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Former Alabama head coach Gene Stallings is a veteran of some of the roughest training camps when he played for Paul "Bear" Bryant.
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Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Ten days in hell with the Bear
By Jim Dent
Special to

Out along the edge of the Texas Hill Country, with temperatures soaring beyond 110 degrees, the Texas A&M Aggies gathered that summer in 1954. It was supposed to be a typical preseason football training camp.

It was hardly that.

Bear Bryant
Paul "Bear" Bryant coached Texas A&M to a 25-14-2 record from 1954-57.
Junction was a flyspeck on the Texas map when the two Greyhound buses made their way through the winding two-lane highway to this place that was nothing but rocks, sandspurs, rattlesnakes and turkey buzzards. No one knew what Paul "Bear" Bryant had in mind when the buses pulled through the front gate of the distant outpost in the rocky hills. He had been hired six months earlier as a kind of savior of Aggie football. And in the rugged country known as Junction, Texas, some three hundred miles from the A&M campus, the legendary coach took his players to hell and back. The Aggies were short on talent that season and, as Bryant said, he wanted to "separate the quitters from the keepers."

The recent passing of Florida fullback Eraste Austin and Vikings tackle Korey Stringer invoke memories of those ten days of misery forty-seven years ago when players quit the team in droves to avoid the four-hour practices that did not include water breaks or even a kind word from Bryant. It was a miracle that no one died. Several suffered from heat prostration and tackle Billy Schroeder was saved on his deathbed by a wily old doctor named John Wiedeman who packed the boy's body in ice. Schroeder, who still suffers physically from the heat stroke, remembers the out of body experience at the infirmary in downtown Junction. He remembers floating to the ceiling and then watching the doctors and two nurses attending to his body. He still carries the image of student trainer Billy Pickard standing over him and bawling like a newborn calf, believing the star player was dead.

Schroeder was not the only player to suffer. Each day, exhausted players were drug by their heels off the practice field. Some could barely walk due to the "blind wobbles." At the end of practice, they would rush into the shower room and gulp water from the faucets. Then they would fall to the ground and flop like boat-bound marlin on the floor as their leg muscles cinched up into steely balls. You could hear their painful howls from the cramping all the way down to the South Llano River, more than a football field away, where some of the exhausted boys waded into the cool river in full uniform. One day, fullback Jack Pardee lost twenty pounds in a single practice.

Over a period of two years, I interviewed all of the Junction survivors and many of the quitters for a book published by St. Martin's Press in 1999 titled "The Junction Boys." Gene Stallings, who would later coach the Cowboys secondary for fourteen years, and lead Alabama to a national title in 1992, uttered the most unforgettable line about the hell camp; "We went out there in two buses and came back in one."

Players ran off in the middle of the night. Some hitchhiked back to College Station. The ones who were brave enough to inform Bryant they were quitting received a free ride to the bus station and a ticket home. For the most part, they scurried across the dusty and rocky grounds through the moonlit darkness as the others yelled from their beds, "Tell the girls back in College Station we said howdy! Tell 'em we'll be home soon."

A common scene at seven in the morning in downtown Junction was Rob Roy Spiller encountering a dozen or so Aggie players as he opened the bus station. Each morning, Rob Roy would slide the key into the lock and then set his gaze on the way worn boys.

"Where would y'all like to go this morning?" he would say.

Typically, one of the boys would respond, "We don't care. First bus out." Fortunately, most of the morning buses were heading east, in the direction of College Station. Otherwise, they might be trekking to El Paso.

The facilities in Junction were crude beyond Wild West standards. There was no water or ice on the practice field or even orange peels or wet towels. The closest doctor was miles away in downtown Junction. Trainer Smokey Harper was more of a drinking buddy to Bryant than a reliever of pain. He had two remedies: "If the pain is above the neck, take an aspirin. If the pain is below the neck, take a hot shower." He labored in the training room with a bottle of I.W. Harper stuffed in the back pocket of his jeans. One day he told struggling guard Dennis Goehring, "You ain't worf a spit. Why don't you just quit and give us back our scholarship."

"I was here when you got here," Goehring blustered, "and I'll be here when you're gone." Goehring went on to become an All-America and, ironically, still offices in the shadows of the A&M campus. Harper left Texas in 1958.

It was reported that when Austin suffered his heat stroke and passed out in Gainesville that four trainers and three conditioning coaches were present. The Minnesota Vikings, as with all NFL teams, were fully staffed with doctors and trainers when Stringer collapsed.

Compared to today's standards of athletic health care, Junction offered little more than a box of band-aids.

When Schroeder collapsed during a punt drill, he had to be stuffed into the backseat of Pickard's old Ford. With Schroeder's legs sticking out, Pickard was unable to shut the door. He had to proceed with caution across a bridge to make sure the flopping door didn't slam into a retaining wall.

Only once did an ambulance visit the practice grounds that were infested with rocks, cactus and goatheads, a gnarly little sticker that punctured both the skin and tractor tires. The driver pulled up to the field and rolled down the window. He was there to pick up quarterback Elwood Kettler, who had been X-rayed that morning at the infirmary.

"The boy needs to come back to the hospital," the driver said. "He's got four broken bones in his back."

Pickard pointed to the middle of the practice field where Kettler was leading the first team offense in a full-scale scrimmage. Pickard then suggested to the ambulance driver that if he hauled a stretcher onto the field, Bryant would find something creative to do with it. He roared off with dust boiling up behind him.

On the ninth day of the hell camp, Bryant counted heads and learned that seventy-six players had quit. With the Aggies running short of centers with the departure of All-Southwest Conference standout Fred Broussard, Bryant was forced to issue a uniform to 150-pound student manager Troy Summerlin, thus reviving one of the grand traditions of Texas A&M -- The Twelfth Man.

When the one bus did pull out of Junction on the tenth day, Bryant could count his blessings that nobody had died. What is remarkable about Junction is that twenty-five healthy players were still standing at the end. How is it possible that Gene Stallings and Jack Pardee and Elwood Kettler and Dennis Goehring would not succumb to heat stroke that killed healthy men like Autin and Stringer?

Perhaps the most remarkable comparative statistic is provided by The Center's Survey of football injury that is updated annually. From 1931 to '59, only five football deaths were attributed to heat stroke. But from 1960 to 2000, there were 103.

Theories abound. Is it possible that the Junction Boys survived because their bodies were leaner -- they generally weighed around 185 pounds -- and they were better acclimated to the heat, having worked the hot summers as ranch hands and oilfield roughnecks? Is it plausible that they were actually in better shape because, in that era of one-platoon football, players went both ways? Some participated for sixty minutes.

Not once during the hell camp did a Junction Boy take a drink of water on the practice field. Today, water coolers dot every sideline. A doctor once told Bryant, "You don't pour cold water into a hot engine. So why would you pour cold water into a hot boy?" That kind of archaic thinking should have gotten somebody killed. But it didn't.

There will never be another Junction hell camp. The next year, the NCAA outlawed preseason camps beyond campus. Today, Bryant might be jailed for what he subjected the players to some fifty years ago.

That season of 1954, the Aggies finished 1-9, and it would be Bryant's only losing season in thirty-eight years of coaching. But the Junction Boys provided the nucleus of an unbeaten team that almost won the national championship two years later. The Junction experience is still regarded as the turnaround of Aggie football.


Jim Dent is the author of "Junction Boys." His new book, the soon to be released "The Undefeated," will chronicle the Oklahoma Sooners and college football's greatest winning streak.

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