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"That concussion," she says. "Which one?"
"Well, the only time I got hit by a ball."
"It was in 1947, because Sidney was supposed to start school that year, and we delayed his starting school because of it."
Smith always used to have a dozen or more horses training at his ranch, but a hip operation last year stopped his serious riding. The only horses there now belong to his younger son Charles, an aerospace engineer in Fort Worth. With a seven-goal rating, Charles was outstanding in the Gould Cup match, which brought together eight of the country's top-ranking players. His team lost 8-7 in sudden-death overtime after he got off a stunning 50-yard angle shot in overtime that missed the goal by inches. That meant he received a quarter share of the losers' purse of $8,000, instead of the winners' $16,000.
Like most of the current polo-playing generation, Charles Smith works through the week at his job, then, during the season, takes off for Oak Brook, or Boca Raton or elsewhere, to play in a match or a tournament. "I don't see how he does it," Cecil Smith says. "Sometimes he gets to the field on a Saturday morning, plays Saturday and Sunday and flies home to get to work Monday morning."
Despite these hectic schedules, young players find that professional polo has great appeal. Purses can help meet the cost of horses, training and travel, and constant competition against other high-goal teams may conceivably develop a group of stars capable of restoring the dramatic luster that the game has all but lost. Low-goal polo is fun to play—it's the reason the game has kept going through the past 30 years—but only high-goal polo played by experts on great horses constitutes a superb spectator sport. Which is why, back in 1930, the International at Meadow Brook, Long Island drew 45,000 spectators (at $2 or $3 a head) on the same day that 25,000 went to Belmont to watch Gallant Fox win the Lawrence Realization and another 15,000 went to Yankee Stadium to watch Babe Ruth and company beat the Senators. Polo was that good a show.
Texas Highway 71 runs through spare rocky scenery whose distinguishing characteristic is that there is less and less of anything else the farther west you drive. Beyond Austin you come to the little town of Llano, a crossroads. Drive on. Ten miles south of Llano you come to what used to be the town of Oxford, where Cecil was born in 1904. There is now a small boarded-up store building, a red-dirt ranch road and nothing else, except some cows and a grove of live oaks where there used to be a church. A quarter of a mile up this road is the place where Smith first knocked a polo ball around. "This wonderful Texas player," Will Rogers wrote, "learned on round rocks, or big pebbles. He used to knock them from Austin clean to Angelo. It was years before he knew that polo was played with a wooden ball."
It is 206 miles from Austin to San Angelo, so Rogers did not mean to be taken literally. "A nickname for Oxford was Cat Town," Judge Wilburn Oatman wrote in his history of Llano County, "so named because some young men attending a dance there became intoxicated and in their fun and enthusiasm threw a cat into a pot of coffee. The pioneers of that area had a lot of fun at their dances there."
Cecil Smith's family had no part in such historic frolics. Sid Smith, his father, was the foreman of the C.T. Moss ranch, one of the biggest in the county. There is a photograph of him in the county history, lined up with nine cowboys at a chuck wagon, his mustache drooping and his black hat pushed far back on his head. Nobody would throw a cat into his pot of coffee. Cecil and his two sisters grew up in a pleasant hillside dwelling near the main ranch house. They went to a one-room school a couple of miles away, but as the town of Oxford declined they rode in a horse and buggy seven miles to a school across the plain. At 12, during the manpower shortage in the First World War, Cecil began working cattle on the Moss ranch at $30 a month, adult wages back then, and pretty soon he had given up school for good.
Llano County is flat in parts, offering wide vistas, dry air, thin grasslands and tangles of cedar and mesquite into which deer retreat when a car passes on the lonely roads. The deer population is the heaviest in Texas and, in some cases, is more valuable than cattle to the ranchers, who lease their lands to hunters each season. Around the turn of the century there was a mining boom in the area, but it ended suddenly, leaving fragments of small stores and factories scattered in the sagebrush.