Well, the man made his speech about this big, ferocious thing and introduced me, and about the time the bear reared up I charged him and in a second had him down where he couldn't move, and there we lay. Finally the man began pushing at me, telling me to let him up, but I wasn't ready to do that because time was flying by. I know what he wanted, though. He wanted action. But I just lay there.
Finally the bear worked loose, and I got him again, and he got loose again, and now he was getting pretty mad, and when I looked up his muzzle was off. I felt this burning on the back of my neck, and when I reached to touch it I got a hand full of blood. When I saw that, I jumped off that stage and nearly killed myself getting behind those seats to hide. After a while I went around to get my money, but the man with the bear had flown the coop. All I got out of the whole thing was a nickname.
About that time Mama took a couple of rooms up in Kingsland—a little apartment—because it was so cold riding in. I'll tell you when it was; it was when Floyd Collins was in the cave in Kentucky, because we walked down to the railroad station every afternoon and the train came by and brought the papers. We didn't buy the paper, we just looked at the headlines. Anyway, instead of having to drive those mules around and unharness them and turn them out at noon when everybody else was playing basketball and stuff, I got my first chance to play.
Of course, nobody wanted me on their side. I was always the last one picked, and that didn't do a whole lot for my inferiority complex. Well, I must have got a little better, because I remember there was a big bully in about the sixth grade, and one day he chose me first on his basketball team. I thought, boy, I really got it made now.
Eventually my mother rented a big house over in Fordyce and took in boarders and we moved over there, and one day I was walking past the field where the high school team was practicing football. I was in the eighth grade. I'd never even seen a football. The coach, naturally, noticed a great big boy like me, and he asked if I wanted to play. I said, "Yessir, I guess I do." I said, "How do you play?" He said, "Well, you see that fellow catching the ball down there?" Yeah. "Well, whenever he catches it, you go down there and try to kill him." I didn't know it then, but they were covering punts, and I just happened to get down there about the time the ball did and just kind of ran over that little boy. The following Friday I played on the team, and I didn't even know what "end zone" meant.
My daddy didn't want me to play, but Mama said it was all right, and I took my high-top black shoes down to Mr. Clark, the shoemaker, to put some cleats on them. Boy, talk about proud! I wore those cleats to football, to class, to Sunday school. I wore them in the house, everywhere, clomping around and making a terrible racket. They were the only shoes I had.
It's a funny thing about what a pair of shoes or a suit or something will do for a fellow. I'll never forget how much those high-top black shoes with the cleats meant to me, or the time Collins Kilgore, my cousin, loaned me my first suit. Years later I saw Hank Crisp walk into a room at Alabama, where one of the players was wearing a pair of torn-up old shoes—a poor boy like me—and Coach Hank kicked off his own shoes, a brand-new pair, and told the boy to try them on. "How do they fit?" he asked. "Well, you just keep those. I can get more."
How much could that mean? I don't know, but I know what those shoes meant to me, and I know what they meant to that boy at Alabama, and I'll never forget at Kentucky when George Blanda was my quarterback. He'd been like I was, never had anything and always easing around, easing around, staying out of the way like he didn't want to be seen. For the first year or so I didn't get anything out of Blanda. He didn't go for that driving. Hollering, "Let's go!" and slapping him on the butt didn't mean a thing. I just couldn't reach him.
Well, the students had gotten on him pretty good. Mississippi had beat hell out of us, and they were on him because he was the quarterback. I saw him on the campus one day and I put my arm around him and told him it was all right, because they'd be cheering for him before long, and I noticed he had cardboard in the bottom of his shoes. Well, I was stupid not to have noticed it before. I called him into my office, and I said, "George, I want you to go down to Graves-Cox and buy yourself a new outfit, head to foot, and charge it to me." You could do things like that in those days. Well, he did, and you could just see him brighten up. He was a different guy after that. We didn't lose another game, either.
Anyway, for a little school like Fordyce we had a terrific football team those next three years. I played offensive end and defensive tackle, just an ordinary player, but I was in hog's heaven. I loved to play. I loved to practice. And I was a big kid, so I played regularly. I remember the biggest thrill I ever had was playing in Little Rock the first couple of years. Rode an elevator for the first time in Little Rock, and we went up there one year and beat them 34-0, and I caught a 70-yard pass for a touchdown. Biggest thing in my life. Clark Jordan called the play, and I ran under the ball and caught it, closed my eyes and kept running. Ran right through the end zone and through a fence.