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Moment of Truth
Gary Smith
July 26, 1999
There was no action in the TCU locker room before the 1957 Cotton Bowl, but what Marvin Newman photographed there is as close to the essence of sports as anything that happens on a playing field.
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July 26, 1999

Moment Of Truth

There was no action in the TCU locker room before the 1957 Cotton Bowl, but what Marvin Newman photographed there is as close to the essence of sports as anything that happens on a playing field.

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This is how the boys will recollect Abe's speech four decades later. The coach doesn't dwell on details, but here are the facts: You're listening to a coach who was hung in effigy and made it to the Cotton Bowl in the same season. Right now, as Possum Elenburg, the fellow gnawing his knuckles on your far left, puts it, "Abe's done a rare thing—got all his coons up the same tree." He's got them all ruminating on a season that began with the Horned Frogs as heavy favorites in the Southwest Conference, returning a slew of starters from the nation's sixth-ranked team the year before, busting out to a 3-0 start with a 32-0 blitzing of Kansas, a 41-6 crushing of Arkansas and a 23-6 spanking of Alabama. Next came TCU's blood enemy, Texas A&M, with Bear Bryant at the wheel, the team that had handed the Frogs their only regular-season defeat the year before.

So now it was payback time, a gorgeous Saturday in College Station, the Aggies' stadium jammed and the 3-0 Frogs cross-eyed crazy in their locker room. And what happened? Sometime during the first quarter, all the friction between the two squads was more than the sky could hold, and the ugliest wall of black clouds you ever saw came rolling in from the north. The wind began to howl so hard that flag-poles bent into upside-down L's, and the ref had to put a foot on the ball between plays to keep it from sailing to Mexico. The rain came in sheets so thick that the subs on the sideline couldn't see the starters on the field, and then the rain turned to hail so helmet-drumming heavy that the linemen couldn't hear the signals from the quarterback screeching at their butts. Postpone the game? This is Texas, y'all! This is football!

The Frogs knifed through winds that gusted up to 90 mph, penetrated the A&M two-yard line on three drives behind their All-America running back, Jim Swink—and couldn't get it in! On one series Swink crossed the goal line twice—the Frogs had the film to prove it—but either the refs couldn't see or it was too slippery to get a good grip on your left nut in a monsoon. TCU finally scored in the third quarter but missed the extra point, and the Aggies stole the game with a fourth-quarter touchdown, 7-6.

Ever drive a car into the exit of a drive-in theater when you were 16, not knowing about those metal teeth? That's the sound that leaked out of the Froggies after that. Miami rocked them 14-0 the next week, Baylor scared the daylights out of them before succumbing 7-6, and then Texas Tech, a team that didn't belong in the same county with the Frogs, pasted them 21-7. Another ferocious storm fell on the team bus on the way home from Lubbock, and the Frogs crawled through it, wondering if their senior-laden squad had lost focus, become more concerned with the honeys they were fixing to marry and the careers they were fixing to start than with the mission at hand.

Back on campus, there dangled poor Abe from a rope lashed to a tree not far from the athletic dorm, brown hat and sport coat over a pillow head and sheet body. It was a startling sight at a university that many players had chosen because it had the homey feel of a big high school, a cow-town college where guys felt at home wearing cowboy hats and boots, or jeans rolled up at the cuffs and penny loafers. Just like that, the dispirited Frogs had a cause. Their starting quarterback, Chuck Curtis—that's him, number 46, sitting two to the left of Abe—along with end O'Day Williams and backup end Neil Hoskins, the youngster two to the left of Curtis, with his chin in his hand, went out to do a little rectifyin'. Curtis slashed down the effigy with a pocket knife, then led his mates, rumor by rumor, to the perpetrator, who turned tail after a little shouting and shoving. Two days later the Frogs called a players-only meeting at the dining hall, where the subs vented their frustration over lack of playing time, and Cotton Eye Joe Williams, the captain, promised to take their beef to Abe. The players all agreed that an attack on Abe was like an attack on their daddies, and they closed ranks.

To Cotton Eye's suggestion that the second fiddlers fiddle more, Abe said, Great idea. To the notion that the boys were steamed about the hanging effigy, Abe said, Couldn't've been me—I'm a lot better lookin' than that. To the proposition that the Froggies might still make it to the Cotton Bowl (A&M had been hit with NCAA sanctions for recruiting violations and wouldn't be eligible), Abe said, Let's go make hay. That's what the Frogs did, slapping Texas in the face 46-0, elbowing a ripsnorting Rice squad by three and thumping SMU 21-6 to finish 7-3, second to A&M, and scoop up the Aggies' fumbled Cotton Bowl bid. Then came a month to heal and prepare, a half-hour Greyhound bus ride to Dallas a few days before the big one, the formal dance and then the downtown parade on the fire engine, eyeing that big load on the other fire truck, the one that scored a record-breaking 43 points against Colgate: Jim Brown.

******

Finally all the buildup is over. The Southwest Conference princesses in convertibles and the high-stepping high school bands are drumming up one last buzz among the 68,000 waiting outside the locker room. But here inside there's only quiet, broken by a soft sob just outside the frame, from the Frogs' All-America lineman Norman Hamilton—who'll swear decades later that no matter what his teammates recollect, he didn't cry before games.

Quiet, broken by the calm drawl of Honest Abe. Whose calm is a lie, so keep your eye on him, because any minute he might just sneak off to the John and throw up. That's what Virgil Miller—he's number 18, the little guy in the dark corner with his head down—will find Abe doing before a game a few years later, when Virgil returns to visit the coach. "Ever get nervous like that?" Abe will ask Virgil. It's safe, since Virgil has graduated and gone.

It's almost like going to church, being here, isn't it? Nope, it's more religious than church, because half of the people here aren't faking it. Maybe folks who never played can't understand how you can be 15 minutes from tearing somebody's head off, 15 seconds from vomiting and a half inch from God, all at the same time. But Chuck Curtis knows. Forty-two years from now, when this picture is placed under his eyes, he'll say, "Look at us. Compared to players today? We weren't great athletes. But we were a team from top to bottom, all giving entire respect to our leader and wanting the same thing wholeheartedly. A sin-cere group of young men. It'd take a miracle to get the feeling we had in that moment again. With that attitude, there's not a sin that's not erased." When he looks up, there will be tears in his eyes.

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