It was a night that did the state of Texas proud, so clear, so starry, so mellow, so perfect and, yes, so big. And while the time was 1983, the mood was, more appropriate for such a pristine night, 1940s. As hundreds of students at Texas A&M walked with their dates and friends toward the Grove, a spectacular outdoor theater, the recorded music wafting overhead was Little Brown Jug and Pennsylvania 6-5000. Admission was 75¢. That's correct. Everyone sat on park benches, and excitement was high.
The students had gathered at the Grove to see a scratched black-and-white print of a World War II movie called We've Never Been Licked. Shot on the A&M campus in College Station, the film unabashedly glorifies the school and the travails of its ROTC members during the war. Its message is clear: At the heart of A&M is tradition.
The movie started and the Aggies went nuts. Of course the film broke, and the Aggies went nuts again. After it was repaired, the students whooped for the good guys and hissed the bad guys. Planes overhead drowned out the sound at times. So did a freight train that moved along behind the screen. No matter. Almost every Aggie has every line of the movie committed to memory (although one of the actors, Robert Mitchum, says he has never bothered to see it). For example, Les Asel, a senior, was viewing it for the 12th time. "Don't you love it?" he exclaimed amid whoops. Aggies whoop a great deal. "It's what A&M is all about—integrity, loyalty, tradition." That We've Never Been Licked is awful doesn't matter. Cotton candy is awful, but we keep buying it. Aggies buy tradition, always have, always will.
None of the traditions glimpsed in the movie is more revered than the Twelfth Man. The students are the Twelfth Man, and they remain on their feet throughout every home football game—standing ready to help in any way asked. This tradition started on Jan. 2, 1922, when the Aggies were playing Centre College, a national power at the time, in the Dixie Classic, the forerunner of the Cotton Bowl, in Dallas. So many A&M players got hurt in the game that Coach Dana X. Bible summoned a student from the stands to put on the uniform of an injured player. The student, E. King Gill, was—if truth be told—a former football player who had dropped off the team six weeks earlier to concentrate on basketball. Bible told him, "Boy, it looks like we may not have enough players to finish the game. You may have to go in and stand around for a while." Said Gill, in typical A&M style, "Yes, sir."
One member of that 1922 team. Tackle Tiny Keen, now 83, recalls how several players held up a blanket so that Gill could change along the sidelines. The Aggies won 22-14, and Gill wasn't needed. "But," says Keen, "he was ready. That's the point."
Current A&M Coach Jackie Sherrill, who played at Alabama, says, "They've been standing ready a long time." So, in an action that makes Aggies everywhere clutch at their tradition-filled hearts, Sherrill has called on the Twelfth Man for the first time in 61 years. On Sept. 3, when Texas A&M opens its season in College Station against California, the kickoff team will not be composed of regular members of the football squad but of student volunteers. They'll go down the field on every home kickoff this year.
One of them may be Asel, a member of the A&M Air Force ROTC unit and student-body election commissioner. He's a straight arrow who was named Outstanding Citizen and Outstanding Student at Houston's Stratford High. He arrived at last April's spring game, which he played in as a Twelfth Man tryout, with his Economics 311 textbook, Money and Banking—Economic Analysis of Banking, under his arm. He is an Aggie to the core. Says Asel, who stands 6'2" and weighs 225 pounds, "Coach Sherrill has put out the call that we want you and need you, and I'm answering that call. This is what college football should be."
Indeed it is, and that's what makes the Twelfth Man concept so wonderful. Here's a bunch of guys who came to Texas A&M, by far the friendliest school in the nation—the main hazard is being howdied to death—to get an education and, after being ensconced on campus, decided to give football a whirl: "Hey, Coach, I think I'll come out." Just like in the '40s. Next thing you know they'll be swallowing goldfish. It makes you feel good all over.
Except, of course, that the Twelfth Man stands a good chance of being a lights-out failure. Send engineering students, who are a little slow, a little light and a lot inexperienced, down the field against recruited college football behemoths, and.... Well, the biggest and fastest and strongest don't necessarily win everything, but they're not a bad bet to do so on every given Saturday against the Twelfth Man. Almost all the Twelfth Man hopefuls played high school football, but none of them got any more than a smile from college recruiters. One of the Twelfth Man candidates, freshman Rodney Pennywell, says firmly, "Failure is disgraceful. Aggies don't let Aggies fail." But they do. Last year A&M hired Sherrill for $1,602,000 over six years—$267,000 a season—which made him the highest-paid football coach in the land. He then directed the Aggies to a 5-6 record. Says Sherrill, "Five-six isn't in my vocabulary. I was upset. I'm a lot better coach than that."
At the very least he's a lot better respecter of tradition than that. It all started last November, when Sherrill wandered by the preparations for the legendary Aggie Bonfire, an annual tradition that's in the making for six to eight weeks before the Texas game. The fire requires more than 4,000 logs—a stack that reaches nearly 70 feet. Some 10,000 students contribute to the effort, and it goes on around the clock during the final two weeks.