Texas quarterback James Street passes away

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

James Street was a quarterback for the Texas Longhorns in 1968 and 1969, a very good one. Legendary Longhorn Coach Darrell Royal inserted Street into the starting lineup in the third game of the '68 season. It was the beginning of the wishbone offense and the start of something special in Austin.

Nicknamed "Slick" by his teammates, Street would go undefeated, winning all 20 of his career starts, capped off by the 1969 National Championship. But Street's most important win came on Dec. 6, 1969, in Fayetteville, Ark., when he led Texas to a stunning 15-14 come-from-behind victory over my beloved Razorbacks on a cold and dreary afternoon in Razorback Stadium.

This was no ordinary football game. It was the last game of the college football season that particular year. It also marked the end of the 100th year of college football. Texas was riding an 18-game winning streak and came in ranked number one in the country, while Arkansas had won 15 in a row and was rated number two. Everything was on the line. The Southwest Conference Championship and the national title hung in the balance.

It was the only college football game played that day and it was televised by ABC as their Saturday Game of the Week. Unlike today, where there are games on numerous channels, in the 60s there was only one game televised per week. Over half of the television sets in America were tuned in to watch what was described as the "Big Shootout" or the "Game of the Century".

The President of the United States, Richard Nixon, was in attendance to present the winner with the National Championship Trophy. Billy Graham gave the invocation. Future President George H. W. Bush represented Texas as a Congressman. Actors Lee Marvin and Fess Parker were also in attendance. This game was for all the marbles.

The Razorbacks jumped to a 7-0 halftime lead and led 14-0 after three quarters. The lead should have been 21-0, but a holding call on a Bill Montgomery to Chuck Dicus pass wiped out a third Razorback score.

Enter Mr. Street. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Street turned a broken play into a 42-yard touchdown run. As a 14-year-old kid, I remember watching in horror Street sprinting into the end zone just as ABC returned from a commercial, pulling the Longhorns to within 14-6. Little did I know, Slick was just getting started. He proceeded to score on the two-point conversion run, and suddenly, Arkansas' lead was cut to 14-8. I couldn't believe it.

The Razorbacks came right back and drove to the Texas six yard line. A score here would assure Arkansas of the National Championship, but an errant Montgomery pass was picked off by Texas' Danny Lester and the Hog scoring threat was thwarted. Again, I could not believe it.

With less than six minutes left in the game, Texas faced a fourth and three at their own 43 yard line. Royal called time-out and instructed Street to throw a deep pass down the left sideline to tight end Randy Peschel, who had told Royal at halftime that he could get behind the Arkansas safeties. Street trotted out toward the huddle, but did a u-turn to make sure he had heard his coach correctly. He asked Royal if he was sure that was the play he wanted, knowing that his coach had once made the statement, "There are three things that can happen when you pass, and two of them are bad." Royal looked him straight in the eye and reiterated that was the play he wanted to run. Street told his teammates in the huddle they weren't going to believe the play that had been called, but that it would work. And to the dismay of the Hog faithful, it certainly did. Street threw a perfect pass between two Razorback defenders, right into the hands of Peschel, who caught the ball at the Hog 13-yard line. Texas scored two plays later, and when Happy Feller kicked the point after, the Longhorns held a one point lead. Yes, I said Happy, although I was anything but happy when Feller's point after sailed through the uprights. I couldn't believe it.

Arkansas made one last charge to try to pull out the win, but Montgomery was picked off deep in Texas territory by Mike Campbell, and when Street took a knee to run out the clock, an entire state was in shock. My wife, who was 10 years old at the time and in attendance, remembers crying all the way home. She couldn't believe it. No one in Arkansas could believe it, nor in Texas either I would imagine. I just sat in my grandparent's living room, watching the Hog players sadly leaving the field while Texas jumped with joy in celebration. The Longhorn band played their awful Texas Fight song over and over to make the pain even more excruciating. It was nearly unbearable. I just could not believe what I had witnessed.

President Nixon offered condolences to Coach Frank Broyles and his Razorbacks for a gallant effort, but I doubt it made them feel any better. It certainly didn't give me any comfort. After the game I went outside and walked around our house over and over, with tears streaming down my face. How could this have happened to my Razorbacks? I hated Texas, and most of all, James Street. He had taken a knife and cut my heart out, as well as that of the entire state of Arkansas.

Arkansas has enjoyed a lot of success in football over the years, but I often wonder how different things might be been had we won that game. How devastating was it? Razorback Coach Frank Broyles has never watched a replay and rarely talks about it. Maybe he still can't believe it.

Years passed and my hate still lingered for Street and the Longhorns, until I read a book by Orville Henry describing the Big Shootout. In one of the chapters, it talked about Street and how he was claustrophobic, especially on airplane rides. Suddenly, I realized this guy was human after all. He had the same affliction I have. We actually had something in common, and for some reason, I no longer hated him.

Several more years passed, and a second book was written about the game, describing Street as a warm and generous person who had become friends with several of the Razorback players from that era. In 2006, Street and former teammate Bob McKay were asked to speak at the Little Rock Touchdown Club. They both insisted on paying their own airfare from Austin and declined the $3,000 speaking fee so that the organization could save that money to help finance its annual banquet which honors high school and college players. Former Hog Bruce James, who befriended Street, said there was much more to James Street than being a great football player, adding that he was just a quality, quality human being.

The truth is Street was a winner, not only on the football field, but on the baseball diamond as well. As a pitcher for the Longhorn baseball team, he led Texas to three consecutive College World Series appearances, while pitching two no-hitters, including a perfect game. After his college career, he went on to an ultra successful career as an estate planner. Street's friendships with former Razorbacks led him back to Arkansas just a few weeks ago for a documentary about the two teams which was presented at the Clinton Library in Little Rock.

Sadly, James Street died Sunday morning, Sept. 29, of a heart attack at his home in Texas. Street was only 65.

As devastated as I was the day James Street broke my heart as a 14-year old, I was deeply saddened when learning of his passing. Just like that December day in 1969, when I couldn't believe the outcome of the game, I couldn't believe James Street was gone. He was such a big part of Arkansas football history, and with his death, part of my childhood died too. May you rest in peace, Slick.

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