this man. In eight years, he'd transformed a basketball institution into a football powerhouse and then quit when he didn't get his way. He'd coached a habitual loser and conference stepchild to a 60-23-5 record, a Sugar Bowl upset over one of Bud Wilkinson's great Oklahoma teams, and a Cotton Bowl victory against TCU — a top-ten squad. In eight seasons, his Kentucky Wildcats finished in the Associated Press Top Twenty five times. Given the sorry facilities and the absence of football tradition, along with the specter of basketball baron Adolph Rupp, the state's most powerful man, no one in the history of the Southeastern Conference had done more with less.
Now he was running the hell away from Rupp.
The second-biggest divorce case of 1954 after Monroe versus DiMaggio might have been Bryant's split with Kentucky. A mandate from the governor was required to free Bryant from the final twelve years of his contract, and with that accomplished, he was apprised that all of the big-time and high-paying college jobs were filled. About the only thing left was at Texas A&M, where the Aggies hadn't clinched a conference championship since the week before Pearl Harbor. Now Bryant had a mess on his hands — not to mention a team that had lost its last five games in '53 by a combined score of 133–41.
"God, I guess I've gone and flushed down eight years of hard work," he told his wife, Mary Harmon, on the day he quit Kentucky. "All because Adolph Rupp gets the gravy." Mary Harmon cried.
Situated on the flat belly of central Texas, Texas A&M was what most folks called a pissant little place. The campus possessed all of the glamour of a stock show — an all-military, all-male institution that looked like a penitentiary and boasted the color scheme of a grocery bag. Some folks called it a cow college. The only thing missing was a cattle guard at the front entrance. It was ninety miles from Houston, the closest big city, and had little to offer to a driven man like Bryant.
The University of Texas over in Austin was a country club compared to A&M. Texas students, known as teasips, liked to say that "A&M is where the men are men and the sheep are scared shitless." Football recruiters told top stud blue-chip prospects, "Hell's bells, son, you don't wanna go down there. They blow a horn to get you up, ring a bell to put you to sleep. No girls. No nothin'." No wonder they called the place Old Army. Texas A&M chancellor Marion Thomas Harrington feared that Bryant would take one look at this cold, colorless, and womanless world and run all the way back to Kentucky. So Harrington scheduled his interview for Dallas, more than two hundred miles to the northeast.
When Harrington strolled into the suite of the fashionable Fairmont Hotel on Ross Avenue that cold January morning, he quickly pulled the drapes. He took a seat near the center of the boardroom table and was flanked by Jack Finney and W. T. "Doc" Doherty — both members of the A&M board of directors. The carpet was thick and a broad crystal chandelier lit the room.
Bryant pulled an unfiltered Chesterfield from his shirt pocket, stamped it on the silver flip-top lighter, and quietly analyzed the men in dark suits.
"I don't know what y'all are tryin' to hide here," he drawled, flipping the lighter closed. "But you oughta know that when I was in Kentucky, me and Mary Harmon lived right next to the Idle Hour Country Club — I'm sure you've heard of the place. We were members. Hell, we had about the only air-conditioned house in Lexington. They paid me a good wage. You should also know, Dr. Harrington, I had lots of offers from schools all over the country. The Arkansas people flew me in and offered me an oil-and-gas deal about three years ago. I'd be a millionaire today if I'd took it. Anyway, boys, I want to be head football coach and athletic director. So, you see, I ain't comin' to Texas for no bullshit."
Harrington cleared his throat. "I can assure you, Paul, that our offer will be competitive with anything you'll find in any part of the country. In case you didn't know, Gen. Sam Houston's son himself was in our very first class. You'll just not find a finer place in America than College Station. You're going to fall in love with the place. It will grow on you, Paul."
Finney was the athletic committee chairman and a well-heeled oilman. "Tell me, Jack," Bryant said. "If we could offer any boy in Texas the same scholarship deal as the University of Texas and there were twenty good studs out there, how many'd we get?"
Slapping a flat palm on the table, Finney looked like a bulldog about to break his chain. "Ten, and I can guaran-god-damn-tee you that," he said.
"OK, boys, let's ante up," the coach said, leaning back and rocking his chair onto its rear legs. "How much money we talkin' here?"
"We've got $15,000 to offer," Harrington said quickly.
"You know that won't do," Bryant shot back, the chair tumbling forward.
Doc Doherty, an independently wealthy man, spoke up: "I'll write you a $10,000 check from my company every year."
"What about oil wells — things of that nature?" Bryant asked, his eyes narrowing.
"We've got a man living outside Austin who'll take care of you," Finney said. "You'll have a beautiful house, two Cadillacs to drive, and all the damn money you and Mary Harmon can ever spend."
Bryant stood slowly and cracked the drapes. Fourteen stories below, the Dallas morning traffic buzzed along Ross Avenue. He gazed at Pegasus, the flying red horse that adorned the rooftop of the Mobil Building. Through the haze, he could see all the way to the tall tower with WFAA-TV emblazoned on it.
"Boys," Bryant drawled, turning toward the men. "I guess I'd better get on back to Kentucky and try to explain all of this to Mary Harmon. She's already cried her eyeballs out once. But you can look for me in early February."
Swaggering toward the door, Bryant turned and looked at Doherty. "By the way, Doc," he said. "I hear your campus looks like a prison. I'm sure everything'll be locked up pretty tight when I get down there."
* * *
Six thousand cadets packed the Grove theater as Stallings elbowed his way through the sea of military uniforms. One of the torches cast its light on Billy Schroeder, a tall, square-jawed boy of German descent who'd been a starting end as a sophomore in 1953. Billy's eyes seemed to be propped open with toothpicks, and he was smiling like he'd just chugalugged a keg of Lone Star beer.
"Bebes, we've been saved!" he shouted to Stallings.
Stallings had been called Bebes since infancy, when his older brother couldn't pronounce Baby Gene. He could never remember being called Gene and was even registered as Bebes Stallings on his Social Security card.
"I know it looks pretty good!" Stallings tried to shout over the crowd. "But I've never heard of this man!"
"Never even heard of him — how's that possible?" Schroeder said in disbelief. "This man's the greatest coach in college football! Shoot, Bebes, he's bigger than Frank Leahy. He's gonna put A&M football back on the map!"
Stallings had lived with constant and painful infections in his left ear since infancy, confounding doctors and causing almost total deafness. He turned his right ear toward Schroeder as the large boy hollered above the crowd, "Come on, Bebes! The rest of the team's up front."
Five students bounced onto the stage wearing white shirts, white pants, white belts, white socks, and white shoes. A stranger who'd just wandered onto campus might have thought they were orderlies from the funny farm. The yell leaders each wore flattops and had eyes bigger than flying saucers. They cavorted across the stage, shouting, "Whoa ha, gig 'em, Aggies!" They rolled up their sleeves and placed hands on their knees as the Aggie Band roared into the second chorus of the "Spirit of Aggieland."
Fight! Fight! Fight-Fight-Fight!
Fight! Maroon! White-White-White!
A-G-G-I-E, Texas! Texas! A-M-C!
Gig 'em, Aggies! 1! 2! 3!"
From a rear corner of the stage, tucked into the shadows, Bear Bryant was bemused by the entire scene — the torches, the chanting, and five men dressed like Mr. Clean. The yell leaders twirled their hands and punched the air. The cadets, now swaying arm in arm, began to sing again. Next to Bryant stood Jones Ramsey, the affable sports information director who was fondly called the world's tallest fat man. Ramsey was there to coach Bryant on his speech.
"How many ya figure are here?" the coach asked.
"Best I can tell, about six thousand. Best damn turnout I've ever seen."
"How many we got in school right now?"
"Last count, sixty-two hundred."
"Then where in the hell are the other two hundred turds!"
"Don't know, Coach. Maybe we could send a posse out and hang 'em."
Crushing a Chesterfield beneath his large right shoe, Bryant said, "OK, what should I say to these toy soldiers?" "My advice," Ramsey said, "is give 'em what they want. Hell, you could bring down the damn house with a loud burp."
This arena, this stage, was what Bryant had coveted since growing up dirt-poor in the Arkansas creek bottoms. Even on frozen mornings when he built the fire, slopped the hogs, and hooked up the team of mules to the family wagon, the boy kept dreaming. He recognized things about human nature long before anyone knew this about him. He often told himself, even on the darkest and saddest days, that someday he would be somebody.
At age forty, the face was dark and chiseled. He stood six-foot-two and weighed 220 pounds, and the frame bespoke a toughness. After fifteen years of chain-smoking unfiltered cigarettes, the voice had sunk to a gravelly bass, and he spoke with a heavy southern drawl that promoted an air of authority. For years Bryant had practiced and then perfected the art of walking slowly and talking slowly and of punctuating public speeches with stops and pregnant pauses so the crowd could hang on his every word. In spite of the drinking, the cussing, and the hard attitude, here was a man who could warm the pulpit.
Back in Kentucky, a good friend, Bull Hancock, had brought it all into focus one night as they were knocking back a bottle of Bryant's favorite bourbon. A hugely successful Thoroughbred breeder and owner, Hancock slapped Bryant's shoulder and said, "Paul, I don't think it's so much that you coach football as you coach people. You just have a way with folks."
That first night in Aggieland, Bryant wore a dark flannel suit with cuffed pants. A dab of Brylcreem mixed with his dark curls. Walking slowly to the front of the stage, he could see rows and rows of cadets far into the darkness. The army ROTC boys wore olive shirts with black ties, and the air force ROTC boys had donned dark shirts with green ties. Several flags signifying the colors of the squadrons and the companies were held aloft, and for a time Bryant could feel himself drifting back to his own naval days on the USS Uruguay, sailing to North Africa during World War II.
The torchlights created strange flickering flames that cast long and jerky shadows. Suddenly the adrenaline kicked in and his charisma bubbled to the surface. Bryant ripped off his suit coat and glared at the crowd like a man ready for a back-alley fight. He slammed the expensive fabric down on the stage and stomped it with both shoes. Whipping off his tie, he twirled it above his head and threw it down. He kicked and stomped the tie like a menacing rattlesnake and then danced around it. He mimicked the yell leaders by rolling up his sleeves almost to the elbows. Then he cradled the silver microphone in both hands and waited for the silence.
"Boys," he drawled deeply and resonantly and then paused. "It's time to win some damn football games."
Not since 1939 had there been such a thunderous roar on the spartan prairie. That year, A&M beat Texas 20-zip and the Aggies were voted number one in the final Associated Press poll. The sound washed over Bryant. Bebes Stallings, standing just below him, felt a piercing pain in his left eardrum, and he rubbed the lobe with his hand. The loudest cheers came from the Aggie players, standing just a few feet from the stage. Don Watson, a scatback from Franklin, pulled a tiny silver flask from his rear pocket and pumped a shot of bourbon down his throat. "I just saw God!" Watson squealed. Dennis Goehring, a stumpy guard, rammed a sawed-off little finger into the sternum of Bobby Drake Keith, who jumped more than a foot off the ground.
"Take that, you little sonofabitch!" Goehring hollered in a sandpaper voice before turning and grabbing at Watson's flask. Players backed away from Goehring, who possessed a devilish humor. Big Jack Pardee had a big smile plastered to his face and, as usual, said nothing. Marvin Tate was awestruck by the entire scene. Standing almost a head above the crowd, Schroeder tried to catch Bryant's eye, flashing him the thumbs-up "Gig 'em, Aggies" sign.
Bryant had grudgingly accepted a sad reality — that the stepchild he'd adopted was ugly. He still wasn't sure, though, how far the Aggies had fallen. Many of these boys still hadn't been to the first grade when the Aggies last ascended to the Cotton Bowl. But as he looked into their bright eyes and eager faces, he could see hope.
"I want to tell y'all one thing," he said. "We'll win again. We must win again."
A cannon rolled in the distance and horns blared and Bryant knew he could have spoken all night and the cadets would have stood and cheered and waved their torches and sung their songs and boosted their banners. But the coach had learned a vital secret about communicating; a leader should carefully limit his time with the troops so that every syllable counted and every word was remembered. He could have promised them a championship that night. But he was certain he didn't have the livestock to back it up.
Bryant scooped up the tie and wrapped it loosely around his neck. He smoothed the lapels and stuck a hand in his left pocket. Tucking the folded coat between his hip and left wrist, he slowly swaggered away. Descending the stairs behind the stage, he set his eyes on Ramsey, who seemed besotted by the show. "You know, it was like strange voodoo out there," Bryant said. "They'd a hollered and cheered if I'd peed on the stage."
Turning toward the crowd a final time, Bryant said, "I know one thing about those fellers. Ten of 'em can out-yell a hundred of anybody else's."
Bryant paused once more to watch the bonfire and to feel the power of his own presence.
"I sure as hell lit a fire tonight, didn't I?" he said, slapping Ramsey on the shoulder.
* * *
The knock came softly at first and Bryant decided to ignore it. Anybody that limp-wristed wasn't coming into his temporary living quarters on the second floor of the Memorial Student Center, a low-slung brick building that had been completed three years earlier.
Excerpted from The Junction Boys by Jim Dent. Copyright © 1999 Jim Dent. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Jim Dent is the author of The Undefeated, King of the Cowboys, and You're out and You're Ugly, Too (with Durwood Merrill). He is an award-winning journalist who covered the Dallas Cowboys for eleven years and worked in the sports media for more than two decades. He is a graduate of Southern Methodist University.
Jim Dent, a longtime award-winning journalist who covered the Dallas Cowboys for eleven years in Fort Worth and Dallas, including a stint at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, has written six books, including The Junction Boys, the New York Times bestseller that was the basis for an ESPN movie and remains a fan favorite. Dent lives in Texas.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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If a book ever tore at your every single emotion.....this book is the undefeated national champion. Even if you don't know the first thing about football, or the name Paul 'Bear' Bryant is just another old football coach you remember people talking about....well, by the end of 'The Junction Boys' you will be looking for every piece of literature about this great man that you can find. Join a rag-tag bunch of Aggie football players and their newly hired, no-nonsense leader as they try to survive the hell that has been come to be known as Junction, Texas. No water breaks, 110 degree heat, in full pads, and in the middle of the worst drought Texas has ever seen. Follow the Aggies as players leave the pre-season camp in Junction in the middle of the night just so they don't have to face 'The Man'. You will feel like a member of Bryants first A & M team of 1954 as they struggle through the season and the players struggle with the harsh bluntness of their fearless leader. You will laugh, you will cry, you will get mad, and you will enjoy this book. It is a definite must read.
All I can say is this is a great book. A most read for any fan of Paul "Bear" Bryant.
This book was great. Much better than the movie. It shows how tuff Bear was. It gives you a clear picture of why he was the best football coach to coach in college football. I know no why he had some of the best trained players.
This is an awsome book for any football fan. The movie was good but left out alot of information that makes the story some much broader. If you like hearing about the 'Bear' this is the book for you.
i'm neither an aggie fan or a "bear" bryant fan but i really enjoyed reading this book. what is so good about this book is that it not only focuses on the texas a&m's road back to football glory but it is also on the lives of the principal characters involved. through such textured characterization, you can fully feel and relate to the pains and joys that each of the characters. reading this book makes you that that you have been with the junction boys during their ordeal. i strongly suggest that all collegiate and professional athletes read this book so that they would realize how pampered and bratty they are nowadays.
I have read several sports books and have written two. I can unequivocally say this is the best sports book I have ever read, surpassing other greats such as Season on the Brink, Raw Recruits, and The Jordan Rules. In reading this book you'll understand why the best football coaches at all levels have a pronounced sadistic streak to them.I've never met Mr. Dent, so this is not a case of logrolling.
This is a must for the Bama and Texas A&M fan. Any coach respects the legacy of Coach Byrant. In this book you find out why he was loved so much. I remember Joe Namath commenting on an interview that quoted him as calling Coach Byrant 'the Bear'. Namath said if I said that I would have said 'Coach Bryant' or 'Mr. Byrant'. He never called him 'Bear'. I read several other books where former players refer to him as Coach or Mr., never Bear. Ultimate compliment to a great man. If only football players could be more like the Junction Boys.
Any self respecting Alabama or Texas A & M fan must read this book. It describes how tough Bear Byrant actually was on his players....and they loved him for it. In the end of the book when the Junction Boys were organizing the reunion I thought of something I heard from Joe Namath say once. He said he had read an interview where the reporter quoted him as saying something about 'the Bear'. Namath said if he had said that it wouldn't have been about 'the Bear'. It would have been 'Coach Byrant' or 'Mr. Byrant'. That is how much he thought of the man. As a high school coach, I have seen the toughness of kids decline and with it an overall decline in society's values. I think every parent and person can learn a little bit from Coach Byrant and this book.
Some people just don't get it do they? Some people just can't leave well enough alone. I just finished reading 'The Junction Boys' about a week ago, I come here to write a little review so that many others can enjoy the experience I had in reading this book....and then I read what Mr. Know-it-all had to say about it and it made me sick. What kind of a person would blatantly come out and point out every single 'so-called' flaw he saw in the book? Maybe he lives in Texas and might know a thing or two about a thing or two. He is not reviewing the book...not one bit..he is just trying to insult the intelligence of Jim Dent and his sources for this fantastic book. Nobody ever claimed that this book was word for word true to story, but for someone to pick through a great book with a fine tooth comb needs to find something better to do with thier free time. Nevermind what Alan Reynolds has to say.
Dent does a great job capturing the events of a time that helped transform Texas A&M football into a Top 25 program. Many of the most widely known figures from A&M football are present in the book- Bear Byrant, Gene Stallings and John David Crow, to name a few. Not only does the book give a great account of the football team, it also gives a look at Texas A&M at a time of change for the University. A great book for any football fan and especially for any Texas Aggie.