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Rose Bowl Dreams
A Memoir of Faith, Family, and Football
By Adam Jones
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2008 Adam Jones
All rights reserved.
The Buffalo Bowl
West Texas State University vs. Wichita State University
Frank Kimbrough Memorial Stadium, Canyon, Texas, September 30, 1978
"Throw it to Spencer."
For two solid years this was my mother's constant cry from our seats at the Buffalo Bowl. Reggie Spencer was Mom's favorite player. Spencer, number 7, was a long and lean split end from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. To Mom's credit, he was always open. The West Texas coaching staff often didn't notice this, being much more conservative than Mom. Running between the tackles, sound defense, solid special teams — don't do anything crazy. Hurling the ball downfield to a speedster like Spencer rested outside of their comfort zone. The buttoned-down approach wasn't necessarily a bad strategy given that most WT signal callers couldn't throw feed to starving birds. Tully Blanchard, who still holds the WT records for fumbles lost and interceptions, had the most successful professional career. But not as a quarterback. He became a cult hero on the pro wrestling circuit.
"Throw it to Spencer."
Mom's lungs were unrelenting. She had no tolerance for the Buffaloes failing to take advantage of an obvious mismatch. My grandfather was in the next seat over and agreed with Mom's strategic assessment, he just didn't vocalize it. Wichita State was loading up the line of scrimmage to stop the Buffalo running game. This left Spencer free to find openings in the defense, either dragging across the middle with defenders unable to keep pace or going deep into the zones the Wichita State safeties had vacated.
"Throw it to Spencer."
Usually the Buff coaches wouldn't take this advice. Spencer only hauled in twenty-one balls during his senior campaign, which led the team, but it wasn't exactly a wide-open offense. The occasional moments of brilliance — a diving 27-yard touchdown catch against Colorado State comes to mind — were secondary to number 7's role as a downfield blocker. Mom, of course, didn't let the coaching staff off the hook and kept up the constant refrain:
"Throw it to Spencer."
Mom was in particularly good voice on this night. She was a woman of great faith who transitioned seamlessly from the Holy Spirit to college football, believing unimpeachably that she had a direct line into the offensive coordinator's headset. God to Mom to the booth to the field to the quarterback to Spencer. Touchdown. That's how it played out in her mind; she was undeterred that Reggie Spencer had been a decoy all his years on campus.
"Throw it to Spencer."
And then the Buffaloes did. Dad and I rose from our seats in the east-side red chairback section to watch the trajectory as a Buff quarterback I scarcely remember let loose an uncharacteristic tight spiral down the West Texas sideline. Spencer was all alone and probably shocked.
Well. It would have been, but the ball fell right through his hands. He headed to the sidelines knowing he wouldn't get another chance. An audible groan went up from the stands. Except for Mom. She had only one thing to say, which she articulated loud and clear.
"Catch it, Spencer."
My stoic grandfather even laughed out loud at that one. The Buffs eventually lost the game 38–37, but it was hardly Reggie Spencer's fault. WT's last five possessions ended fumble, fumble, interception, missed field goal, fumble — a fairly average day at the office during a 3-8 season. The loss didn't matter much to my game companions. My grandparents and parents were never fair-weather fans. This was their school, for better or worse, and all of us would return in seven days to watch the Buffs be shut out by North Texas State, 35–0.
Football was part of our family from as far back as I can remember — not just for our family, but for most families in the Texas Panhandle. The only thing more important to the people of the high plains was faith in God. Taming and settling this arid and remote swath of America required great confidence in the Creator.
God clearly lived in the Panhandle. Although some referred to this country as godforsaken, that couldn't have been true. The Ogallala aquifer had to have been God's doing; who else would put a roaring underground river under a desert? Once the people figured out how to drop a straw into it and turn the wheels of their giant irrigation machines, they thrived. The small-town economies evolved from subsistence farming to mechanized agriculture to cattle to energy — the last evolution occurred only if the city fathers had the good sense to build their particular village on top of an oil or natural gas field, which could make you rich in a hurry. Not every community was so fortunate, but most towns had a cattle feedlot, a farmer's cooperative, a grain elevator if they were next to a rail line, a rodeo arena, and a church. In the smallest towns, the Baptists were the only game in town. Larger communities might accommodate the Church of Christ or the Methodists. Regardless of denomination, you could prosper here. The land was already perfect for raising cattle for a nation of beef eaters. When they discovered oil and natural gas on the high plains, we really had something. God was good to us.
He also gave us football. With football came an attitude about the game that sustained rural Texas through good times and bad. Though this obsession was made of man, the good Lord always got three minutes over the public address system at each town's high school stadium under the Friday night lights. The moment of prayer bonded communities together for a quiet moment, but its power couldn't compare to the emotional entanglement between town and team. Generation upon generation, season upon season, the ecclesiastical devotion of the masses infused the night air as sweet as the smell of cut grass. The annual prelude would happen every August at back-to-school time when the local bank printed up and distributed business cards with the season schedule and a catchy slogan along the lines of: It was heaven in '57, back to state in '58! For there was once a time when the high school kids of rural Texas played the game better than anyone. My father and grandfather were a part of this cultural fabric, both of them good enough to play college ball for WT. While all college football fans talk about "their guys," for my grandfather and father this relationship was not vicarious. The Buffs really were their guys, part of a line of WT players that could not be severed, stretching back almost to the turn of the century.
I knew much of this history because it was constantly retold in my grandmother's kitchen before every home game. The Jones family pregame ritual commenced among the harvest gold appliances and the huge L-shaped formica table my Uncle Frank had built to accommodate up to twenty-five dinner guests. The old kitchen brings to me fond memories, but never of the food. As grandmothers go, Audrey Emma Jones was a pretty lousy cook. She was one hell of an entertainer — a bold extrovert before her time who fed off the energy of others — just beware what was on the plate, especially the pan-fried breaded T-bone steak. My brother Sam always commented that he didn't know when he'd seen an innocent piece of meat punished like that. Grandma Jones could have taught the British a thing or two, but no one dared complain. For starters, Audrey Jones was an imposing 5'10" with enormous sinewy hands that could have made Floydada High School a major power had it occurred to anyone to let women play basketball in the nineteen oughts. The first time my grandfather held her hand he was convinced that he had found his lifelong partner, not out of some tender moment, but a practical one. The young football coach had a mental picture of large sons wreaking havoc on opposing offenses. That she seemed capable and willing to use those mitts to strangle the life out of any poor snake that dared sneak too close to the house only added to the romance.
Grandad and Grandma Jones met when they were students at WT in the early 1920s; it was called West Texas State Teachers College then, and both of them were aspiring educators. It was in the education building that Audrey Watson first set eyes on the slight and studious young man with the wavy brown hair. She had no idea that he was star on the football field.
My grandfather's picture hangs in the Texas Panhandle Sports Hall of Fame. "Bulldog" Jones, nicknamed because of his temperament, was a 5'9", 155-pound pulling guard. He was also blind as a bat, waging desperate battles against much larger men he could barely see. Sportswriters used to joke that he had no idea what he was up against. His first step was quick and sure, and he had the leverage of a wrestler. But the brains set him apart; he was playing chess with his opponents and always knew the right moment and place to assault some poor linebacker, who would seldom see the tiny truck that ran him over.
In the fall of 1923, the drugstore in Canyon rendered the Buffalo starting lineup in candy before the season opener. Sitting in the front window was a perfect chocolate eleven. The linemen were represented by big walnut clusters. Each man's name was printed alongside in block letters. The only exception was the right guard, who was represented by the tiniest chocolate peanut the proprietor could find. The peanut was labeled on a small card that read: JONES. This was a real hoot, the good people of Canyon being easily amused in the 1920s. My grandfather, however, was enraged by the slight. The following Saturday at the Tri-State Fairgrounds field in Amarillo, his opponents felt Bulldog's rage. He whaled his frustration out on any player who dared venture close enough to him to be hit. The "peanut" joke resulted in a full day for the opposing training staff, my grandfather having delivered at least one broken nose and bruises and contusions too numerous to catalogue.
When his playing days were over, he took his bachelor's degree in psychology and threw himself into coaching with the same warrior's rage and chess master's mien. A 1919 tome called Inside Football written by Major Frank W. Cavanaugh was crucial to his development as a young coach. Bulldog and Major Cavanaugh were cut from the same cloth. He gave Grandad nuggets like this, from page 133:
The end must impress his advantage of position upon the tackle by his perpetual shifting; causing him all the worry and mental uneasiness possible in a man of probably superior weight and strength, just as, in the wilds of Africa, the smaller, more tenacious, more active, vigorous and vicious animal has his chance to wear down the larger brute.
Having been a small, tenacious, active, vigorous, and vicious animal himself, Bulldog Jones had found his coaching bible and quickly turned the moribund program at Canyon High School into a winning squad known for fearless defense and daring offensive game plans involving the exotic and unusual forward pass. Their execution was unparalleled. Perhaps this was great coaching, or perhaps these young men were terrified of ever disappointing Coach Jones — they would be the first in a long line of men who could be reduced to quivering wrecks by the narrowed eyes and furrowed brow of the Buffalo legend. He eventually turned this intensity toward academia, taking his graduate degree in psychology from the University of Oregon and returning to the WT faculty to become a beloved eminence, building and molding three generations of Panhandle men and women. Even after he was appointed dean of men, he continued to teach undergraduates in the colleges of education and liberal arts until, at age seventy, he was forced to retire by a shortsighted act of the Texas legislature. He never forgave them, any more than he forgave the First Baptist Church for dismissing him as a Sunday school teacher for a variety of heresies, not the least of which was his insistence on independent thought and a philosopher's approach to the scriptures. He never did cotton to the Elmer Gantrys and the weak of will. My grandfather had great faith in God; it was man who left something to be desired.
The Bulldog I knew as a child had mellowed with age, a man of letters and student of the classics who held court in Audrey's kitchen on a variety of topics. Football was always on the agenda, but the old man knew a fair amount about basketball, as well; he even took one Canyon Eagles squad to the state semi-finals. But my informal education didn't stop at sports. The book of Job might be interspersed with a lesson on trigonometry or his beloved Plato. He instilled in me a love of Cyrano de Bergerac and convinced me that I should read The Brothers Karamazov, which he claimed was the greatest novel ever written but I could never finish — I don't know how Dostoyevsky could keep his own characters straight, much less expect me to. One summer I took a class on Shakespeare's later plays at WT. When I mentioned the syllabus to Grandad he insisted I take his money and go buy a copy of the complete works. Didn't need one, I said: We had three at the house. Bulldog gave me his disapproving look — gentle and understanding, but disapproving nonetheless. He explained that I needed my own. For Shakespeare was a clean slate on which the reader records his thoughts; no one but me would underline the same passages, or make the same notes in the margins. I took his money and bought the book. And for a summer of lunches, I was one of his students. He always wondered why Shakespeare's most miserable characters always got to give the most touching speeches. He and Audrey both had a soft spot for the underdog. That may be why they loved their daughter-in-law so much.
My mother, Reba Killian, was 5'3" on a tall day (claimed 5'4" but it was a lie) and took less crap from anyone than even Audrey Jones did. My grandmother initially didn't welcome my mom with open arms; Audrey never really believed anyone was good enough to marry my dad, her first born, whom she simply called Son, which must have long irritated his younger brother, who went by Marshall. Eventually, though, Audrey and Reba became fast friends, due mostly to Audrey's figuring out that Mom was just as tough as she was. Mom's character was forged early in life; she always held a memory of being lined up with her siblings and switched for chasing the family cow around the yard during the Depression, an offense that could cost a poor family a day's worth of milk production. They were lucky to even have a cow. Audrey knew that life and admired Mom for rising above it. Both women possessed a keen sense of social justice, great faith in Jesus, and an unerring ability to sniff out hypocrites.
My grandmother may have been hostile and mean-spirited to those who deserved it — pity whatever poor bastard traveling salesman ever came to the door — but she would always defend the weak and downtrodden. During the fifties and sixties, she noticed more and more Hispanic kids entering her fifth-grade class; they would come through the porous Texas border to find work in the farms and ranches and feedlots. Some of these were second- or third-generation Texans, but many were migrants who didn't speak a lick of English. There was no such thing as bilingual education at that time, unless you were fortunate enough to land in Mrs. Jones's class. Audrey spoke fluent Spanish. More importantly, she demanded the Anglo kids respect "her little Mexicans." Patronizing, yes, but the trips to their homes to make sure they had warm clothes and enough to eat were genuine gifts of Christian love, and everyone in Canyon knew it. To Audrey, the politics of immigration were a distant afterthought to the care and education of children and families.
My mother, like Audrey, loved unconditionally. She learned growing up that life was never to be taken for granted. Mom learned some of these lessons as a young adolescent working at a carbon-black plant — an unpleasant relic of industrial America originally built before the promulgation of child labor laws — in her hometown of Pampa. Her goal was to earn enough money to eventually go to Texas A&I University in the Rio Grande Valley. She was the first person in her family to go to college, but her money ran out after a year, so she returned to the Pampa oil patch and worked in her father's shop. We all called my Grandfather Killian Daddy John. He was a slender and easygoing man who had a love of Roi Tans and Red Man and a remarkable memory for auto and machine part numbers. Daddy John was the best parts man around, and his ability to do math in his head was passed down to my mother, which made her a crack student.
Mom was still only eighteen when she went back home after a year at A&I, having graduated from Pampa High as a sixteen-year-old salutatorian two years before. She returned needing a year of wages plus fifty dollars she borrowed from my Aunt Bobbie for tuition. Then she was on her way again, this time never to return to the oil patch. West Texas State was her ticket to a new life, which she pursued with relish and no small amount of guts. It was brazen enough for her to actually go to college, but to major in chemistry and assume a woman's place was in the workplace made her a screaming radical long before it was cool to be one on a college campus and, actually, at WT, it never was cool to be one.
Excerpted from Rose Bowl Dreams by Adam Jones. Copyright © 2008 Adam Jones. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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