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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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Henry B. (Doc) Hardt, he'd understand. He's the old-timer wearing his brown Sunday best and that purple-and-white ribbon on his left arm, so lost in his meditation that he doesn't know that his pants leg is climbing up his calf and that three decades have vanished since he last suited up for a football game—he'd snatch a helmet and storm through that door if Abe would just say the word. That's reverence, the look of a man with four Methodist minister brothers and a missionary sister. Doc's the head of the TCU chemistry department and the Frogs' NCAA faculty representative, the man who makes sure the flunkers aren't playing and the boosters aren't paying, and he's so good at it that he'll become president of the NCAA a few years after this game. Huge hands, grip like a vise and a kind word for everyone, even when he hobbles on a cane to Frogs games a quarter century later. Nice to know he'll make it to 90.

But you need to meet the rest of the boys. Just behind Doc's left shoulder is Mr. Clean: Willard McClung, the quiet assistant to renowned trainer Elmer Brown. Brown's busy right now shooting up guard Vernon Uecker's ankle with novocaine, but Willard would be glad to go fetch a glass of Elmer's concoction for those whose steak and eggs are about to come up, a cocktail the boys call "the green s- - -." Trouble is, Elmer's green s- - -usually comes up along with everything else.

Willard's the only man here who never played, the only one not crawled inside himself—no coincidence there. His ankles were too weak for him to play ball, but he was determined to jimmy his way into moments like this, so he climbed aboard a train his senior year of high school, a fuzzy-cheeked kid from Minden, La., and rode all day to reach the National Trainers' Convention, in Kansas City. Trainers were so thrilled to see a kid show up that Elmer Brown finagled him a scholarship at TCU.

That's Frankie Hyde just behind Doc Hardt's right shoulder, the blond studying the hairs on his left calf. He's the Frogs' scout-team quarterback and an all-around good guy. Doesn't know that he'll hurt his shoulder a few months from now in spring training, that he'll never suit up for a football game again. Doesn't know that Abe's steering his rudder, that he'll end up coaching football just like six of the 17 players in the picture. That he'll end up guiding wave after wave of teenage boys through this moment, some who'll start chattering like monkeys, some who'll go quieter than the dead, some who'll slam their shoulder pads into lockers and poles, some who'll pray like a priest on his third cup of coffee, some who'll get too sick to play. Take it from Frankie: "People who don't experience this don't know themselves like they should."

Or take it from Hunter Enis, the handsome raven-haired boy leaning forward in the dark corner, the one who'll make a bundle in oil: "Sure, there's times in business when you'll work together with a group of men to meet a goal. But that's not about anything as important as this. It's just about money."

Or Possum Elenburg, the sub on the far left, sitting there thinking, Heck, yes, it'd be nice to get in and quarterback a few plays on national TV, but heck, no, I don't want to have to play defense and risk getting burned deep like I did against Texas Tech. Forty-two years later, here's Possum: "This is reality stripped to its nakedness. There's no place to hide. Time is standing still. It's funny, but all your life people tell you that football's just a game, that so many things more important will happen to you in life that'll make sports seem insignificant." Listen to Possum. He's a man who came within a quarter inch of losing his life in '60 when an oil rig crashed into his skull and paralyzed his right side for a year, a man who lost a fortune overnight when oil prices crashed on his head two decades later. "But it's not true, what people tell ya," he says. "I'm fixing to be tested in this moment, and I'm gonna be tested again and again in my life, and I'm gonna get nervous and wonder about myself every single time. Your priorities as a kid are just as important to you as your priorities as a 60-year-old man, because all your aspirations and goals are on the line. At any age, each thing that's important to you...is important to you, and each fight needs to be fought with every effort."

******

We're looking at a roomful of bladders fixing to bust, but it's just a hoax-any doctor could explain the phenomenon. It's just anxiety sending a surge of adrenaline to the nerve endings in the bladder, causing it to tighten and creating the feeling that you gotta go. These boys are like a pack of hunting dogs spraying all over the place just before the hunt, only dogs are lucky enough not to have all those laces and hip pads and jockstraps to fumble with.

"...don't need to remind you, laddies, what happened to us in the Cotton Bowl last year, and what that felt like. Not many folks in life get a second chance, but we've got it right here, today...the chance to redeem ourselves...."

Redemption. That's all that thumps through the hearts and heads of two players who happen to be sitting elbow to elbow: Chuck Curtis and, on his right, Harold (Toad) Pollard, number 16, with the dirty-blond crew cut and the eye black. See, Toad's missed extra point was the margin of defeat in TCU's 14-13 Cotton Bowl loss to Mississippi last year. And Toad's missed extra point in the monsoon at A&M cost the Frogs that 7-6 heartache. Before you get the idea that Toad's a lost cause, you need to know that he led the nation's kickers in scoring last season and that his nickname is Abe's bungled version of Toad's true moniker, the Golden Toe. But ever since that wide-right boot in the Cotton Bowl, Toad has walked around imagining that the entire campus is thinking or saying, "There goes the guy who missed the extra point." Every morning last summer, before his 3-to-11 shift as a roughneck in the oil fields, he toted a tee to a high school field and kicked 40 through the pipes, alone, to prepare for his redemption. "It's a lot more hurt," he'll admit years later, "than a person would realize." Especially since Toad always seems to be clowning, doing that dead-on Donald Duck imitation. But right now he's more nervous than he's ever been, trying to swallow back the notion that he could bungle another critical extra point and be stuck with seeing himself in the mirror every time his hair needs combing the rest of his life.

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