Saturday, August 20, 2011
Javelina Football Memory Lane
Note: Some of the Javelina football greats include Gene Upshaw, Sid Blanks, Randy Johnson, Johnny Bailey, Dwayne Nix, Heath Sherman and Karl Douglas. They are pictured here.
For the South Texas football fan, a visit to Javelina Stadium on the campus of Texas A&M University-Kingsville during a football Saturday is not one that will soon be forgotten.
Every year and every game there seems to be some hero or standout player who rises above the green gridiron turf and sparkles with greatness that transcends generations and eras.
For me, those memories started in 1957 when my aunt Clelia Chapa was attending college at then Texas A&I. My grandfather, Pedro G. Chapa, would bring me to football games. It was here where I first heard the Javelina Marching Band trumpets blaring the Jalisco fight song inspiring the team to greatness on the field.
I still, sometimes, get goose bumps when I hear Jalisco echoing off the stands in Javelina Stadium.
My first visit to Javelina Stadiium was in 1957 and I saw Joe Holcomb, a prep star from nearby Freer, rip apart opponent defenses while soaring for yardage up and down the field on punt returns. He was unstoppable as he blew past the yard markers with the ease of South Texas bred mustang rolling down the prickly pear studded terrain. Holcomb, in the three years he played for the Javelinas, would become the all-time leader in punt return average for a career, averaging more than 19 yards per punt return and scoring numerous touchdowns. He still holds that mark. Remarkable.
That visit got me hooked. From that point on I would ask my grandfather if he was going to Kingsville to the game. We continued the tradition long after my aunt graduated. It was during that time I decided I would come to Texas A&I and, ironically, because I read the headlines and stories on the Sunday Corpus Christi Caller-Times the day after the game, to become a sports writer and follow the Javelinas. I was lucky I realized that dream and much more here on what I will always call my home campus - now Texas A&M-Kingsville. I have had wonderful times on campus, but the football memories are the ones that linger because they border on legend and greatness. Yes, Javelina football and Javelina Stadium will always be equated with greatness.
Simply put, the memories are wonderful and the players great. I can’t begin to name all of the players, but I will give a chronological listing of the players whom I fell stood out and whom made an impact that lasted – as I said earlier – beyond generations and eras.
Sid Blanks, an African-American running back from Del Rio, had to be one of the best to ever don the blue-and-gold of A&I. He was a first-class scatback that revolutionized offensive play in the Lone Star Conference. He was the first black football player in the LSC. He was All-American twice and made the all-conference four times. He set numerous records while with the Javelinas, both conference and school marks, and led the team in rushing in 1960, 1961 and 1963; in scoring in 1960, 1961 and 1963, led the team in receiving in 1961 and 1963. He led the LSC in rushing in 1960 and 1961 and was the top scorer in 1960. Blanks was an unbelievable player, one with character and courage who overcame many cases of discrimination just so he could help the Javelinas win. Under Coach Gil Steinke, the Javelinas won the LSC title in 1960 and 1962, During Blanks tenure with the Hogs, A&I was 29-7-2. Blanks went to a stellar career for several pro football teams.
There were others just as valiant and exciting to watch.
One was Randy Johnson, from San Antonio, the first great quarterback I saw at Javelina Stadium. He had a sling shot for an arm. The football would come out of his hand like a whip and zing across the field in a blur. It was hard for the receivers to hold on to the ball. Often it went right through their hands and hit them on the shoulder pads or helmet. When Johnson was off target, the ball would hit the Javelina Stadium turf and leave a divot on the ground. I still remember the managers going back at halftime to replace the grass that had popped out after an errant Johnson pass. Johnson died a horribly in 2009, alone and broke, but his legacy as a Javelina standout will live on forever. In a run-oriented era (1962-1965), he passed for 4,350 yards and 34 touchdowns and ranks in the top 10 in both categories for the Javelinas. He was the first quarterback for the then expansion Atlanta Falcons and helped that franchise gain stability in the NFL.
The 1960s were full of standout Javelina football players. One that definitely stood out was Eugene Upshaw, from nearby Robstown. Upshaw was a giant of a man destined for greatness in the college and pro ranks. He was immovable as an offensive lineman and the Javelina running backs would gladly tuck in behind him and ramble for yardage during those mid-1960s when Javelina football was king in South Texas. Upshaw was an All-America and All-Conference and went to become All-Pro and served as executive director of the National Football League Players Association. He had a couple of nickname at the time “Thud" and "Tut." Few remember them, but "thud" was the sound that was made when he led the Javelinas on a power sweep and he took out the opponent defensive end or linebacker. “Thud” would be heard and the stands would go "ooooh" as “Big Gene” motored around Javelina Stadium. "Tut" was more of a reference to King Tut, and Gene certainly was the King of Javelina Stadium during his tenure here.
The mid-1960s also produced one of the all-time great receivers in Javelina football history – Dwayne Nix. Nix, from nearby Ricardo, was neiher big nor quick. All he did was catch the football. He was the ultimate “possession receiver,” snaring 127 passes for 1,676 yards during his four years as a Javelina. He was a three-time Associated Press Little All-America and twice All-Lone Star Conference player. He concluded his career as the record holder of most of the school's receiving marks. He was elected to the All-Lone Star Conference team of the 1960s, was named a member of the Texas A&I 50th Anniversary team, and was elected to the Javelina Hall of Fame. After he left Texas A&I, he began a military career in the Marine Corps.
Around that same era came two great quarterbacks.
One was Karl Douglas, the first African-American quarterback for the Javelinas. Simply put, there were no other Black quarterbacks round in the South. Between 1967 and 1970, Douglas led the Javelinas to four Lone Star Conference championships and two national titles while posting a remarkable 41-4-0 record. Douglas is still the all-time career passing and touchdown passing leader for the Javelinas. During his All-America career, he completed 401 of 759 passes for 5,996 yards and 54 touchdowns. Douglas, from Houston, went on to a stellar career in the Canadian Football League.
Then, there was the irrepressible Richard Ritchie, the little engine that could. Between 1973 to 1976, he took the Javelinas on an unbelievable journey. As a quarterback, Ritchie had a record of 39-0. After winning in his only start during his freshman year of 1973, he would lead Texas A&I to three consecutive National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Division I national championships. Between passing and running, he scored 60 touchdowns in his career. He is third all-time in total yards with 6,884 yards.
Then came the running back era for the Javelinas. Whoa! You talk about excitement. These were great.
Larry Collins was the first great running back of the modern era (past 40 years). Between 1974 and 1977, he rushed for 5,300 yards and 54 touchdowns, good for second all-time on the Javelina leader list. He would team with fullback Don Hardeman to terrorize defenses. Collins had 27 games of 100 yards or more rushing while Hardeman had 10. Together, they were “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” and they led the Hogs to a 37-0 record. Both went to pro football careers. Hardeman would crash the defense inside and Collins would ramble outside. Together, they were unstoppable. Both went on to successful pro football careers.
If they were great, the next dynamic duo were simply fabulous – Johnny Bailey and Heath Sherman. Between 1985 and 1988, they were simply the best in the nation. Bailey was a three-time Harlon Hill winner and rushed for 6,900 yards, 72 touchdowns and averaged 164.3 yards per carry. Sherman averaged 114.2 yards per carry and rushed for 5,140 yards and 69 touchdowns. Bailey had 36 100-plus rushing games and Sherman 26. They were simply unstoppable.
Another running back who would follow the footsteps of greatness was Larry Williams between 2001 and 2004. Williams would rush for 4,060 yards and 44 touchdowns.
Great receivers were also plentiful. The most outstanding came between 1966 and 1976 when the likes of Nix, Dwight Harrison, Eldridge Small, David Hill and Glenn Starks rambled up and down Javelina Stadium like a flock of gazelles in the African savannah. Starks and Harrison are still the career touchdown leaders with 30 each. Just this year, Ryan Lincoln, who signed with the New York Giants briefly this season, broke Starks' reception record. Lincoln has 210 catches after Starks held the record for more than 40 years. Starks still holds the single-season touchdown-reception record with 14.
The defense definitely had its stars, too. Who can forget John Randle, who joined Gene Upshaw in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and his days as Javelina. Randle was ferocious and still holds the quarterback sack career mark with 36 and in 1988 he had 22. He was great and destined for greatness. This past season, a young man named Matt Romig reminded me of Randle's play. Romig, who fell ill at mid-season and did not return, had 12 sacks in two years. Too bad, he too had greatness written all over him. Other great ones, in my book, include Robert Young (1969), David Palmore (1977), Andy Hawkins (1979), Jimmy Rivera (1982), Chris Hensely (1995), and Deandre Fillmore (2005).
Others who played defensive backs and linebackers cannot be ignored. Perhaps the greatest athlete to play for the Javelinas was Levi Johnson (1969-1972), who went on to star for the Detroit Lions. Johnson still holds the Javelinas interception mark with 22 and he still holds the return yardage record as well. Other greats in this area were Ed Scott (1967-1970), whose spinal cord injury ended perhaps a great pro career as well, Durwood Ruquemore (1978-1981), Leonard Avery (1973-1976), and Maurice Smith (1987-1989)
Then, there were the punt returners. What a crew that was. Some will say, and without argument here, that Darrell Green (1978-1982) , who went on to Pro Football Hall of Fame career with the Washington Redskins, was the best and most exciting. Agreed. Green was sensational. At any time he had the ball he could score and just soar past potential tacklers. However, between 1965 and 1968 a diminutive defensive back named Larry Pullin energized the Javelina fans with his consistent work at punt returns. Pullin leads, confortably, in career punt return yardage. Statistically, and in many ways, Pullin was the best. Now, this season, we have Jonathan Woodson who is threatening to become the best.
More recently, the quarterbacks have taken the sportling.
Abel Gonzalez (1999-2002) became the second all-time leading passer with 5,905 yards and 51 touchdowns. Gonzalez simply was an expert field general and a leader off the spread or pro set formations.
Billy Garza was the last great gunner. In a scant two years, became the third all-time passing leader with 5,498 yards and 40 touchdowns. Seeing Billy fling the ball was reminescent of Randy Johnson.
And, that's as it should be. That’s the beauty of Javelina football. The great players of the past are more than memories, they are idols and figures to be emmulated and aiming for their records is part of the greatness of Javelina football.
Greatness has always been associated with Javelina football.The memories run long and deep. When you see this year’s star, it will rekindle memories of years past. Or, if you’re new to Javelina football, you will start making your own memories.
And, in years to come you will say, Javelina Football is a true South Texas legend and stories of greatness abound.