A small note before I proceed: Typically, my style is to be verbose and long-winded. I have a difficult time employing brevity — this note is one example — but I’m going to try to do that here. I always like to give a few musings on a book after I’ve completed it, but I’m not looking to write a treatise.
I recently finished the book The Junction Boys by Jim Dent. Some may be familiar with it as an ESPN special movie. Some may just be familiar with the legendary tale of Bear Bryant’s training camp in Junction. In any event, it’s weird how I sometimes come to read books and what I find myself in the mood to read. I happened to see this book sitting on a stack of boxes in my room and was like, “Okay, let’s do this.” I’m not a sports fan in the sense that others are. I hardly ever have an interest in sitting down and watching sports, attending sporting events or talking the nuances of sports. I do, however, quite fancy the history of sports and the behind-the-scenes aspects of the game and how its played. Generally, I have a fascination with people that excel at what they do and there’s no doubt that Bryant did just that.
It’s his methods that are up for dispute…
Here’s the lowdown: Bear Bryant was coaching in Kentucky, got frustrated with the school’s focus on the basketball coach and team, and decided to go to Texas A&M. The Texas A&M which hadn’t meant anything in decades (re: they kept losing). So, you take a guy like Bear Bryant, rugged, no-nonsense, tough up bringing and you put him in a situation where he has to whip a team into shape. He has to turn them from losers to winners. And to do that, he can’t abide by the status quote that the Aggies were accustom to. The best way Bear saw to put the Aggies through the grinder and churn out a winning football program was to take them to Junction.
Junction was an off-the-beaten-path small Texas town 300 miles from the A&M campus. It also had been knee-deep in a shitty drought for years. Most of the land was dried up and temperatures were a dry, scorching 110 degrees on most days. Notwithstanding, they practiced on a field that could hardly be described as a field. They did so two times a day for hours with no water breaks. Guys were running off in the night essentially saying, “Fuck this and fuck Bear Bryant.”
Some were playing with serious leg, head, arm, shoulder and a plethora of other injuries. One even had a heatstroke and literally almost died on the field and was back to practicing that day. Bryant didn’t give a shit if you were injured; in those days, you played. Football in the 1950s? No, thank you.
At one point, Bryant tired of a player unable to get passed two blockers. Bryant, pissed off, strolled up to the player, ripped his helmet off, grabbed him by the ears and headbutted him on the bridge of the nose multiple times. Broke the player’s nose of course and left some nasty black and blue eyes in the wake of his onslaught.
By the end of the Junction training camp, 111 players had dwindled to something like 35. Barely enough to field a team for play. But they did and ended up only winning one game that season. Then they were put on probation by the NCAA for underhanded recruiting practices. Still, the Junction Boys, particularly the eight highlighted in the book, had come to love Bryant and feel devotion to him and him to them. As the years went on and Bryant would become the most winning coach in three decades, he came to feel guilt about Junction.
But at the same time, those eight seemed to thank Bryant for turning them into tough men. It was a different time, clearly, back then. Did his methods work? Well, A&M went on to have a slew of successful seasons. It’s hard to argue with success, but it’s also hard to argue for those methods, which would surely land Bryant in jail in today’s world.
There was a nice bit, too, in the book where Elvis comes to the conservative Texas A&M campus early on when he was starting to break out and he did the most dastardly thing possible to those Aggies: He spit his gum out on the stage. They were ready to riot. Luckily for Elvis, they didn’t. Shake, rattle and roll, baby.
Growing up an Indiana Hoosier fan, I could help but think of “The General” — Bobby Knight’s coaching tactics as well as the devotion most of those who played for him still express. It’s an interesting dynamic. I still believe if I had a son I’d rather he play for John Wooden.