Thursday, August 1
Ten days in hell with the Bear
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- By Jim Dent Special to ESPN.com
Out along the edge of the Texas Hill Country, with temperatures soaring beyond 110 degrees, the Texas A&M Aggies gathered that summer in 1954. It was supposed to be a typical preseason football training camp.
It was hardly that.
Paul "Bear" Bryant coached Texas A&M to a 25-14-2 record from 1954-57. Junction was a flyspeck on the Texas map when the two Greyhound buses made their way through the winding two-lane highway to this place that was nothing but rocks, sandspurs, rattlesnakes and turkey buzzards. No one knew what Paul "Bear" Bryant had in mind when the buses pulled through the front gate of the distant outpost in the rocky hills. He had been hired six months earlier as a kind of savior of Aggie football. And in the rugged country known as Junction, Texas, some three hundred miles from the A&M campus, the legendary coach took his players to hell and back. The Aggies were short on talent that season and, as Bryant said, he wanted to "separate the quitters from the keepers."
The deaths of Florida fullback Eraste Austin and Minnesota Vikings tackle Korey Stringer last summer invoke memories of those ten days of misery 48 years ago when players quit the team in droves to avoid the four-hour practices that did not include water breaks or even a kind word from Bryant. It was a miracle that no one died. Several suffered from heat prostration and tackle Billy Schroeder was saved on his deathbed by a wily old doctor named John Wiedeman who packed the boy's body in ice. Schroeder, who still suffers physically from the heat stroke, remembers the out of body experience at the infirmary in downtown Junction. He remembers floating to the ceiling and then watching the doctors and two nurses attending to his body. He still carries the image of student trainer Billy Pickard standing over him and bawling like a newborn calf, believing the star player was dead.
Schroeder was not the only player to suffer. Each day, exhausted players were drug by their heels off the practice field. Some could barely walk due to the "blind wobbles." At the end of practice, they would rush into the shower room and gulp water from the faucets. Then they would fall to the ground and flop like boat-bound marlin on the floor as their leg muscles cinched up into steely balls. You could hear their painful howls from the cramping all the way down to the South Llano River, more than a football field away, where some of the exhausted boys waded into the cool river in full uniform. One day, fullback Jack Pardee lost twenty pounds in a single practice.
Over a period of two years, I interviewed all of the Junction survivors and many of the quitters for a book published by St. Martin's Press in 1999 titled "The Junction Boys." Gene Stallings, who would later coach the Cowboys secondary for fourteen years, and lead Alabama to a national title in 1992, uttered the most unforgettable line about the hell camp: "We went out there in two buses and came back in one."
Players ran off in the middle of the night. Some hitchhiked back to College Station. The ones who were brave enough to inform Bryant they were quitting received a free ride to the bus station and a ticket home. For the most part, they scurried across the dusty and rocky grounds through the moonlit darkness as the others yelled from their beds, "Tell the girls back in College Station we said howdy! Tell 'em we'll be home soon."
A common scene at seven in the morning in downtown Junction was Rob Roy Spiller encountering a dozen or so Aggie players as he opened the bus station. Each morning, Rob Roy would slide the key into the lock and then set his gaze on the way worn boys.
"Where would y'all like to go this morning?" he would say.
Typically, one of the boys would respond, "We don't care. First bus out." Fortunately, most of the morning buses were heading east, in the direction of College Station. Otherwise, they might be trekking to El Paso.
The facilities in Junction were crude beyond Wild West standards. There was no water or ice on the practice field or even orange peels or wet towels. The closest doctor was miles away in downtown Junction. Trainer Smokey Harper was more of a drinking buddy to Bryant than a reliever of pain. He had two remedies: "If the pain is above the neck, take an aspirin. If the pain is below the neck, take a hot shower." He labored in the training room with a bottle of I.W. Harper stuffed in the back pocket of his jeans. One day he told struggling guard Dennis Goehring, "You ain't worf a spit. Why don't you just quit and give us back our scholarship."
"I was here when you got here," Goehring blustered, "and I'll be here when you're gone." Goehring went on to become an All-America and, ironically, still offices in the shadows of the A&M campus. Harper left Texas in 1958.
It was reported that when Austin suffered his heat stroke and passed out in Gainesville that four trainers and three conditioning coaches were present. The Minnesota Vikings, as with all NFL teams, were fully staffed with doctors and trainers when Stringer collapsed.
Compared to today's standards of athletic health care, Junction offered little more than a box of band-aids.
When Schroeder collapsed during a punt drill, he had to be stuffed into the backseat of Pickard's old Ford. With Schroeder's legs sticking out, Pickard was unable to shut the door. He had to proceed with caution across a bridge to make sure the flopping door didn't slam into a retaining wall.
Only once did an ambulance visit the practice grounds that were infested with rocks, cactus and goatheads, a gnarly little sticker that punctured both the skin and tractor tires. The driver pulled up to the field and rolled down the window. He was there to pick up quarterback Elwood Kettler, who had been X-rayed that morning at the infirmary.
"The boy needs to come back to the hospital," the driver said. "He's got four broken bones in his back."
Pickard pointed to the middle of the practice field where Kettler was leading the first team offense in a full-scale scrimmage. Pickard then suggested to the ambulance driver that if he hauled a stretcher onto the field, Bryant would find something creative to do with it. He roared off with dust boiling up behind him.
On the ninth day of the hell camp, Bryant counted heads and learned that 76 players had quit. With the Aggies running short of centers with the departure of All-Southwest Conference standout Fred Broussard, Bryant was forced to issue a uniform to 150-pound student manager Troy Summerlin, thus reviving one of the grand traditions of Texas A&M -- The Twelfth Man.
When the one bus did pull out of Junction on the tenth day, Bryant could count his blessings that nobody had died. What is remarkable about Junction is that 25 healthy players were still standing at the end. How is it possible that Gene Stallings and Jack Pardee and Elwood Kettler and Dennis Goehring would not succumb to heat stroke that killed healthy men like Austin and Stringer?
Perhaps the most remarkable comparative statistic is provided by The Center's Survey of football injury that is updated annually. From 1931 to '59, only five football deaths were attributed to heat stroke. But from 1960 to 2000, there were 103.
Theories abound. Is it possible that the Junction Boys survived because their bodies were leaner -- they generally weighed around 185 pounds -- and they were better acclimated to the heat, having worked the hot summers as ranch hands and oilfield roughnecks? Is it plausible that they were actually in better shape because, in that era of one-platoon football, players went both ways? Some participated for sixty minutes.
Not once during the hell camp did a Junction Boy take a drink of water on the practice field. Today, water coolers dot every sideline. A doctor once told Bryant, "You don't pour cold water into a hot engine. So why would you pour cold water into a hot boy?" That kind of archaic thinking should have gotten somebody killed. But it didn't.
There will never be another Junction hell camp. The next year, the NCAA outlawed preseason camps beyond campus. Today, Bryant might be jailed for what he subjected the players to some fifty years ago.
That season of 1954, the Aggies finished 1-9, and it would be Bryant's only losing season in 38 years of coaching. But the Junction Boys provided the nucleus of an unbeaten team that almost won the national championship two years later. The Junction experience is still regarded as the turnaround of Aggie football.
Jim Dent is the author of "Junction Boys" and "The Undefeated" and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. "Junction Boys" will be ESPN Original Entertainment's second original, made-for-television movie. The premiere is scheduled for Saturday, December 14 at 9:00 p.m. ET on ESPN.
THE JUNCTION SURVIVORS Ray Barrett G 5-9 195 Sr. San Angelo Darrell Brown T 6-1 190 Soph. Liberty James Burkhart G 6-1 185 Soph. Hamlin Henry Clark T 6-2 205 Jr. Mesquite Bob Easley FB 5-11 190 Jr. Houston Dennis Goehring G 5-11 185 Soph. San Marcos Billy Granberry FB 5-7 155 Soph. Beeville Lloyd Hale C 5-10 190 Soph. Iraan Charles Hall HB 5-10 185 Sr. Dallas Gene Henderson QB 6-1 175 Jr. Sonora Billy Huddleston HB 5-9 165 Jr. Iraan George Johnson T 6-3 200 Jr. Ellisville, Miss. Don Kachtik FB 6-1 185 Sr. Rio Hondo Bobby D. Keith HB 6-0 175 Soph. Breckenridge Paul Kennon E 6-1 185 Sr, Shreveport Elwood Kettler QB 6-0 165 Sr. Brenham Billy McGowan E 6-1 180 Sr. Silsbee Russell Moake C 6-3 215 Soph. Deer Park Bobby Lockett T 6-3 190 Soph. Breckenridge Norbert Ohlendorf T 6-3 200 Sr. Lockhart Jack Pardee FB 6-2 200 Soph. Christoval Dee Powell T 6-1 210 Sr. Lockhart Donald Robbins E 6-1 188 Jr. Breckenridge Joe Schero HB 6-0 175 Sr. San Antonio Bill Schroeder T 6-1 200 Sr. Lockhart Charles Scott QB 5-8 160 Soph. Alexandria, La. Bennie Sinclair E 6-2 195 Sr. Mineola Gene Stallings E 6-1 165 Soph. Paris Troy Summerlin C 5-8 145 Soph. Shreveport Marvin Tate G 6-0 175 Sr. Abilene Sid Theriot G 5-10 195 Sr. Gibson, La. Richard Vick FB 6-1 185 Sr. Beaumont Don Watson HB 5-11 155 Soph. Franklin Lawrence Winkler T 6-0 225 Sr. Temple Herb Wolf C 5-11 185 Jr. Houston
The Junction Boys to premiere Dec. 14 ESPN RELEASE
ESPN will produce its second original, made-for-television movie, "The Junction Boys: How Ten Days in Hell with Bear Bryant Forged A Championship Team," an ESPN Original Entertainment (EOE) production based on the best-selling book by Jim Dent. The movie will premiere on ESPN Saturday, December 14 at 9:00 p.m. ET. The "Junction Boys" is the true story of 35 boys who survived Paul "Bear" Bryant's harrowing Texas A&M pre-season college football training camp in desolate, drought-ridden Junction, Texas in the mid-1950s.
The movie will be executive produced by prominent film and television producer, Orly Adelson of Orly Adelson Productions ("The Truth About Jane," "Love, Honor and Betray") and written and directed by veteran writer/director Michael Robe, whose credits include, "The Burden of Proof" and "Return to Lonesome Dove". John Williams of Vanguard Films, producers of such films as "Shrek," "The Thin Red Line" and "Seven Days in Tibet," and James Dalthorpe brought Dent's book to ESPN and will also serve as producers.
After eight consecutive winning seasons as head coach at the University of Kentucky and before he led Alabama to six national championships, Paul "Bear" Bryant was head coach at Texas A&M, beginning in 1954. That summer, more than 100 Aggie hopefuls arrived in the small Texas town of Junction for the first practice of a now infamous training camp. The players were subjected to 120-degree temperatures, and given no food or water for eight hours a day, for 10 consecutive days. Those 35 players who survived, which included Gene Stallings and Jack Pardee, made up the 1954 team that won only one game, but formed the nucleus of a team that went undefeated just two years later in becoming champions of the Southwest Conference.
The Archives The Dallas Morning News.
February 3, 2003 Colleges: Texas A&M
Junction Boys generally satisfied with portrayal Group of 23 gets preview of ESPN movie about Bryant, A&M
By DAN NOXON / The Dallas Morning News
They nodded knowingly. They laughed – sometimes uneasily, at others whole-heartedly and even a few times at each other. And in the end, they applauded.
Twenty-three of 35 Junction Boys gathered at the Magnolia Theatre on Monday night to preview ESPN's original movie of a 10-day training camp staged far off campus in the West Texas town of Junction by legendary coach Paul "Bear" Bryant prior to his first season at Texas A&M. The movie airs on ESPN at 8 p.m. Saturday.
Overall, the former players expressed happiness with The Junction Boys , the cable sports network's second moviemaking effort, largely because the film portrayed their coach as a man with a conscience.
"He was a tough coach – we all know that – but he was a fair coach above all else," said Gene Stallings, a sophomore in that 1954 season who eventually followed in Bryant's footsteps as coach at Texas A&M and then Alabama, with a stint as a Dallas Cowboys assistant in between.
Stallings expressed concern, along with others, prior to watching the movie that Bryant's character, played by Tom Berenger, might come off as one-sided as was the case with ESPN's first original movie, A Season On the Brink, which focused on then-Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight.
To that end, they were satisfied.
Even though the movie – which was filmed in Australia – contained inaccuracies, they also left satisfied that their story was told somewhat accurately.
"I had just hoped that it wouldn't reflect negatively on Coach Bryant or Junction, because that experience and the three years with him had a tremendous impact on me," said Dennis Goehring, one of three players featured in the movie. Goehring's character was named Claude Gearhart in the movie, as all the players' names were changed.
"It was an abstract version, but the reality was there. I think we're all pretty delighted with how it came out."
The reality was 10 days of practice from dawn to dusk in sweltering heat and no water, Bryant's way of separating men from boys in forming his first Aggies team. Of the 111 who began in Junction, only 35 finished.
The major disappointment among several of the former players was that the movie basically ended at the close of camp and didn't show what resulted. Texas A&M went 1-9 in Bryant's first season but won seven games the following year, then the Southwest Conference title two years later.
"I don't think anything can be 100 percent accurate, though," said Marvin Tate, a senior on that first team who went on to become Texas A&M athletic director and then mayor of Bryan. "We're happy because ESPN knocked themselves out. They tried to communicate with us before making this and really made us feel like a part of the team."