Every year he turns up in some little dry-bed town, where the folks are God-fearing, mother-loving, flag-saluting and psychoneurotic about football. He is big, tough, intelligent, unselfish, a leader. And fast? He runs the hundred in 9.4—uphill. He runs the quarter in 46 flat—in the rain. And his arm? Why, it's like one of those bazookies that we kill the Red Commonist Nazi menace with. Everybody in town has seen him flick the ball 60 yards on his knees with two linebackers jerking on his face guard. Man, if he doesn't have an arm then Johnny Unitas is an old woman. He's got it all, which is why Ara Parseghian and Bear Bryant and Darrell Royal and the Detroit Tigers and the Boston Celtics and the Morgan Guaranty Trust have all been trying to sign him up since he was in the fourth grade. And it is why whoever winds up with him will announce it in a press conference on the battleship Missouri, and why those who don't will go running off to the NCAA and the FBI.
He goes by several familiar names, of course. He is known as the No. 1 Blue Chipper, the Prized Recruit, the Top Prospect, the Most Wanted, the Most Highly Coveted, the Leader of the Tribe, the Boss Stud, the Head Hoss.
He has had a lot of other names, too. Several years ago he was Bill De Correvont from Chicago's Austin High School, a kid who put 120,000 in Soldier Field for a city championship game. Once he was Ronnie Knox out on the West Coast. A couple of times he came out of Louisiana and was called John David Crow and Billy Cannon. But as often as not, he has risen from that holy land of high school football known as the State of Texas and has been named things like Doak Walker, Bobby Layne and Kyle Rote.
It is sort of expected for Texas to produce a Head Hoss every few years. After all, the state has 1,007 schools playing football in an interscholastic league that permits championship playoffs in four different classifications. This enables a lot of varied parts of the vast region to go cuckoo, such as last year when the championships were won by teams from Austin in the Hill Country, Brownwood in central Texas, Plano up in the north and Tidehaven on the coast. This season's winners may have even more interesting names, for among the favorites are Alice, Mission, Granbury and Poth.
Outside of the large cities—Dallas, Houston and Fort Worth—high school football is just about the sole interest of everybody from the banker and the undertaker to all the guys hanging around Snap's gas station. Coleman's Fighting Blue Cats are absolute celebrities during the season, and so are El Campo's Rice Birds, Port Lavaca's Sandcrabs, Hutto's Hippoes, Trent's Gorillas, Itasca's Wampus Cats, Cuero's Gobblers and all the others.
Because of the vast exposure it has become almost impossible for Texas not to have at least one player emerge each fall as a near-national figure before he is ever issued a college freshman's T shirt, a convertible and a Bluebonnet Festival queen. San Antonio's Warren McVea, for example, was certainly well known to about 50 colleges before he ever selected the University of Houston. A film of a 55-48 state playoff game that Warren starred in was already on the banquet circuit and threatening to make its way to Lincoln Center. McVea felt compelled to hold press conferences to announce he had narrowed his choice down to just 20 campuses. A year later a young man named Bill Bradley came out of Palestine with the nickname of Super Bill, and before he chose the University of Texas the public somehow had the feeling that he had been forced to turn down 17 major league baseball offers, all of them worth $500,000 each. Two years ago the village of Bridge City finally gave a diploma to a lad named Steve Worster, who was modestly considered to be "the greatest power running back in Texas history." In the midst of an ABC television special on him, the University of Texas beat LSU in the finals for Worster, and 50 other proselyters got out their road maps and scurried off in search of Blue Chip Prospect No. 2.
Last season Texas offered up its usual phenomenon, this time a quarterback from the flat, arid plains of Abilene. He had all the attributes that make recruiters dance and holler—size, speed, arm, brains, moves, family, church, statistics, leadership and handshake. Jack Mildren was his name. He had been throwing touchdown passes on organized teams since the fifth grade, he had always been a winner, he had the savvy that only the son of an ex-coach could have, he had come from a formidable high school with an eight-man coaching staff, and everybody knew about him from UCLA to West Point.
It was only natural that he would lead recruiters on one of the merriest chases of their careers—over farm roads, oil pumps, city streets and Astrodomes—before he would eventually put his signature on a pre-enrollment agreement while flashbulbs exploded and a proud family brushed away its collective tear. This is the story of that chase, which is pretty much the story of college recruiting everywhere.
It began last summer before Jack Mildren even started his senior season at Abilene Cooper High, in which he would complete 147 passes for 2,076 yards and 20 touchdowns and run for 787 more yards and 24 more touchdowns, all of it in what is generally considered to be the ruggedest "big school" league in the state, a thing called District 3-AAAA, which includes a lot of the pillars of Texas schoolboy football: teams from Odessa, Midland, San Angelo and Big Spring. It was before Jack would lead the Cooper Cougars unbeaten through 13 games and right into the state finals, where they would lose 20-19 because, it would be ruled—controversially—he did not score a touchdown from the one-foot line on the last play of the game.
The way it started was that Mildren's coach, Merrill Green, a former Oklahoma player, asked Jack's father if he had any idea where his oldest son might want to go to college. Was Jack still a big SMU fan, as he had been as a youngster, or was his mind open? Well, the father said he just hoped Jack would get some offers.