"Have you seen a good-looking blonde out jogging around here?"
The policeman hesitated, and in his eyes Phil saw the answer. "Coach, did you know that woman?"
"What woman?" Phil said, raising his voice even though the man stood only a few feet away. In that moment a picture of merciless clarity came to him. Phil Bennett, 43 years old, with two young children to raise, understood that his life would never be the same again.
She came from a little place called Alvarado, Texas, just south of Fort Worth, and she came from class and money, or what seemed like class and money to a rough-and-tumble tomcat like Phil Bennett. Nancy's dad was a doctor, whereas Phil's old man made his living as a pipe fitter in the oil fields. Alaska, California, Louisiana, Texas—if there was oil in the ground, in all likelihood Jim Bennett Sr. and his family had lived there at some time or another, establishing a nomadic pattern that prepped Phil for his future as a college football coach. "I knew Dad didn't have a job when we'd move in the middle of the night because he couldn't pay the rent," Phil says.
The Bennetts eventually settled in Marshall, Texas, in 1962, after a doctor in California informed Phil's mother, Faye, that she had cancer and needed to be close to her family. Faye got a job selling cosmetics at Wiseman's department store, and after an operation she gathered enough strength to cast the disease from her body and live for three more decades. To Phil, her victory over cancer served as a lesson: You are as strong as you will yourself to be.
Heavily recruited out of high school, he went to Texas A&M on a football scholarship, and as a senior, in 1977, he made second-team All-Southwest Conference at defensive end. "Phil was about as tough as anybody on our team," says R.C. Slocum, his position coach at the time and now the Aggies' head coach. "He had this competitiveness and this quick temper, and they made him incredibly motivated, an overachiever. I always thought Nancy was good for him because she was so friendly and engaging and even-tempered, while Phil's got that short fuse."
In 1982, a few months after Phil and Nancy began living together, he got into a fight with a biker who'd dared to toss an empty beer bottle in Phil's vicinity. The biker was getting the better of the battle until Phil split the man's forehead open with his Southwest Conference championship ring. Awash in blood, the biker slumped to the ground, and Phil jumped on him and forced his hands into the man's mouth and pulled outward until the lips seemed to stretch from ear to ear. The man squealed in surrender, and Phil kicked him in the ribs as a final gesture of contempt. Phil left the duel with a grotesquely swollen eye, the flesh all around it an iridescent mosaic. "Y'all have to help me with Nancy," he told a couple of friends who'd witnessed the fight.
"To any other girl I'd have said, 'Ah, don't worry about it,' and I wouldn't have cared what she thought," Phil says now. "That moment was when it came to me that I was in love with Nancy."
At home later Phil told Nancy, a registered nurse, that he'd run into a tree while jogging. "Phil?" she said. "A tree did that?"
"I got poked," he answered with all the sincerity he could muster.