MELISSA – Forty years ago this September, George James was beginning his senior year as starting offensive left tackle for the Texas Longhorns. That campaign would end with an 11-1 record and another Southwest Conference title for the Horns, the 23rd in their storied history. In fact, James' All-SWC career at Texas included two conference championships, as well as a 23-7 SWC mark and a 34-12-1 record overall.
After a standout career at Sherman High School, James played three years for famed Longhorns coach Darrell K. Royal and one for Royal's successor, Fred Akers. At UT, James blocked for Heisman trophy-winner Earl Campbell, rubbed shoulders with a Texas governor and was on a first-name basis with Willie Nelson.
James and his wife Nancy have called Melissa home for 30 years. Their kids, Monica, 26, and son Grant, 25, have started successful careers after college. Grant played left tackle for the Melissa Cardinals and graduated from Texas State University. Monica was a scholarship basketball player for and graduated from St. Edwards University in Austin.
James is in his 16th year of service to Melissa Schools' board of trustees and is currently board president. He's also president of the Melissa Education Foundation, deacon chairman at First Melissa Baptist church and PA announcer at Cardinal football games. Just this year he was named citizen of the year by the Melissa Area Chamber of Commerce. Oh — and his George James Realty business is successful by any measure.
Ask James how he has time for all that and he'll say, “I don't watch a lot of TV.”
So with football still weeks away, please enjoy this gridiron saga from a local sports veteran. We plan more before summer is through.
“I was recruited by everybody in the country when I was in high school,” James, 61, said from his Country Ridge home on July 7. “But I was making a football decision. I wasn't making an education decision. My dream was to play in the National Football League, like many.”
James said he was impressed when his daughter, a three-sport star at Melissa, was more interested in an education than in a college's athletic prowess. She accepted a basketball scholarship at academically-robust St. Edwards, a Division II school, over some D-I programs in her reach.
Still, things would work out quite well for James. His main goal was to play for a powerhouse program, but one nearby so his parents, Grady and Georgene James, could attend games. And that generally meant Texas, Oklahoma or Nebraska.
“Going to Notre Dame or Michigan or Ohio State or a California school,” James said. “That was never part of the mix, really, at all.”
James was a bruising defensive tackle for Sherman's Bearcats in a tough, early-70s district that included Plano and Richardson.
“We were good,” he said. “We weren't great.”
Sherman was determined then that its players would play one-way — and the offense got first-pick of linemen. James was told years later that the team's offensive coordinator, a quite religious man, had heard James cuss one day and decided to pass on him, which made defensive line coach Ed Hunt deliriously happy.
That bit of cussing was fortuitous not only the Bearcat defense, but perhaps for James's collegiate career as well. Again, years later, James learned that Texas wasn't recruiting offensive linemen then — just defensive linemen. The Horns ran the ground-pounding Wishbone and wanted “mean and nasty” on the offensive line, James said, and defense is where they found it.
In recruiting James, Royal himself paid a visit to the James home. James had met Royal before and recalled him entering the house with, “Hi, George. Where's your dad?'”
Grady was in the garage making deer chili in a big pressure cooker. This is also where Grady kept a stash of Old Crow whiskey.
“They were out there, I don't know, three hours?” James said. “I'm sure Coach Royal was sick as a dog, because he's not used to that $5- a- gallon whiskey.”
Soon after that visit, James said his father told him, “Son, if you're going to live in Texas after you quit playing football, you ought to go to The University.”
James, who'd been having trouble deciding between Horns, Sooners and Huskers, signed with Texas.
“My dad loved Darrell Royal,” James said, “and he hated Barry Switzer.”
James said before his first practice at Texas, he noticed that he appeared nowhere on defensive depth chart. Checking the offense, James found himself listed as a seventh-team left tackle. From there he soon pushed into a starting role.
Before their '77 championship run, the Horns had suffered through a 5-5-1 campaign a year before.
“In defense of the '76 season, I was the seventh knee operation that year,” James said. “Earl's hamstrings were screwed up. He hardly ever played. We were all banged up.”
New coach Fred Akers dumped the Wishbone in '77 for another option offense — the Veer. The revamped Horns opened the season with crushing wins over Boston College, Virginia and Rice by a combined score of 184-15.
“We were running and gunning, man,” James said.
Left to right up-front, Texas had James, Rick Ingraham, Wes Huber, Jim Yarborough and David Studdard.
“I don't know if you've ever seen pictures of my offensive line when we used to come off the ball,” James said, “but it's a frightening thing. It's a horrific sight to see how fast, how quick, how we used to hit.”
James was a co-captain of that '77 team, along with defensive tackle Brad Shearer and linebacker Morgan Copeland.
“That's one of things I'm most proud of in life,” James said, “that I was a captain at Texas.”
For his senior season, the 6-4 James weighed about 245, with a 36-inch waist.
“That's how big we all were,” he said. “It's a completely different game. The game I played was played about this high off the ground,” he added, reaching toward the floor. “Now it's not. From an offensive lineman's standpoint, the position they want you to get in a lot of times now, in my day, you'd find yourself on the bench. I mean, it wasn't our job to shield people. … We were to fire out and reestablish the line of scrimmage, and if you watch us, we'd do that.”
James said the greatest victory he experienced at UT was finally defeating OU his senior year.
“We were obsessed with beating Oklahoma,” he said.
The Horns hadn't won this clash since 1970 and during James's tenure the Sooners had eked out two close wins and tie. Texas entered the '77 game at 4-0, ranked No. 5, while OU was No. 2, having survived a thrilling 1-point win at Ohio State.
In the first quarter, the Horns lost not only starting quarterback Mark McBath to injury, but also No. 2 QB Jon Aune.
“Well, it wasn't encouraging,” James laughed when asked how the O-line felt at that point. “We all had our own business to take care of, and we all did that. And we were going to do that no matter who was going to be back there. We were not a rah-rah team — at all.”
Into the game came little-known, unimposing red-shirt senior Randy McEachern, who hadn't even taken a snap that week. Lore had it that Campbell met McEachern halfway to the sideline and brought him into the huddle. But before a 2007 30th reunion, James said team members watched the game again and McEachern kept looking for Campbell's escort. It never came. It was James who met him halfway. James said when McEachern told him that at the reunion, he replied, “Randy – better story if Earl did it.”
McEachern and the Horns went on to win that day, 13-6.
James said his first time down the Cotton Bowl tunnel for a Texas-OU game did not disappoint.
“You know how people can build something up?” James said. “And it's never what the expectations are? That's not how this is.”
James recalls a cacophonous decibel level, starting at the north end of the bowl as Texas fans saw the Horns entering. It spread south as Sooner fans responded and the whole thing, James said, resulted in a crashing, continuous echo that seemed to lift the setting to surreal heights.
“You run out onto the field, and your feet never touch the ground,” he said.
“But when you're playing, it's just noise,” he said. “There's no people there. … It may be different for quarterbacks and receivers but as far as people that are going to just have a fight every play, it doesn't matter if you've got one person in the stands or a whole bunch of them.”
The Horns closed out that undefeated regular season with a 57-28 win at Texas A&M. Five weeks later, a National Championship was on the line when No. 1 Texas faced No. 5 Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. The Fighting Irish's 38-10 win that day — and Oklahoma's loss to Arkansas — lifted Notre Dame past Alabama in AP voters' minds for the title. Texas would finish No. 4.
“I tell people from time to time that they cheated,” James said of the Irish's victory. “They didn't tell us who Joe Montana was going to become.”
James calls the loss the most disappointing of his career.
“If I could go back in time, that's the one game I'm sure we all wish we could replay,” he said.
James noted that, as great as the Horns were that year, they weren't that deep.
“(The coaches) decided if we got anybody else hurt, we might as well not show up,” he said.
Only no-contact practices were held after Texas' Thanksgiving win over A&M.
“We all played pretty lousy,” James said. “We hadn't had contact in a month and half.”
Throw in the Horns' six turnovers that day and the die was cast.
Of Earl and DKR
Asked about blocking for Earl Campbell, James said, “You've got to realize, we're players, we're not fans. It's a little bit different. … It's only after the fact that you think about that. When we were playing, we knew he was good, but he was mostly 'our running back.' We were doing our job and Earl was certainly doing his job. It was later on that he was tagged as one of the greatest running backs of all time.”
James does recall one instance early on when he got a good, live glimpse of Campbell's striking ability. It was when the Horns were playing Colorado in Houston's Bluebonnet Bowl during James's sophomore year. Texas had called a rare “student body right” play with a pitch going to Campbell. The entire line moved right at the snap and James had a tough assignment – getting inside the defensive tackle while charging down the line. But the defender stunted outside, basically blocking himself on the play, which allowed James to come up and glance toward the sideline as Campbell planted his right foot and bolted up-field.
“And I'm going, 'Wow,'” James said. “I'd never gotten to see him play. I was busy. That was probably one of the most impressive things I've ever seen, to see him plant and go up the field. … Earl and I were close. We both started as freshmen so we kind of hung around. We would do some stuff together.”
As for Royal, “Obviously, he was a great, great man,” James said. “I'm not saying it's not like that now, but think about what I had around me. I had Darrell Royal, (offensive line coach) Willie Zapalac, (offensive coordinator) Leon Manley. I mean, the quality of these people. …”
James recalls that after Baylor's 1974 “Miracle on the Brazos” — the Bears' first win over Texas in 18 years — Royal went to Baylor's locker room to congratulate the victors.
“He was just a real class act,” James said.
He added that he believes the stress of having to win caused Royal — and recently, OU's Bob Stoops – to retire fairly young.
“Oklahoma-Texas, after so many years, what happens is there's no joy in winning,” he said, “You are so expected to win, there's only losing.”
James recalled then-Texas governor Dolph Briscoe rolling up in his limousine and taking him for a ride or for a visit to the Governor's Mansion. More than once Briscoe even visited his dorm room. James said he had “blinders” on then – was totally immersed in football — and thought nothing of it.
“He was trying to get close to me because there was a political advantage in it,” James said. “And I don't know that. … I just thought he wanted to be friends.”
As a freshman when Texas played Auburn in the Gator Bowl, James said he was summoned by Royal to Royal's hotel suite where he entered to find the room packed with celebrities. There, Royal introduced him to James Garner, Tommy Smothers, Willie Nelson and others whom Royal said wanted to meet him. James would later run into Nelson at a UT basketball game and exchange a “Hey, Willie” and a “Hey, George” with the country music legend.
When asked how football had impacted his life James said, “It started my life.”
When he was unable to pass his initial physical with the Buffalo Bills, Texas took him back on scholarship as an assistant coach. His knee surgery in '76 had come during finals, resulting in a medical withdrawal from school. He still had a semester coming to finish his business degree, and he did.
While there, a coach put him touch with a Xerox Corporation manager who firmly believed past athletes were great sales people. James and former Houston Cougar quarterback Danny Davis were hired out of about 600 applicants.
“The point is,” James said, “I don't get hired by Xerox if it's not for Texas. Texas made sure I had a start.”
From there James moved into a successful career in information systems and computer software.
As for the game itself James said, “I'm sure it's helped give me a tremendous amount of confidence when I meet with people.”
He added that he has also realized that life, like football, is about earning and maintaining trust.
“When I was a defensive lineman I had to take care of certain things,” James said. “When I was an offensive lineman, I had to take care of certain things. And I did it well enough to where a lot of people trusted me. … Success in life is all about trust, and perhaps I learned that in football — that I had to be worthy of the team's trust.”
These days, James still has lots of folks' trust — and he clearly appreciates that.