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Houston's opponents will have little consolation in a less frightening Veer T, for, if the Cougars need points quickly, Bailey or Clark will toss out the options and throw instead in the direction of Split End Elmo Wright. Students call him Little E, recognizing his athletic abilities as just short of those of Big E, Elvin Hayes. Little E played the saxophone in the Sweeny, Texas high school band. The band and the football team practiced on adjoining lots. "After rehearsal the football guys would be out there hitting," Elmo says. "When the band director left, some of us would go over and join the football guys. I found out right away that what I like to do best is catch the ball." But one day Elmo appeared at rehearsal with a swollen lip. "He [the director] had this thick board, and if you messed up a song, whap, he'd let you have it. When he found out how I hurt my lip, I couldn't sit down for a week."
Elmo found football less painful and considerably more rewarding. As a sophomore he charmed the crowds in the Astrodome with his speed, considerable showboat talents—and his smile. After prancing into the end zone and tossing the ball into the stands, the smile was as spectacular as his 11 touchdowns and 1,198 yards gained. That first football injury of his in high school had provided Little E with two gold front teeth.
With athletes like Elmo Wright performing on the offense, the defense was a less-watched commodity last season. While the offense provided the points, the defensive secondary set a Houston record with 31 interceptions. Safety Richard Harrington and Linebackers Charlie Hall, Glenn Graef and Mike Johnston are all back looking for more. So is End Jerry Drones, the only returning member of the front line. Drones weighed only 160 pounds as a senior in high school and he was written off by Southwest Conference recruiters. Since then he has added 60 pounds and has grown into an All-America candidate.
In Houston, where the clubs close shortly after midnight, the best show in town on Saturday nights is the Houston offense in the Astrodome. Though it will be less spectacular this year and the cast has changed, the crowds are standing room only—hoping for a run straight through New Year's.
And so, hopefully, there will never be another person who thinks a Southern Methodist Mustang is a new automotive model. Hasn't SMU twice changed dates of games from midseason to practically summer so it could appear—nationally!—on the first ABC college game of the week? And hired an advertising agency and spent more than $40,000 on something called "Excitement '68" to remind all those people down in Dallas that there is another football team in town besides the Cowboys? And gone and put together this 15-minute history of Southern Methodist football, beginning with banjo music back in 1915, running through Bill Stern's account of that famous near upset of Notre Dame in 1949, recalling the feats of Doak Walker, Kyle Rote, Raymond Berry and Dandy Don Meredith, finally ending with a jazz background for the 1968 Bluebonnet Bowl champions? Why, SMU even has a coach who doesn't talk about a football game as just so many oblique-sounding Slot Right Fake 44 Boots at Six. Hell, no! His football games live by the three Es—they have to be Exciting, Electrifying and Entertaining.
"Now, don't get me wrong," Hayden Fry says. "I am interested in making the game enjoyable for the fans. We promise them excitement. Heck, I didn't know anything about excitement, but after we spent $40,000 I had to come up with something. And all I knew was to put the football in the air. I figured we might not catch it, but at least we'd have it up there where the fans could see it."
The man Fry chose for the job, a lanky sophomore named Chuck Hixson, soon proved able to do much more than just toss the ball up for the fans to see. In his first varsity game he threw for three touchdowns in a win over Auburn. A week later he completed 37 of 69 for 417 yards and two touchdowns—all in a losing cause to national champion Ohio State. Against Arkansas, with SMU trailing 35-0 going into the final period, he completed 14 of 24 passes for 203 yards and four touchdowns—all in 14 minutes and four seconds. The Mustangs lost 35-29, only because two other drives were stopped inside the 20. And then again in the Bluebonnet Bowl against Oklahoma he threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns in a 28-27 victory.
All of which makes Hixson a pretty rare athlete—for his running ability is on a par with that of, say, a pregnant cow. "The only requirement is that he run fast enough to get to the sidelines when he can't pass," Fry says. "If he can get to the sidelines and stay sound, his running game is more than adequate." Muses Hixson: "When I run, the fans don't know whether it's part of the play or whether I'm just walking over to ask Coach Fry for instructions." The same confusion, it seems, besets opposing players. Once last fall, Hixson, unable to find a receiver, scrambled. One opponent closed in, looked right at Hixson and the ball and then, unable to believe what he saw, veered off and tackled Hixson's blocker.
Such limitations do not bother Fry. "He may not run well but he sure can pass. He has all the outstanding qualities—an extremely quick release, distance, accuracy and consistency. Further, he knows when to hum it and when to lay it over the defensive man to the receiver. And he has the height [6'2"] and weight [190 pounds] and stamina required to take the sort of sitting duck punishment a pocket quarterback knows he'll have to take.