I have always had a love for the game of football. I’m not sure why or how, but from my earliest days, I can remember watching games on the old black and white television with my Dad and/or other family members. I was in the second grade, I think, when I saw my first football game on TV that was in color. I can still close my eyes and see the colors of that game and I still remember that Notre Dame was playing.
When I was six years old, my family went on a trip to see my Uncle Alton and Aunt Shirley in Dallas and I got to choose between going to Six Flags or going to a Dallas Cowboy game. One of the easiest decisions of my life. I can still remember watching in total fascination as my beloved Dallas Cowboys lost to the mighty New York Giants. Those were the Giants of Sam Huff, Andy Robustelli, Frank Gifford, Rosey Grier, and Y. A. Tittle. The Cowboys were led by quarterback, Eddie LeBaron, all 5′-7″, 168 pounds of him.
Even though the Cowboys lost, they were my team. I was determined that after I finished a stellar career playing for the Oklahoma Sooners, I would “take my talents” to Dallas and help the Cowboys become a winner. When you are six years old, anything seems possible.
When I was 9 years old, I broke my arm again(long story) because a bone tumor had returned after an earlier break when I was 6. As I was laying in the hospital bed after surgery, my Dad told me that he would take me any where I wanted to go to watch a football game. As I look back on it, that was a good deal for my Dad because he loved football as much as anyone I have ever known. A few months later, we decided that we would take a trip to Dallas with my brother and my best friend, Kent Gravely.
It would be the football weekend of all football weekends. We would attend the Plano vs. Decatur, TX high school play-off game on Friday night. The S.M.U. vs. Arkansas Razorbacks in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday afternoon along with the North Texas vs. Memphis on Saturday night. On Sunday, we watched the Dallas Cowboys beat the Pittsburg Steelers. I have told many people that my greatest time and memory as a son was spending that weekend with my Dad. It went off with only one hitch. At half-time of the Memphis vs. North Texas game, we caught one of the mini -footballs that they threw into the stands.
Of course, we had to try it out and went under the stadium to play some catch. I threw a beautiful pass to my friend Kent, but led him a bit too much and he ran full speed into one of the concrete columns that supported the home stands. After cleaning up the blood for a few minutes, we hauled him back to his seat and watched the rest of the game. I guess if no bones were sticking out in those days, no need to visit the hospital.
As I got older and realized that for some amazing reason, Barry Switzer wasn’t the least bit interested in the 5′-10″, 175 pound linebacker from Ardmore, Oklahoma. I had to adjust my goals. It also occurred to me that no other Division I coach in the country was going to offer me. The really bad news is that no single college, regardless of division, was going to offer me a single cent to play football at their school. I did get a few letters from Wichita State, Northeastern Oklahoma(they actually sent a letter to me addressed to “prospect”), and Harding College, which I have proudly saved to this day.
After going through the tedious recruiting process(tedious because of the fact that I had trouble finding anyone to take me as a walk-on), I made my big decision. We called a news conference, I laid 5 or 6 caps on a table, and after faking towards the Northeastern State hat, I smiled a huge smile and stuffed the Harding College cap on my head. The crowd went crazy and I told everyone there just how tough a decision it was and how glad I was that the recruiting process was over. I told the reporters that the coaches at Harding were really cool and nice and they seemed to really be interested in me getting my doctorate in Astrophysiology.
I guess it didn’t exactly go that way. It went more like after Southeastern Oklahoma State turned me down(they had promised my high school coach they would offer me a books scholarship), I decided to call Coach Prock at Harding to tell him I was “committing” to walking on at Harding. The conversation went like this, “Coach Prock?, this is Rick Jones”. “I have decided to come to Harding to play college football for the Bison”. After an excruciating pause, Coach Prock said, “Hey, that’s great news, what did you say your name was?” I guess you could say that Coach Prock was underwhelmed.
After deciding to walk on at Harding, I determined that my next goal was to make the traveling squad as a Freshman. I worked hard that summer to be in the best shape possible. I was determined that I would be on that bus to Stephenville, TX, to play Tarleton State College week #1.
Mom and Dad drove me 9 hours to Searcy, Arkansas, dumped me out of their car, and said, “we’ll see you Thanksgiving”.
Well, it wasn’t quite that fast. Mom did stay around long enough to make my dorm room bed and my unknown roommate’s bed with her matching bedspreads. She assured me it would be okay because when she went to school, her roommate and her always had matching bedspreads. When my unknown roommate saw his bed with the matching bedspread, he said, not too nicely, “Jones, get that crap off my bed.” The future “Coach Huck” was not the least bit concerned about having matching bedspreads.
The first thing we did when we got to campus was to go to the football office and re-introduce myself to Coach Prock. I remember looking at his really fancy wooden depth chart that hung on his wall. It had pins and rings, and nice, round tags to hang the names of all players. Well, almost all of the players. There were a few of us not quite worthy to be on the depth chart. These guys names were written on a piece of scratch paper and stuck on the wall below the actual depth chart. I quickly scanned the names at linebacker and was sick to see that I was one of the 5 or 6 guys that were deemed unfit to even be on the depth chart. My optimistic Dad actually saw the same thing and remarked to me, “Well, Rick, you are 5th team linebacker, there’s no where to go but up.”
After a couple weeks of three-a-days, with 6 salt tablets before each practice, and 6 salt tablets after each practice, I walked into the locker room on the Thursday before the first game and looked and looked for my name on the travel squad list that had been posted. No matter how many times I looked, I didn’t find my name on it anywhere. I took a shower and went back to look again in the event the coaches had made a mistake, but my name was not on it.
I called my Mom and tried not cry, to no avail. She suggested I catch a bus to Dallas on Saturday and they would pick me up and take me to the game in Stephenville. I said no, only a loser would do something that goofy. Later that night, a buddy of mine on the team told me that I could ride with him and his parents to the game. I was pumped. At least I would get to watch the game from the stands. The plan was to pick me up at my dorm at 8 am on Saturday morning. Since the freshmen dorms were not air-conditioned, I decided to stay in a buddy’s room in an air-conditioned dorm. I jumped out of bed at 7:15, walked to my dorm, and saw a note on the door that said, “We miscalculated the drive time and need to leave at 7 am.”
My ride had left me.
I called my Mom again that Saturday morning from the dorm hall phone and fought to not sob so loud that I would wake up my fellow loser teammates that had not made the trip. After telling Mom my story, she said to try to get a bus, and they would meet me in Dallas, and drive me to Stephenville to watch the game.
I packed my bag, went out to the street by the dorm, and hitchhiked a ride to the bus station in the nick of time. I got a lot of funny looks on the bus considering it was 1973 and my head was shaved as a result of our freshman football initiation. In fact, the week before, I was called a “baby killer” at the Grand Funk Railroad concert in Little Rock, but that is another story for another day. All I knew was that I was going to the game. I was making the trip, even though I hadn’t made the “squad”.
My folks picked me up at Dallas, and drove me to the game. We had plenty of time before kick-off, but I wanted to see my team warm up. I went to the lady at the ticket booth, pointed to my shaved head and said, “I play for Harding”. She looked at me dismissively and said, “If you really were a player, you’d already be here. that’ll be $3.50”. I realized that she was right, and I forked over the $3.50.
As I walked across the field towards where the Bisons(I know it should be Bison, but we do things differently at Harding) were warming up, my position coach, Coach Sharp, saw me and said, “Jones, we have an extra uniform. ” ” If you want to dress out, you can.” My first thought was to decline, since I had already paid my $3.50 to watch the game. But after a few seconds, I dashed into the locker room and began putting on the “Black and Gold” on game day for the first time. I can’t imagine what Coach Prock must have thought when he saw that knucklehead Freshman from Oklahoma putting on his uniform during his pre-game pep talk.
The game was a blast. We played really well and in the 4th quarter, we were up 28-0. I was having the time of my life. I was a college football player. I was cheering my guys on to victory. Tom Ed Gooden, Alan “Snake” Dixon, Bubba Watkins, Barney Crawford, and the rest of “my team” was wearing out those boys from Tarleton. Sometime in the middle of the 4th quarter, Coach Sharp came up to me and said the best words a scrub can ever hear, “Jones, get in the game!” I flew off the sideline and ran onto the field. I couldn’t feel my feet on the ground. I was in the game! Coach Sharp let me play the rest of the game at linebacker.
After the game, Coach Prock came up to me and said, “Jones, is it true you hitchhiked, got on a bus, rode with your parents, and paid to get in the game?” “Yes sir, that’s true.” He looked at me and said, “If you want to make the trips that badly, we’ll let you ride with us the rest of the year”. He even let me ride the bus back from the game.
I would guess, that in the entire history of college football, I am in a pretty small group of players that has actually bought a ticket to attend a game and end up playing in it. Of course, the famous story in 1921, of E. King Gill, the 12th Man at Texas A&M, is the most well-known of all. He was in the press box when the Aggies were short of bodies and Coach Dana X. Bible told him to “come on down and get dressed out”.
I never told a lot of people about my first college game. It is a little bit embarrassing to be honest. But as I get older, I realize that the story is a pretty good lesson in perseverance. It would have been a lot easier to go to school and focus on having a great time; however, I would never trade my time playing football at Harding with all my “brothers”, for anything.
I had the time of my life.
5 Things Not Being a Division I Recruit Taught Me:
- Sometimes, you have to adjust your goals
- Appreciate what you have and don’t spend time worrying about what you don’t have
- If you REALLY want to, you can find a way.
- College football is not easy, but if you play with the right guys, it can be one of the best things you do in your life.
- Winston Churchill was right…………………………..Never, never, never, give up.