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September 14, 2013

A look back at Bryant's Junction Boys at Texas A&M

John David Crow was disappointed when he got the news that he couldn't go to Junction, Texas, with the rest of the Texas A&M football team in the late summer of 1954.

Crow was a freshman, part of the late Paul W. "Bear" Bryant's first signing class with the Aggies, and went on to win the Heisman Trophy, becoming the only Bryant player to win college football's highest individual honor. Elmer Smith, an assistant on Bryant's staff, had told Crow that the team was going to camp in Junction, a tiny town where A&M had an adjunct campus in an area known as the hill country some 250 miles from the main campus in College Station.

Crow found out, however, that he and the other freshmen were going to have to stay behind because of a rule that barred first-year players from attending preseason practices held more than 30 miles from campus. "Coach Elmer told me it would be just players and coaches and football," Crow, now 78, recalled. "He said it was a nice place with a camp on a river, and the only camp I had ever been to was a Methodist camp.

"I thought it would be like a picnic."

This was no picnic. More than 100 players left Texas A&M's main campus for Bryant's preseason camp, according to most accounts - although the exact number was not recorded - and around 30 returned after 10 brutal days of some of the harshest practices in some of the most demanding conditions in the history of college football. The experience was chronicled by author Jim Dent in his 1999 book "The Junction Boys: How Ten Days in Hell with Bear Bryant Forged a Championship Team," and also in an ESPN-made movie.

The trials of Junction not only forged the foundation of Bryant's 1956 Southwest Conference championship team at Texas A&M, they have become part of the coach's legend and A&M's football lore. The Junction camp serves as a backdrop for today's meeting between the University of Alabama and Texas A&M, two schools at which Bryant coached, and offers a look at the game's more brutal side.

At the time, Crow had no idea of what he was missing.

"It was disheartening," he said. "I watched those two busloads of players and coaches leave.

"Then I was over in front of the dorm (10 days later) getting to introduce myself to the freshmen, and I saw that one bus come back and stop, and it was about half-full. I thought at that point that it wasn't like that church camp."

A historic drought

Bryant, who had coached Kentucky to a Southeastern Conference championship before leaving for A&M - in part because he realized football would never become more popular than basketball in the Bluegrass State - was greeted with enthusiasm by Aggies when he arrived in February of '54. He introduced himself to a raucous student body at the Grove outdoor theater.

"I took off my coat and stomped on it," Bryant wrote of the rally in his 1974 autobiography "Bear, the Hard Life and Good Times of Alabama's Coach Bryant," written with co-author John Underwood.

"Then I took off my tie and stomped on it," Bryant continued.

"Then as I was walking up to the (microphone) I rolled up my sleeves. "It was like voodoo. Those Aggies went crazy. I was awed, I tell you. Ten Aggies can yell louder than a hundred of everybody else."

Bryant wasn't, however, enamored with the players he had inherited from coach Raymond George, who went 12-14-4 over the three previous seasons, never winning more than five games.

Bryant determined that any future success would come largely from more talented recruits that he would have to bring in, and that he needed to weed out the holdovers who wouldn't be able to play to his demanding standards. He also discovered that A&M had an enthusiastic and often meddlesome group of boosters, and decided that taking the players away from campus for a preseason camp would be a good idea.

Willie Zapalac, the only assistant coach Bryant kept from George's staff, suggested Junction. The adjunct campus was located at the confluence of two rivers, and Zapalac described a place with lush, green fields of grass for practices and barracks-style housing where the players and coaches could stay.

"I had never heard of it," Bryant wrote, "but it won the Southwest Conference championship for us two years later.

"Junction is a flyspeck on the map out in the hill country near Kerrville. It housed the summer training program for the A&M physics and geology majors. A perfect spot for a boot camp."

There was only one problem: Junction and that area of Texas were in the middle of a historic drought. The rivers had dried to a trickle. The grass had died and the earth had been baked hard. Zapalac wasn't aware of the changes the place had undergone.

"The facilities were so sorry," Bryant wrote, "that just looking at the place would discourage you."

This was the Junction that greeted Bryant and his players. The coach didn't let on that he was as shocked at the conditions as everyone else. Dennis Goehring, a Junction camp survivor, spent two other summers on that adjunct campus as a student and saw the place when it wasn't ravaged by drought.

"Everything was irrigated, watered and nice," he said. "The problem that we had when we got there, the sprinkler system had been cut off and it was a drought. It was nothing but rock and grass spurs, totally inept for any kind of working out."

The only vegetation came in the form of weeds that produced prickly burrs formally known as Tribulus terrestris, more commonly called goat heads or puncturevine. The thorny prongs would plague players as they tried to take their stances on the hardened fields.

"They're the worst of grass spurs because they have two horns on them and they puncture the skin and stick to you," Goehring said.

Trial by heat

Players learned on the first day just how tough Junction would be. It started off with breakfast, but players quickly lost their lunches. "The only thing we had at Junction that you could call first-class was the food," Bryant wrote. "There was plenty of that.

"We practiced early in the morning, at 5 a.m., and late in the afternoon, to beat the heat."

After a big, early breakfast, players took to the practice field for the first of Bryant's unforgiving sessions. Mickey Herskowitz of the Houston Post was there to witness it, and called his editors to tell them.

"They had a full-scale scrimmage, the very first thing, and guys were throwing up all over the place," Herskowitz reported, according to Bryant's account in his book.

As for escaping the heat, players had nowhere to hide. They bunked in huts that became like ovens as temperatures soared over 100 degrees each day.

"We lived in Quonset huts with those tin roofs," said Gene Stallings, a Junction survivor who would go on to become head coach at his alma mater and later coach Alabama to a national championship, "and I was in an upper bunk. I'm about a foot-and-a-half from that tin roof.

"When you had a chance to rest, it was so hot you couldn't get any rest."

Goehring was already accustomed to toiling in sweltering conditions. He had held a summer job in a steel mill blast furnace where he wore an asbestos suit that added to the 115-degree heat of his workspace.

"From a heat standpoint, I was a hill country guy to begin with," Goehring recalled. "I didn't feel the impact of the heat that much. I was an old farm boy from a ranch, and you were out there all day in the heat bailing and working.

"The problem was more probably from lack of water."

Bryant, like most coaches of that era, believed water breaks were for sissies. Salt pills were the preferred antidote for dehydration. At one point, the players thought the coach might be softening enough to give them a break.

"On Saturday night he asked us who wanted to go to church on Sunday," Stallings recalled. "Everybody raised their hand and wanted to go. "He said, 'We'll go right after practice.' "

Day by day, Bryant's drills under the boiling Texas sun caused attrition. By night, players would quit and head for the bus station in town.

"When the press tour finally got out there - Junction wasn't exactly on the beaten track, and those writers came in there with flat tires and sand in their throats and half hungover - they couldn't understand what had happened to all of us," Bryant wrote. "... Every night we were counting heads to see who sneaked out, and the day the writers got there we were eight fewer than we had been the night before."

The defections only made practices that much more difficult.

"A lot of guys quit, so the lines were short," Stallings said. "If you've got a two-hour practice and you've got 15 ends, you get a little bit of rest (between repetitions). But if you've got five ends, you don't rest so much.

"As it went on, there weren't many of us there."

Still, Bryant didn't relent.

Near-death experience

Junction nearly had a fatality. Bill Schroeder, a tackle, suffered a heat stroke and was taken to an infirmary in town, where a local doctor packed him in ice and saved his life.

To those enduring the grim practice sessions day after day, the reality of what had nearly happened didn't sink in immediately. They were more worried about their own survival, and the chance to get some time off in a bathtub filled with ice didn't sound bad.

"Quitting never entered my mind," Stallings said. "I never gave it a thought. I tried to get a heat stroke, but I never once thought about packing up and going home."

Said Goehring, "I really can't remember any of my thoughts after realizing (Schroeder) had a heat stroke, all I wanted to do was not have one and make sure (Bryant) didn't think he could run me off."

For Goehring, every player not at practice represented an opportunity. A guard who would go on to earn All-America honors, he was last on Bryant's depth chart after spring practice. He started out at A&M under the previous coaching regime on what he called a trial scholarship, and approached Bryant about whether that was going to still be honored.

"No, you're still not a football player," Bryant told him.

Goehring responded with a profanity and an offer.

"I had a bit of a temper," Goehring said. "I don't know what made me do this, but I jumped out of the chair and said, '(Expletive deleted), let's make a deal.' I was desperate. I said, 'Let me come back this fall, and if I make the team I get a scholarship. If not, you can run (me) off.'"

Bryant tried to do that in Junction, but Goehring was just too tough to quit.

"Some of these guys ahead of me started leaving," he said. "I saw I had a chance to get a scholarship. I had to show him that I was tough. (Bryant) even had the trainer tell me to pack my bags.

"That's when I made the statement that, 'I was here before you got here, I'm going to be here when you guys are gone.' "

The untold story

What was left of the Texas A&M team returned to College Station soon after Schroeder's heat stroke, but what most don't know is that the practices didn't get any easier. Players from Bryant's previous teams at Kentucky have described practices that were just as severe as those in Junction, and Texas A&M players didn't notice any changes, apart from the location.

"I always kid them about it, all of us that lasted the four years here, that they only had three Junctions the way we looked at it and we had four," Crow said. "When they came back from Junction, the practices I don't think changed a great deal, they just moved them.

"I think 12 of us (in my class) wound up being here at the end, and there were over 100 of us that were here as freshmen. There were a lot of people who didn't agree with the way he did things, obviously, but there 12 of us who did."

Crow also reminds that practices without water breaks were the norm at that time.

"People tell me that was cruel, that he didn't let you have water or anything else, but that was the way it was," Crow said. "At high school practice we didn't have water either."

Goehring points out that it was also a different time, and that Texas A&M was not a place for the weak-kneed.

"It was all male," he said. "We marched to chow three times a day, including the athletes. Nothing on campus had air conditioning. It was just a military camp, really.

"It's only seven years after World War II. Blood and guts, that's what they went through. It was a tougher mentality in those days."

To Stallings, much of what happended at Junction is still a blur.

"The first day of practice, I remember that pretty well," he said. "And then when he said it was time to go home, I remember that."

Had it not been for the oppressive weather and horrid practice field conditions, Junction would likely be forgotten by any but those who were part of Bryant's boot camp.

"The bottom line and what made it so bad was the facilities were so bad," Stallings said.

The master plan

In truth, Bryant didn't expect to find Junction such a barren place. "He looked at that and said once (in later years), 'I thought I was going to puke after I looked at it,' " Goehring said. The coach did expect to put his team through hell to find out who really belonged.

"Part of the reason the upperclassmen left Junction was the very fact that it was a new regime," Bryant wrote in his autobiography. "A change is going to disrupt anybody, and a radical change is going to discourage a lot of people.

"We were a change, and I told them it made sense to quit if they couldn't adapt."

Goehring also notes that substitution rules were different then: If a player left a game for any reason, he couldn't return until the start of the next quarter. Players played both offense and defense, requiring a higher level of fitness.

"He had to condition everybody to the extent that they could play the whole game if they had to, the whole four quarters," Goehring said. Those who survived Junction formed the heart of Bryant's conference championship team at A&M. Their toughness was complemented by the physical talent of Bryant's later recruits. Bryant fielded his only losing team in that first season with the Aggies but went undefeated (with a tie) two years later.

"We just won one game and lost nine that first year," Stallings said, "but he sort of built the nucleus of the team."

No apologies

Bryant didn't look back on Junction with regret.

"The players who were with us took pride in how tough it was," he wrote. "A lot of them ... sit around now, laughing and lying and telling big stories.

"And to tell the truth, if I had a kid now I would like him to go through what they did, that's how strongly I believe in it."

The survivors also still believe. Stallings and Jack Pardee went on to become head coaches in both college and the National Football League. Goehring founded a bank. Others became accomplished financiers or petroleum engineers or attorneys or educators with doctorate degrees. "Nearly every one of them in their chosen fields turned out to be successful," Stallings said.

Said Goehring, "Everybody that came back graduated, and all those guys went out and made a lot of money. Everybody was successful. It's unusual."

Unusual, perhaps, but not without explanation. The lessons of Junction stayed with those survivors.

"I look at it like this, there's a Junction in everybody's life," Goehring said. "It comes in different forms. This was a junction that took us in the right direction with an attitude that was positive: once we got back, we knew we were going to have a winning team, there wasn't any question about that. That germinated into what made us successful in the business world."

Reach Tommy Deas at tommy@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0224.



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