I don't know how I impressed Mr. Wilkinson, but he has never stopped impressing me. The papers at home were impressed in another way when I enrolled at Norman. They blasted me for going out of the state.
Mother had wanted me to go to Notre Dame. She wrote them a letter and sent along some press clippings. They replied that I was a mite too small. That tickles me, because in my senior year at Oklahoma we waxed Notre Dame 40-0, and I did all right.
I thought about that letter as I was walking off the field. One of the fathers came up to me. "Tommy," he said, "I want you to know that on the day we decided not to offer you a scholarship the good Lord was not with us." That made me feel real good.
It was after losing to Notre Dame in my freshman year that Oklahoma began its famous 47-game winning streak. That was the only defeat during my four years at Norman. I wasn't a receiver then, of course, but a running back and passer on the option play. I could catch the football, though, and when I was a senior, Mr. Wilkinson gave us a passing play with me as the receiver. It was simple enough. At the snap I ran into the line of scrimmage and sort of milled around for a couple of counts, trying to get lost, and then busted out behind the defense. The play was good for six touchdowns, including that long one—and I promise not to mention it again—against Texas. Jimmy Harris, our quarterback, threw it. When I got clear of the defense and saw it coming I knew I couldn't run and keep an eye on it too. I just put my head down and took off like a New Mexico roadrunner and tried to judge when to put my hands out. I lucked out and guessed right. It came down over my head and onto my fingertips. Someone said afterward it was so far out in front of me I caught it with my fingerprints, not my fingertips.
In college I didn't think about playing pro ball because of my size. Then, on television, I saw Doak Walker—not a real big man—playing out on the flank for Detroit. I thought maybe I could live out there. Anyway, all of the clubs sent telegrams asking if I wanted to play, and I replied yessirree, but I couldn't believe they were serious.
I wasn't drafted until the third round by the Eagles. Before I could sign I had some postseason games to play, including the Hula Bowl in Honolulu. In those days it was a game between college and professional all-stars. It was my first taste of action against the pros. I could tell I had a lot to learn when I got hung on a hay hook.
I was playing halfback and going through the line on a little swing-pass pattern. On the farm a hay hook is a tool for moving bales of hay. In football it is the outstretched arm of a defensive player, used to reap pass receivers or ball carriers. This linebacker swung his arm up out of nowhere, and all of a sudden I had a broken nose and split lips. The flanker position, out away from the hay hooks, was looking better and better.
I was just as ignorant about talking contract terms, and Billy Vessels, the great Oklahoma back who was four years ahead of me, gave me some advice. He said pick a money figure and stick to it. I picked $12,000. Every time I talked to Vince McNally, the Eagles' general manager, I said, "Twelve and one"—$12,000 and a one-year contract. I finally got it. These days youngsters are getting $100,000 and more for signing, but that's life. I came along five or six years too soon.
Clarence Peaks, the Michigan State running back, was the Eagles' No. 1 draft choice that year, with Billy Barnes of Wake Forest second, me third, Sonny Jurgensen of Duke fourth and my Oklahoma quarterback, Jimmy Harris, fifth.
In the summer of 1957 I went straight to the College All-Star camp in Evanston, Ill. instead of reporting to the Eagle camp in Hershey, Pa. We had a tremendous All-Star squad. Paul Hornung and John Brodie were the quarterbacks. Among the running backs were Jimmy Brown, Don Bosseler, Billy Barnes, Jon Arnett, Abe Woodson and me. Clarence Peaks was playing on defense. The flankers were Jim Podoley and Del Shofner. Jerry Tubbs was at center, Ron Kramer was one of the ends and Jim Parker one of the guards.