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Thanks Coach


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On a day when we are thankful for so much, I often reflect on those who are no longer with us who made a difference in my life. I think of family, like my Dad and others that helped sculpt my soul. For me and my family, part of Thanksgiving has always centered around Texas football and as I read Conch Horn's reflection on his last game day I couldn't help but think of Coach Royal. I wrote this when he passed away last November. Pardon my nostalgia as I share it here on this great site.



January 1, 1964 broke crisp and clear in Dallas. A young boy of 14 awoke early, blinking open his eyes before hopping out of bed. Walking onto the front porch to check the weather, he shivered, drew long deep breaths, puffing steam into the cold air. He surveyed the sky, its thin cirrus clouds scattered like white finger marks across crystal blue. Grabbing the morning paper, he pulled out the sports section and headed inside to eat a quick breakfast.


Three hours later he walked across the Texas State Fair grounds. The temperature hovered around 40, the wind was mild, the sun brilliant. The coldness was lost on him, his mind single-purposed. As he approached the Cotton Bowl he searched his pocket for the vendor pass he had, one that would allow him access to sell Coca-Cola in the stadium, a weekend job he had begun of late. This day would be different. This day he had no intention of selling Cokes, at least not during THE game. Maybe before, or at halftime. Maybe.


Near the entrance to the stadium he stopped at Fletchers for a corndog. After pumping mustard on the dog, he leaned against a building and took it all in. Fans teemed in throngs across the Fair grounds, decked out in winter coats and hats; the men in ties, women in dresses. Some wore ribbons of burnt orange and white, others with ribbons of blue and gold. Midshipmen walked regally, decked in blue with brass buttons glistening in the sunlight. Tall Texans sported Stetson hats, their chests puffed out. He thought back to the last two months, the day that President Kennedy died only a few miles away. He felt the shame that Texans had for this having happened in their beloved State. Lost on him was the end of innocence. Today was one of hope. At 14, the issues of the world could wait.


The pre-game unfolded before him in a kaleidoscope of color and pageantry as he sat nestled on a west side bleacher, right on the 50-yard line, the vendor pass crumpled in his jean pocket. Floats from the Cotton Bowl parade circled the field, the band’s horns blaring “Texas Fight”. As the game began, his beloved Texas Longhorns, decked out in their home orange jerseys with white pants, wasted little time running out to a lead over Navy and their Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach. His heroes had come to play. Like their Coach, they came with the attitude of a fired branding iron as they ran roughshod over the boys from Navy. By halftime Texas owned an insurmountable 21-0 lead. The second half was more of the same, however both defenses stiffened as Texas managed to pad their lead to 28-0 before Navy mounted a late drive to make the final margin 28-6. Texas won its first National Title. For the young boy today was indeed a day of hope.


As the boy made his way out of the stadium he headed for the Texas locker room, hoping to get a glimpse of Coach Royal and the team. Throngs of Texans milled happily about the Fair grounds. At the locker room he edged close to the door, peering in as it opened and closed. He tried the handle and opened it slowly, his eyes wide.


Quickly a young trainer said, “You can’t come in here!”


The boy hung his head and began to back out.

Then he heard another voice exclaim, “It’s ok. He can come in.”


I looked up to see Coach Royal standing, motioning me in. As I walked in Coach took a seat in a metal chair preparing to answer questions from men with “press” badges on their suit coats. Coach motioned me over and I edged closer, gripping my game program tightly in my hand.


“Coach, would ya sign this for me, please?” I asked, extending the program.


Coach Royal smiled and reached his hand out taking the program as I stood by. Then Coach pulled me over, sitting me on his knee as he fielded questions and signed the program. I sat quietly looking about the locker room. The acrid smell of sweat and analgesic balm permeated the air as flash bulbs popped above the hum-drum of loud voices.


When Coach was done he asked my name and said, “Let’s go meet these players.”


We walked over to a big raw-boned young man who sat untying his shoes.


“Scott, this is Danny. Let’s introduce him to the boys and make sure he gets autographs for his program.”


I looked up at All-American Scott Appleton as he stood, towering over me, smiling broadly.


“Yes sir, coach.”


Scott took me about the locker room making sure I met the players and got autographs. Nobis, McWilliams, Brucks, Carlisle, Lammons, Ford, Harris, Hudson, Dixon, Talbot, Sauer, and others. I don’t know how long I was in there as time moved at a surreal pace, marked only by each new hero I met.


I’ll never forget that day. It’s in my memory as though it occurred hours ago. It cemented a love affair with Texas football that has spanned 50 more seasons and three more national titles. I still have that program. I pull it out on occasion. Like me, its a little brittle now, rough around the edges. It takes me back to a simpler time, but mostly it reminds me of my first meeting Coach Royal. I had the opportunity several more times and he was as gracious and unhurried each and every time. There are people in your life that make lasting impressions on you, those that sit on your shoulder guiding you when things don’t go so well, or tough decisions must be made. For me, that has been my parents. I ask myself, “What would they do?” On occasion I also ask myself “What would Coach do?” Without a doubt, I know that between the three of them the right answer will come. He made that big of an impact on a young 14 year-old boy that crisp New Years Day in 1964.


One of Coach Royal’s many sayings was: “The measure of a man is how he treats folks that can’t do a thing for him.” I can tell you first hand that he lived his life that way. Rest in peace Coach, God’s speed, and thank you.

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