Summer in central Texas can be an unforgiving experience. But for Scott Appleton and the other seniors on the University of Texas' 1963 football team, the prospect of voluntary workouts amid the scorching elements was more appealing than a repeat of the near misses that had frustrated them during the previous two seasons.
The 1961 Longhorns appeared bound for the school's first national championship, building an 8-0 record and No. 1 Associated Press ranking before stumbling at home against TCU in mid-November. On a similar path, the '62 team tied Rice in late October to fall out of the title chase.
So a group of irritated Longhorns -- led by tri-captains Appleton, Tommy Ford and David McWilliams -- gathered beneath the July sun and vowed their final pursuit of what they considered their destiny wouldn't end with the same foul taste.
"We'd gone through two years where we'd had heartbreaks," said Ford, a two-way back from San Angelo, "and we just weren't going to let it happen. With players that are very determined and very talented, a lot of good things happen."
Everything did go right, resulting in the first of Texas' four national titles. The Longhorns claimed the championship by going 10-0 during the regular season, then going out and stifling No. 2 Navy and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Roger Staubach in the Cotton Bowl Classic.
Staubach looks back at his college and pro careers, and rates two defenses as the best -- the Pittsburgh Steelers who beat his Dallas Cowboys twice in Super Bowls and the Texas Longhorns who chased him all day on Jan. 1, 1964.
Appleton, who died in 1992 at the age of 50, was the catalyst of that defensive effort, a two-way tackle at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds whose pursuit of perfection was never left on the football field. He won the Outland Trophy as the nation's best lineman and rose to rarefied air for a lineman by finishing fifth in the Heisman balloting.
"He was the complete competitor," said McWilliams, who played center and defensive tackle and later coached Texas Tech and Texas. "In the dorm, it was who could flat foot most steps. Pitching quarters at a line. Arm wrestling. Limbo with a broom. I learned how to compete from him: 'Do not give up.'
"He was really a defensive guard. We played a wide tackle six. He lined up inside, over either the left guard or right guard. He had the greatest feet. I never saw him on the ground. He just jumped over the blocker. He had great flexibility."
Said Ford: "Back then, he was on the bigger side of defensive linemen. He was extremely smart about how to play in certain situations."
McWilliams, Appleton's roommate that year, said he learned Appleton was fifth for the Heisman only from a dining hall conversation.
"He didn't say anything to me about it," McWilliams said, no surprise in his voice. "That would have been just like him."
The Longhorns who ran and lifted and ran some more during the summer of '63 began the season ranked fifth and were second when they headed to Dallas in mid-October for their annual meeting with Oklahoma during the State Fair of Texas. But the Sooners came in No. 1, having grabbed that position from Southern Cal two weeks earlier thanks to their 17-12 victory over the Trojans at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
OU was a 3 1/2-point favorite, which had the Horns flummoxed because they'd beaten the Sooners each of the previous five years. They also were irked by quotes coming from Norman that Texas couldn't move the ball against OU and couldn't compete with the Sooners' offense.
Texas' 28-7 victory on an unusually warm autumn afternoon at the Cotton Bowl was a stage for the Longhorns' defense and Appleton in particular. Texas held OU to 190 total yards and put the game out of reach by building a 21-0 lead. The Longhorns sealed the win by holding the ball for the game's final five minutes.
Coach Darrell Royal had Appleton focus on defense that afternoon, not using him as an offensive tackle. Early in the third period, Appleton's pressure forced a wayward pitch for OU running back Lance Rentzel in Sooners territory.
McWilliams stripped the ball loose, and it was recovered by Appleton at Oklahoma's 18-yard line. A few minutes later, Texas led by three touchdowns only five minutes into the second half.
"Oklahoma hadn't beaten us in years, yet we were placed in an inferior role," Appleton told reporters after the game. "Man, I tell you, the captains didn't have to say a thing to get the team in the mood to play this game."
According to McWilliams, saying little or nothing was often Appleton's M.O.
"Come game day, he didn't talk," McWilliams said.
The Longhorns marched through the season unbeaten at 10-0, rallying from a 13-3 deficit at Texas A&M to win 15-13 despite being 14-point favorites. Heavy rains the night before had left the field a quagmire since it wasn't covered by a tarp. The Aggies afterward conceded they should have covered the field but also noted there already was a dearth of grass because someone had burned into it the word "Bevo," the name of Texas' mascot.
"Going into Texas when we were freshmen, we were told early on there were three football games that were must-wins: Oklahoma, Arkansas and A&M," Ford said. "We were fortunate enough never to lose to any of those teams."
With the poll done for the year, national champion Texas was matched against No. 2 Navy on New Year's Day.
Ironically, the Midshipmen's only loss came against SMU in a game played at the Cotton Bowl stadium the night before the Texas-OU game.
Some Eastern media contended Navy was the nation's best team, questioning the quality of Texas' Southwest Conference competition. In the Longhorns' 28-6 win, Appleton had 12 tackles and sacked the mercurial Staubach twice.
If Appleton wasn't already the state's most popular football player, he became its most followed as the first-round draftee of both the Dallas Cowboys and the American Football League's Houston Oilers. When asked how long he would need to decide whom to sign with, he replied, "How long do I have?"
Turned out the choice was somewhat easier to make.
The Cowboys traded his rights to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Appleton became an Oiler.
His pro career as a 260-pound defensive tackle never approached his college feats. Appleton played three relatively nondescript seasons with Houston and another two with San Diego.
"He had short arms," McWilliams said. "In the pros, he had trouble rushing the passer. He was more of a running game player."
Football behind him, Appleton became consumed by alcohol, the same affliction that had led to his father's suicide in 1973. McWilliams recalls coming upon Appleton years after their days together in Austin.
"In three days, he drank three bottles of whiskey," McWilliams said. "Drank a fifth of whiskey a day for a year or more."
McWilliams said that when he next saw Appleton a few years later, his friend said he'd discovered Jesus Christ, stopped drinking and become a minister.
"Quit drinking cold turkey," McWilliams said. "You can't tell me somebody can't quit something."
Appleton died of a heart attack in March 1992.
"He needed a heart transplant but declined," McWilliams said. "Said he was right with God. And he died a short time later."