Not everyone is eager to do the Death Dive. Three years ago in the early camp of the Buffalo Bills of the American Football League, an end watched Laughead put some players through the Death Dive and clearly did not approve. When it came his turn, the end shook his head. "Naw, Tex, I ain't gonna do that," he said. "You do what I tell you," said Laughead, who deals bluntly with insurrection. "Buster Ramsey ain't the coach today. I am." The end shrugged. "O.K., Tex," he said, "but I reserve the right to dislike it."
"We used to use a football as a prop in the Death Dive," Laughead said, as a car stopped in the gravel driveway at Alabama and Coach Bear Bryant got out. "But we don't anymore. A kid at SMU came down on the ball and deflated himself. When they rolled him over, he had turned purple." Laughead lowered his voice as if afraid Bryant might hear. "They had to use mouth-to-mouth restitution, or whatever you call it, to bring him to."
Scraping noses or bending wrists in the Death Dive is not as serious a matter to Laughead as breaking a camera. Among the 1,500 pounds of equipment that Laughead and Bradley load into their station wagon for their 9,000-mile spring-training journey are duplicates of everything. But still Laughead is careful. Caution has been drilled into him painfully.
"The only guy I ever trusted to throw a football at the camera was Sam Baugh," Laughead said. "Sam would warn me not to move my head an inch. Then he would throw a bullet pass from 10 feet, and the ball would curve and zip right past my ear. But in the picture it would look like it was coming straight into the lens. A few years after Baugh left TCU they had a quarterback at Texas A & M that the coach said was better than Baugh. The coach wanted the same kind of picture. The kid didn't want to do it, and I sure didn't want to do it, but the coach insisted. I woke up in the infirmary. From 10 feet that kid threw a bullet pass, hit me between the eyes and knocked me cold."
More considerate of Laughead's good health and head was Bulldog Turner, who possibly owes his All-Pro career as a Chicago Bear to a Laughead photograph. Laughead met Turner in 1938 when he photographed the Hardin-Simmons Cowboys. Laughead decided to take advantage of the nickname of the small west Texas school. He shot pictures of players in cowboy hats and chaps, riding and roping. Then the Hardin-Simmons publicity man produced a 350-pound calf, and Laughead asked if anyone on the squad was strong enough to pick it up.
"A kid named Clyde Turner, who was about to be kicked off the team for disciplinary reasons, yanked that calf up off the ground and took off running around the field with it," said Laughead. "He must have lapped the field six times with that calf on his back. I went back to Dallas and wrote about how Bulldog Turner was a Little All-America. I made that up, of course. Nobody had ever heard of him. But the picture got on the wires, and Hardin-Simmons got 6,000 clippings of it from newspapers. The clips cost a penny apiece and nearly busted the school's budget. They couldn't kick Turner off the team after that."
Kyle Rote, former Southern Methodist All-America who has now retired after a brilliant career with the New York Giants, was the most photogenic athlete Laughead ever shot. "He showed speed and power," Laughead said, "and when you can do that in a picture you've got something. I like them to blaze, blow, blast and burn. Usually the best athletes are the best in pictures, too. Doak Walker was an exception. He took little mincing steps that looked terrible in pictures. But Walker was the most popular athlete I ever shot. When he was a freshman at SMU I promised him free publicity pictures. Before he graduated I had to furnish 39,000 pictures that I would have sold for $1 each. We're good friends, but I was glad to see him go."
Many of the 40,000-odd negatives Laughead and Bradley shoot of athletes each year are done during their spring tour. The two are on the road for more than six weeks and drive as much as 500 miles overnight in an effort to shoot one school per day. Rain occasionally knocks them off that schedule, but they move fast—shooting the average football squad in three hours (some photographers take two or three days for the same job), breaking for lunch, then shooting the basketball team, loading the wagon and driving on to a motel and a dinner of greasy food that would gag Attila the Hun.
The routine seldom varies. The station wagon, with Bradley at the wheel and Laughead puffing a cigar and holding a thermos of ice water between his knees, arrives on the campus about noon. At Alabama, Laughead and Bradley tumbled out of the wagon and worked for an hour to set up their equipment. Both men were staggeringly tired. The night before, driving over from Atlanta, they had run out of gas near Irondale, Ala. Bradley had coasted up to a very tough-looking beer joint and pool hall on the highway. The drinkers and pool players were already at the glazed-eyes plateau, and their voices swooped above the country music on the juke box. "I don't know if I'd go in there, Father," said Bradley.
"Don't worry, son," Laughead said. "I could talk an Eskimo out of his underwear."