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DEWY DAWN, 1955
At 5:40 a.m. bright lights began to go on in the bare and Spartan cubicles of Jeff House, the University of Oklahoma's athletic dormitory. A student manager moved from room to room, kicking at double-decker bunks and bawling cheerfully, and two by two the school's regiment of tanned, burr-headed, flat-bellied football players climbed out of bed and straggled, yawning, out into the cool dawn. They walked past the vast and shadowy stadium and into a harshly lighted, hospital-white locker room. Silently, sleepily, they got into pads, scrimmage suits and cleats and went outside again to the wet grass of a practice field.
Two assistant managers walked toward them lugging a huge vat filled with a purple eye-opener—a mixture of grape and lime juice. The players dipped in with paper cups. Coach Bud Wilkinson watched and shuddered slightly. "A terrible color to look at in the morning," he muttered. "We used to have orange juice but the players said it didn't sit well on their stomachs. So we got them this stuff. Why they like it, I don't know." Then, raising his voice, he called: "All right, come on fellows, let's circle up." The players gathered around him.
At Norman, Okla., as at colleges big and small all over the U.S.—at Penn, UCLA, SMU, Centre, Montana State, Nebraska, William and Mary—the 1955 football season was beginning. The great autumn riddle was beginning too—even though baseball still claimed the limelight and even though football's young braves were simply launching their two-week preseason training. Hundreds of newspapers and millions of fans were immediately moved to speculate: who would be left on top (see page 30 for Herman Hickman's Eleven Elevens) by Thanksgiving Day?
But most of the talk on the Oklahoma practice field was terse and technical; toil was the order of the day. "Whack that forearm in there. Arch that back. Keep those feet working. Chug, chug, chug," cried Assistant Coach Gomer Jones, driving his linemen. His voice remained surprisingly gentle ("It doesn't help a boy to swear at him"). Wilkinson himself went into amazing detail. "We want you to take the ball with the right hand under it, not alongside it like we did it last year," he told his quarterbacks.
Linebackers practiced running backward. Halfbacks took hand-offs and drove into the line, concentrating on keeping their eyes front—to check their awareness, an assistant coach stood before them and asked them, after every play, how many fingers he had held up. Guards smacked, again and again, into a charging machine, sending echoes bouncing off the walls of the empty stadium. The sun grew hot. By 8:30, when the squads of players trotted once around the field and then back to the locker room, the temperature was in the 90s and their shirts were soaked with sweat. "That," said Quarterback Jimmy Harris, "will hold us—until after lunch."
When Ezzard Charles was champion of the world, Tommy (Hurricane) Jackson was a spindly 17-year-old who used to hide from the other kids in Rockaway Beach, N. Y. because they were always "throwing me in the sticker bushes and stomping on me." As champion, Charles was a finished boxer who moved with an easy grace. Tommy Jackson grew up to be a slat-legged heavyweight who fought as though he were still trying to thrash his way out of the sticker bushes.
In Cleveland the other night, 23-year-old Jackson beat 34-year-old Ezzard Charles for the second time in less than a month, and when the fight was over, Jackson shuffled into Charles' dressing room. "That was one fight I hated to win," he said.
"Take care of yourself and keep trying," Charles said. "You have got a lot of ability that most fellows haven't got. Put your heart in it."