College Football Hall of Fame Inducts Former Longhorn
January 09, 2017
It was his senior year at Crane High School, and he was the pride of a school rooted in an ancient part of Texas called "The Permian Basin." Native Americans had settled the land, and cattlemen had driven herds through Castle Gap (which was only a few yards wide) and through the waters of the Pecos River at Horsehead Crossing.
Crane, Texas, was the county seat of a county which once had way more cattle than it did people. Farming was not an option; it was a dry land which usually netted just a little over 12 inches of rain a year. One hundred years ago, Crane County had no roads and its census report showed a population of 37 people and 4,700 cattle.
Business, however was about to pick up. In 1926, beneath the land which alternated between prairie and the southwestern desert of Texas, oil was discovered. It may have had little to no rain, but its liquid wasn't far away. Crane County was right smack in one of the richest oil fields in America.
By the time Bob McKay was headed for his coach's office in the mid-1960s, the Crane ISD was one of the richest school districts in the state. Twenty years later, in 1982, the county reported earnings of $1.5 million from the cattle industry, and a whopping $810 million from oil and gas production.
But even so, it was a lot closer to nowhere than it was to anywhere.
That is why Bob McKay was surprised when he saw a stranger sitting at his coach's desk. With his sun shade laying on the table and his feet propped right beside him, the visitor said in his Southern drawl, "Hi. My name is Mike Campbell. I'm from The University of Texas, and I'd like to talk to you about playing football."
The tall, lanky McKay was speechless. Crane is over 350 miles and more than a six-hour drive from Austin, and Crane was a town of just over 3,000 people and played Class AA football.
"I was surprised he could find Crane. I couldn't say anything but 'yes sir' and 'no sir.' I was as scared of him as I was a man with a loaded shotgun," McKay remembers over fifty years later.
"Awhile later, he and Coach Royal came to see me and it was like a parade. Everybody in town wanted to see him. I remember coach Royal saying, 'We've got a scholarship if you'd like to have it. But if you don't, we've got somebody else that will take it.' I said 'well, that solves the problem right there.' I wasn't smart enough to know I wasn't supposed to come to Texas to play football. I thought I could play with anybody. That's what you get for being an 18-year-old kid and being just dumber than hell. I thought I was supposed to come here and play."
Turns out, he was.
Monday, the National Football Foundation announced McKay as the 18th Longhorn player to be inducted into their College Football Hall of Fame. He and the other new members will be enshrined at the organization's 60th awards dinner in New York in December.
McKay, who earned all-American honors as an offensive tackle during his time at Texas in the late 1960s, is the first member of the Longhorns' national championship team of 1969 to be inducted. He was part of the golden era of Darrell Royal football at Texas during the 1960s. His presence in the offensive line was a major contribution to the success of the fabled "Wishbone" offense at Texas. In his final two seasons the Longhorns went 20-1-1, claiming two Southwest Conference championships, two Cotton Bowl victories and igniting what would turn out to be a 30-game winning streak from 1968 through the 1970 regular season.
McKay grew physically in tandem with the growth of the Texas program. He came in at six-feet-four-inches tall and 220 pounds, and when he left he was six-foot-five and weighed 260 pounds. Under the guidance of offensive line coaches Willie Zapalac and Leon Manley, McKay was part of an offensive line that simply overpowered opponents. Once, after eking out a 10-3 lead over SMU at halftime, McKay and his cohorts took over the game to lead UT to 611 yards rushing, with all four backs, including the quarterback, rushing for more than 100 yards each.
"He was a great leader," says Ted Koy, who was the right halfback in the Wishbone attack in both 1968 and 1969. "But even as big as he was, he didn't try to intimidate anybody. He led by cooperation. He had a way of convincing us to do it together. As a running back, you knew he was always going to do his job. If you just followed him, you were going in the right direction."
McKay loved the camaraderie that the team had, and he always felt it came from their time living together in the dorm.
"You are with each other all the time. You know who is gonna work hard and who is not, and the ones that are gonna cheat now will be the same guys who will cheat later. If he'll quit now, he'll quit later," he says.
McKay was a first-round draft choice in the NFL, and played nine years in the league—six with the Cleveland Browns and three with the New England Patriots. Then, he walked away from the game and returned to private business in Austin.
The irony of his being the only player selected from that 1969 team to the College Football Hall Fame is not lost on McKay.
"All of us did the work. You did your job to the best of your ability, and there were ten other guys doing the same thing."
While all of the bonds formed with those players were special, none was greater than the friendship carved between McKay and his quarterback, the late James Street.
Street was the acknowledged leader of the Texas Wishbone era, starting and winning 20 straight games from the third game of the 1968 season through the 1970 Cotton Bowl win over Notre Dame following the 1969 season. It was Street who tabbed McKay with nickname "Big 'un." And it was Street who was forever linked with McKay for several of the dramatic plays in the come-from-behind victory in the "Game of the Century" against Arkansas which earned the Longhorns their 1969 National Championship. Street died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2013 at the age of 65.
"I can tell you that right now Dad is smiling a thousand smiles of joy," says Street's son, Huston—who is in his 13th season as a Major League All Star pitcher. "Those two guys had a tremendous amount of love for each other. Their bond was based on trust. They had a way of communicating that only can be appreciated by a quarterback and a lineman whose job it is to lead and to protect. There were no excuses, just each holding themselves and each other accountable. Dad would tell Bob McKay stories for hours, and as a kid growing up, I remember he would use Bob McKay as inspiration of what you could achieve if you worked hard enough."
McKay and James Street and the others played at a time when Longhorn football players were like rock stars. They hung out with Elvis and legendary football players such as Doak Walker, and the Longhorns' first inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame—Bobby Layne.
Most are gone now, their legacies and legends passed on through those who have followed.
Crane, Texas, remains one of those enigmas of the soul of West Texas. It is a place where values come from the land, and the sweat and toil of extracting the oil that is underneath it. Yet every now and again, there comes a memory, where young Bob McKay is headed to Austin, where he will become known as "Big 'Un," a giant of a man (for his time) whose tears flow freely for happiness, and whose friendships transcend honors—even as he joins an elite group of college football players who are the best the game has ever known.