They came early last Saturday evening, from Amarillo and Shallowater and Muleshoe, but mostly they came from right there in Lubbock, the host city for the 10th annual Coaches All-America football game. Pulling this game off had not been easy for this overgrown West Texas cowtown (pop. 150,000), especially after a killer tornado worked its evil in early May, leaving much of Lubbock in ruin and rubble and misery. "But, you know, that just seemed to pull us all together," said Dr. Jim Granberry, the town's mod young mayor. "We wanted to show the country that Lubbock could bounce back stronger than ever."
So Lubbock redoubled its efforts on behalf of the All-America Game and last Saturday night the nation could indeed see that whatever its losses Lubbock had maintained its spirit and its bottomless capacity for football. At kickoff time, although the temperature hovered near 100 and the quality of these All-Stars was only medium cool, the official attendance at Texas Tech's Jones Stadium was a rousing 42,150—almost 4,000 more than the previous record and more than twice what it was last summer in Atlanta. Happier still, the game was unusually cohesive and entertaining. The East beat the West 34-27, but the outcome was in doubt until the final seconds. Plainly, the fans' enthusiasm had been absorbed by the players out there on the stadium's new AstroTurf rug.
"The kids knew the problems that the city of Lubbock has had," said East Coach Charlie McClendon of Louisiana State. "They're all All-Americas and they weren't going to lie down on the job before those people."
Ohio State Fullback Jim Otis, named the night's most valuable player after gaining a record 145 yards with his quick, powerful thrusts, said, "Oh, man, these people are unbelievable. They wanted this game so bad you could feel it. I must admit, though, that I think they were more for the West than for us."
The game, the American football coaches' answer to the College All-Star Game in Chicago, came to Lubbock via Buffalo and Atlanta, where it ran into one trouble after another. Last summer only 17,008 showed up in Atlanta—partly because of the oppressive humidity, partly because O. J. Simpson, Leroy Keyes and other top stars declined to play, and partly because there were simply too many other things to do in a metropolis like Atlanta. Lubbock won the game over the likes of Memphis and San Diego when such stubborn Texans as J. T. King, Tech athletic director, State Representative R.B. McAlister and Mayor Granberry finally convinced the coaches of Lubbock's advantages—a college atmosphere, no competing entertainment, promotion by the district 2 T-2 Lions Club (which claims to be the largest service club in the country) and a built-in, football-crazy audience that would flock to fill the 40,000 seats in Jones Stadium even if the temperature rose into the low hundreds.
Then, at 9:46 p.m. on Monday, May 11, the tornado hit Lubbock. In just 15 minutes 26 lives were lost, along with $200 million worth of property. The town's poor Mexican district was wiped out and so were some of the new $50,000 houses near the country club. One victim was sucked through his car windshield and dropped like a rag doll hundreds of yards away. Whole buildings were obliterated and light poles were twisted into weird pieces of pop art. The town's tallest building, the 20-story Great Plains Life Building, was so badly warped that even now it is a ghostly, empty shell that nobody will use. The AstroTurf in Jones Stadium was unharmed, but some of the light towers on the west side—which had recently been fitted with extra lights for the color telecast of the All-America Game—were bent or snapped off. The damage was so debilitating that immediately representatives of Memphis and San Diego were on the phone to Bill Murray, the executive director of the coaches' association, offering to take the game off Lubbock's bleeding hands.
"I didn't know what to say," said Murray. "I couldn't get through to Lubbock for four days because the telephone wires were down. But then J. T. King called me and said that Lubbock planned to go ahead with its plans to have the game. And I never doubted that they could do it."
For almost three weeks, while the town dug out and buried its dead, ticket sales were at a complete standstill. "There were just too many other more important things to do and think about," says Granberry. "It was a beautiful thing, all of us cleaning up together, brown, black and white, but it was still kind of solemn." Even the donation by H. Ross Perot of the food and supplies he had unsuccessfully tried to take to American prisoners in Vietnam failed to boost morale. "Then it got close to the game," says the mayor, "and all of a sudden everybody perked up and got real excited. It gave us something to work for, a chance to show the country the kind of hard-working, God-fearing, close-to-earth sort of people we have out here."
By last week, with parts of the town still looking like bombed-out Berlin, Lubbock nevertheless vibrated with all the freshness and energy of a teen-age cheerleader. Everywhere a man looked, there were red, white and blue bunting and signs urging townspeople to come to "the game." The players could hardly turn around without bumping into the outstretched hand of a smiling Texan ("Hi, there, glad to have you in Lubbock, podnuh"). There was a full schedule of golf, barbecues, swimming, cocktail parties and banquets. About the only complaint the players had was that they had to share their dormitory with a convention of harpists. "Hell," said one player, grinning broadly, "we couldn't get those little old ladies with the harps to quiet down."
There was one annoying problem: the conspicuous absence once again of several "name" players, including Heisman Trophy winner Steve Owens, top pro draft pick Terry Bradshaw, Purdue's Mike Phipps and Penn State's Mike Reid. Some of them had legitimate reasons for being absent, but others were held back by their pro teams or their agents and attorneys—and these cases had the coaches boiling. Said McClendon, "We coaches are going to have to do something. We can't justify an All-America game unless we can give the people all the All-Americas. The pros are biting the hand that feeds them. And they need us, friend, they need us."