Barry Switzer, the cool hand Luke of college football, was attending the grand opening of a car dealership in Oklahoma City a couple of years ago when the future almost kicked him in the face.
"I was watching this group of break dancers who were performing," says the Oklahoma coach. "They were called the L.A. Breakers—the L.A. was for Lawton [ Okla.] Area—and the leader was doing the damnedest things I'd ever seen. He'd drop to the floor, spin around, get up on his head, fall down again and come back up just like a snake. Unbelievable stuff. I said to somebody near me, 'Who's that dude?"
"And the guy said, That's Charles Thompson.'
"I almost died. ' Charles Thompson, the Lawton High quarterback?' I asked.
" 'Yeah,' the guy said.
" 'Holy potatoes,' I said. And I walked right over and introduced myself. What a great, great athlete."
The rest you can figure out. Switzer went into his' snake-charming, mom-slaying recruiter mode, Thompson decided to attend Oklahoma and, on Saturday, he led the undefeated Sooners to a 17-7 win in Lincoln over previously undefeated Nebraska, the nouveau trash-talkers of the Great Plains. An example of the newly loosened Cornhusker lips: Coach Tom Osborne said a couple of days before Oklahoma arrived in Lincoln, "The big question is, How will Thompson react to the Big Game?"
Just fine, as it turned out. Thompson, a 5'10", 174-pound redshirt freshman, prevailed because he's such a stellar athlete, capable of rushing for 131 yards on 21 carries and of dishing off to his fellow whippets (Patrick Collins, 13 carries, 131 yards; Rotnei Anderson, 24 carries, 119 yards; Anthony Stafford, 12 carries, 48 yards) at just the right moments, and because the Sooners scrambled to recover most of their fumbles. But, most important, Thompson kept his wits about him.
Coming into the Battle of the Century II (Battle I, in case anyone has forgotten, occurred in 1971 and was won by Nebraska 35-31), Oklahoma seemed like a fighter plane without a pilot. On Nov. 7, during a 29-10 victory over Oklahoma State, the Sooners lost their starting quarterback and leading rusher, junior Jammin' Jamelle (J-Boe) Holieway, to torn ligaments in his right knee. Thompson, then thought of as a scrawny mop-up man, had come on in the final minutes against the Cowboys and was less than impressive as a first-time starter the next week in a surprisingly harrowing 17-13 victory over Missouri. Oklahoma also had lost its second leading rusher, Lydell Carr, to a knee injury in the game against Oklahoma State, and critics were saying the Sooner wishbone offense was running on empty.
Indeed, in its previous four games Oklahoma had lost 12 fumbles. But the Sooner 'bone never breaks; it just bends, quivers and twangs back in your face. Coming into Saturday's game the darned thing was leading the nation in rushing with an average of 429.8 yards per game. And the 19-year-old Thompson already had carried the ball 84 times for 673 yards and 10 touchdowns. (Passing, of course, is an afterthought at Oklahoma, but Thompson also had thrown 28 times and completed 11 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns.)