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In the dressing room after the game, even the normally calm, tough-talking Red Sanders seemed a little shaken by what he had seen. Mopping a reddened forehead on which glistened little beads of sweat and jerking his head nervously to the side like a horse whose bit is pulled, Red managed to overcome his wonder to opine hesitantly: " Knox has got a chance to be the best tailback we have ever had. He's real gifted, that boy...."
"Gifted" was precisely the word to apply to Ronnie Knox. For a youngster to come through under the gauge-shattering pressure he had been put to could hardly be done on sheer effort of the will, courage or even luck. When Tailback Ronnie Knox ran out into the middle of the floodlit Los Angeles Coliseum before 65,000 curious or even derisive spectators, he was more than just another halfback in turquoise-blue jersey and gold helmet. UCLA's "No. 18" was a marked man.
To make matters more intolerable, his team had already been conceded the national championship by the usually fallible but vocal football press. And the insiders knew that UCLA would be as good as Ronnie Knox and not much better. To be sure, the backfield was three-and four-deep, the first time in his coaching career Red Sanders has had layers of offensive talent. The trouble was the atomic line of last year, which used to blast such craters in the opposition that even mediocre backs could look like All-Americas, was gone.
Ronnie—as every sports fan in the country knows—had been pushed into this unenviable position by a frantic stepfather whose zeal for his son to become a football star has bordered on the incredible. Ronnie had played for three high schools and two colleges in his stepfather's quest for the proper coaching for his gifted boy. If Ronnie Knox felt as though he were being pushed out on a tightrope without a balance pole, he could be pardoned.
Canny Coach Sanders had done his best to take the heat off the youngster who is, although the public doesn't know it, the antithesis of his volatile stepfather. Ronnie Knox is painfully modest, matter-of-fact and gentle, almost a shambling big-brother type off the field. Stepfather Harvey Knox was livid when Sanders leaked to the press the "dope" that Knox, injured in the fifth day of spring practice with a broken index finger on his throwing hand, was actually his fourth-string tailback and a boy who would be lucky to see action at all in the opening game against Texas A&M.
The game was barely two minutes old when the transparency of Sanders' motives was perceived. Sanders' "first-string" tailback, a spirited but woefully short (5 feet 7 inches) gamester named Doug Bradley, fumbled the kickoff and the Texas Aggies' green but combative linemen recovered on the Bruin 20. The Aggies, no match for the Bruin first-string line, went rapidly backward from there and an interception gave the Bruins the ball seconds later.
First-Stringer Bradley lost 13 yards on the first play and the wiseacres in the stands, focusing their binoculars on the Bruin bench, saw Coach Sanders quietly get up and take No. 18 by the arm in a fatherly way. Sanders and his problem child knelt by the sidelines as a reverse gained six yards and a Sanders third-down punt seemed called for. Ronnie Knox went charging into the game. There were neither catcalls nor cheers from the crowd but a kind of curious, electric silence.
The first play was a fake punt with the wingback carrying the ball but the next was a real punt—a cloud-scraping 55-yarder by Ronnie which fell dead on the Aggies' 11-yard line. At long last, young Mr. Knox was blooded in a college game, and Sanders' cards were at last spread face-up on the gridiron.
Up in the stands, a dapper, cocky man in brown pork-pie hat, spread collar and checkered brown sports coat told his family and anyone within earshot, "That's nuthin'—wait'll Ronnie warms up."
Ronnie warmed up in the very next series of Bruin plays. Pitching with an index finger which is swollen thick from palm to first joint, he hit Wingback Jim Decker for 11 yards, then End Johnny Hermann for seven more. He called the plays skillfully and dismayed the Aggies by carrying the ball himself off a fake pass with a smashing, heavy-legged drive reminiscent of the Bruins' last All-America tailback, Paul Cameron. On the sidelines, Aggie Coach Paul (Bear) Bryant could be seen shaking his head. The worst had happened: Ronnie Knox was as good as Harvey said he was. The trouble was, Bryant was finding it out too late to install the necessary complex defense.