“If you quit here, you will quit on the goal line.” Paul “Bear” Bryant, Junction, TX, August 1954
It is striking how barren this place is, even by West Texas standards. I have driven 350 miles south on US Highway 83 from Canadian, TX, burning a tank full of $3.57 a gallon gas in the process, just to reach this particular patch of arid Texas rangeland.
I am here to pay homage.
|An elderly grounds keeper told me he was "pretty sure" |
this is where the practice field was located back in 1954.
The facilities for the camp, as Bryant had demanded, were Spartan. In 1954, this area of West Texas was in the midst of the worst draught anyone could remember, in a summer that had seen the thermometer climb over 100 every day for six straight weeks. In 2002, when the movie The Junction Boys was made, to reconstruct the environment of the camp, the filming was done in the Australian Outback.
Bryant’s methods were brutal, maybe even inhumane. By today’s standards, they would be considered criminal.
Practices started before dawn and with only a few breaks throughout the day in barracks lacking air conditioning, lasted until dark. Water breaks were not allowed during practice and it was not unusual, due to the sweltering heat and humidity, for a player to lose 10% of his body weight in one day. Bryant’s methods were not for the meek. According to sportsjones.com, during the camp, Bryant head-butted tackle Henry Clark after a blown assignment, leaving the player on the ground, dazed and holding a broken nose.
Dr. Arnold LeUnes is today an A&M professor of sports psychology. He was an A&M undergrad during the years the Bear ran the Aggies football program and has studied Bryant’s methods. According to LeUnes, Bryant’s word was the law in a time, especially at a military school like A&M, that authority was not questioned by subordinates. "He was strict, enforcing iron discipline," LeUnes said. "At the time, a coach could get away with pretty much anything. You wouldn't find something like that today."
LeUnes is correct. The sport will never again see the days of the Bear Bryant’s. The lawyers will see to that. Legend has it that of the 114 players who went to Junction in August of 1954, by the end of the two week camp, the roster had melted away in the West Texas desert sun to only 27. The hand full of survivors became the legendary “Junction Boys.”
Four busses took the squad to Junction. Only one was needed to transport those left back to College Station. Those who did persevere through the two weeks of pure torture at Junction, two years later, formed the core of A&M’s only national championship football team.
It was a time when the legendary football coach, especially in the South, was a symbol of unquestioning and unbending discipline. He was often larger than life. His word was the law. This strong jawed, no nonsense coach was often viewed as unapproachable by parents, players, boosters, and in extremer cases, even the college president. The 1950’s were the peak decade for the limitless power of coaches like the Bear. As the nation rode the wave of the radical 60’s into the “me generation” of the 70’s and 80’s, the likes of these giants disappeared from the college and high school football landscape, many, like Bryant, riding off into legendary status.
It is surprising that Junction’s local chamber of commerce has not attempted to cash in on the famous events of over 50 years ago that occurred in their back yard. The civic boosters of Junction are not exactly working with the Garden of Eden when attempting to convince outsiders to spend their tourists’ dollars in this barren land. Yet the county tourism web site does not even mention the Junction Boys. It does promote the area’s hunting, fishing, canoeing and other outdoor activities; and plugs the area museums that depict early life in the west Texas desert; but not a hint of the Bear and his legendary two weeks spent in Junction. There is not even a small marker at the site to recognize what took place here.
In 1979, the survivors of this football style death camp held a 25 year reunion. Bryant was invited back as a special guest of honor. Some of these men - his boys- Bryant had not seen since his coaching days at A&M. He was not sure as to what kind of reception he would receive. He need not have worried. The reaction of the players to their demanding old coach was one of, if not love, then of genuine respect. A ring had been minted for each of the players and Bryant. It was a memento that linked these men and their coach together in a special bond. As a group, they had endured a living hell that would forever bind them as one. No matter what else these just over two dozen men had accomplished in life, they would forever be known as “The Junction Boys.”
Bryant went on to win three national championships. Yet when he died in 1983, his wishes were that the only piece of jewelry commemorating his great career that he would wear into the here-after was his Junction Boys ring.
After asking directions, I locate what I am confident is the site of the camp. A few out buildings still stand, a former mess hut and several barracks are upright, but crumbling. The open area is over grown with weeds and littered with trash. It takes some liberal use of my imagination to picture in my mind how this neglected piece of desert could possibly have been the setting for the legendary events of the summer of 1954.
As a nation that loves our heritage, it is startling that this important part of football lore has been left with no care taker. Along Highway 83 alone, for commercial purposes, we have immortalized the world’s biggest prairie dog, largest buffalo, largest ball of string and Lawrence Welk’s birth place; but we have forgotten the Junction Boys.
It is not near as hot today as it was that drought summer of 1954. The four hour drive down required the use of the rental car air conditioner, but right now, it is comfortable outside. The sun is setting, the dry desert wind from the south beginning to pick up. If I close my eyes and use my imagination, I can hear the shrill whistle from almost 60 years ago, blown by a no nonsense and focused coach determined to build champions under a relentless West Texas desert sun, no matter what the cost; calling a dwindling group of exhausted but determined non-quitters to the next descending level of hell.