Slick and Company
It became a cliché. James Street? Winner. He wasn’t big, listed charitably at five-foot-eleven, stretching the truth by at least two inches,
and at 175 pounds. He wasn’t startlingly fast. Even his decision-making in the wishbone wasn’t perfect,
but he always seemed to make it work—if not on one particular play, then eventually. As a passer, he could look
like the star baseball pitcher he was in the spring, throwing a fastball through traffic. He also, occasionally, could
look like a Hungarian placekicker screwing around on the side of the field. But there was just something about the man
his teammates called not just “Rat,” but “Slick.” His shiny black hair and long sideburns were
reminiscent of an Elvis Presley impersonator. And when he got talking? He was a high-energy filibuster, a boulder rolling
downhill, Niagara Falls, Jim Brown on a sweep: unstoppable.
With so much emphasis
placed on his “winning” qualities, some could mistakenly infer that was a way of downplaying his shortcomings
as an athlete.
On the contrary, he was a terrific
all-around athlete. An undersized dynamo without a powerful arm, he wasn’t the prototypical quarterback. It was a
huge upset that he beat out Bradley, one of the most highly touted recruits in 1960s college football. He did because
the new offense worked so much better with the chatterbox calling—and then running—the plays. That’s how it was with Street: You measured him not only by what
he did himself, but by how others reacted to his presence.
He had been scrambling
all his life, growing up on what passed for the wrong side of the tracks in Longview, Texas, about fifty miles from Shreveport, Louisiana.
James’s father, Grover, had health problems and was a paranoid schizophrenic, convinced someone was lurking behind
the next tree and hoping to ruin his life. “He was pretty smart and he would come up with all these plans
about how people were trying to get him,” James says. Grover zealously coached his two boys, Sewell and James,
building a little backstop in the backyard with a cutout of the strike zone and telling them they must hit each
corner of the rectangle. “I never can remember him saying I did anything good,” James says. “It was
always expected of you to do good. But the reason you did good was because you were prepared. He would make you prepare.”
Sewell was older, and he felt the brunt of the attention, but when James came
home after pitching a no-hitter as a ten-year-old, Grover chewed him out because he couldn’t remember every “out”
“What does it matter?” snapped little
James. “I struck him out!”
matter today,” his father said sharply. “But it will matter someday! Someday, it will come back to haunt
you if you don’t understand what you’re doing!”
Grover left and
returned several times. Ultimately, he said he had to go back to his native Oklahoma—alone. “The world was
just trying to get him nand he had to move off,” James, who was about twelve, says. “I didn’t understand it,
and I got used to him not being there. I learned a lot from him before he left, though.”
James’s mother, Helen, and Grover divorced, and she started working at a department
store most of the day, then on the telephone for a home products firm for a few hours, then frequently baby-sat at night.
“The amazing part about her was the next morning at six-thirty, she would have breakfast cooked,” James
says. “So when I got up, there were eggs or pancakes. She seemingly never tired. I think I got a lot of my work
ethic from her.”
In junior high, James worked
in the school cafeteria to earn free meals. “I didn’t look at that as a bad thing because I could get all
the food I wanted!” James says. “We didn’t have much at home, but I didn’t know we didn’t
The Streets didn’t
have a television. James’s treasured possession was his little radio, and he listened to the scratchy broadcasts
of the St. Louis Cardinals games at night, dreaming of someday being in the rotation and hearing Harry Caray calling
He was a running back until ninth
grade, when he switched to quarterback. When Ty Bain, a new Longview High Lobos football coach, showed up, he blanched
when he saw one of his quarterbacks still working in the school cafeteria. “I need you to quit working,”
said Bain, who had grown up poor himself. “A quarterback shouldn’t be working back there in the back.”
James quit, and each Monday, Bain handed Street an envelope. Inside were two one-dollar
bills and two quarters. “That was fifty cents a day for my sister and me to eat on,” Street says. “I
thought I was rich!”
The owner of a local restaurant,
Jackson’s Café, also tried to help the fiery little quarterback. “Mr. Jackson said he wanted to give
me some money so I could buy some clothes,” James says. “I never thought I didn’t have clothes. What
did I need clothes for? I wouldn’t take it. So they came back to me and asked if I would work weekends. I said
I’d love to, and I’d work from seven in the morning until two in the afternoon on Saturday and Sunday. He
always paid me cash and I might have gotten ten dollars for the weekend. It seemed like a million at the time.”
James’s older brother, Sewell, by then was playing minor-league baseball, and
James was hoping to do the same thing. College? No way could the family afford it, and he didn’t dream anyone would
offer him a scholarship.
star was Loyd Phillips, who had gone off to play football at the University of Arkansas, and Loyd’s younger brother,
Terry Don, was a year older than James and one of his closest friends. Both the Phillips boys were big enough to
attract the attention of the college coaches and good enough to keep it; coaches had to look beyond Street’s size—to
his heart and his competitiveness.
As a junior at
Longview High in the spring of 1965, Street was pitching at Texarkana when an errant between-innings toss by a teammate
nailed him in the face. Blood poured from his nose, coming in intermittent floods. All Street did was take a towel
to the mound and put it down by the resin bag. Terry Don Phillips and the rest of Street’s teammates were incredulous.
Years later, Street and Phillips still have a friendly disagreement over that incident.
“He should remember
it,” Street says. “He threw the ball that nailed me!”
Responds Phillips: “I know he thinks
that, but I’m innocent! The point is, he got hit right in the nose and the cheekbone and he’s bleeding all
over. I mean, all over. He had a towel, his nose is bleeding, and he’d wipe off his nose between pitches and
go right on. He was just a great, great competitor.”
When James was
a senior at Longview, Terry Don was an Arkansas freshman. With the Phillips boys gone, the Longview Lobos didn’t
have much talent around the holdover quarterback. As his senior season began, the scrambling Street was regarded
as one of the top quarterbacks in East Texas, but a marginal college prospect. Loyd and Terry Don tried to convince the Arkansas
coaching staff to recruit him, but even Street still was thinking baseball first and was surprised when Southwest Conference
football coaches started contacting him during the Lobos’ 5–5 season. He weighed 155 pounds. He was
going to play baseball, and when a Texas A&M coach showed up at Longview High and asked him if he would play football
for the Aggies, Street responded: “Naw, I don’t want to cut my hair off.”
Oklahoma State and Texas Tech also contacted him, and he started to figure out
that college was a bona fide alternative to signing a pro baseball contract right out of high school. Texas—the
Longhorns!—asked him to make a visit to Austin. It wasn’t that Street lacked confidence; he just didn’t
picture himself as a football player.
Street also was
considering another school—the University of Arkansas.
lobbying efforts finally worked: The Razorback staff contacted Street, and then Frank Broyles called. It wasn’t
an all-out blitz, and it might have been a case of Broyles getting Loyd Phillips—one of the top players in
the country—off his back, but Broyles asked James to add the Razorbacks to his list of possibilities. “You have some friends here, James,” Broyles
said, “and we wish you’d consider becoming a Razorback.”
The thought was comforting: He could rejoin the big Phillips boys, his pals, in Fayetteville.
James sat down for a chat with his surrogate father, Mr. Jackson, at the café.
Street said he was leaning toward going to Arkansas, or at least making an official visit there.
“What about baseball?” Jackson asked. “Isn’t baseball what
you want to do?”
Texas’s baseball program,
then still under longtime coach Bibb Falk, was much higher-profile than the one at Arkansas. Jackson’s daughter
was a UofA student, but he told Street that Texas sounded like a better fit for a dual-sport athlete. Street went
to Austin for his official tour and visited with Darrell Royal. The Texas coach challenged him, bringing up the name
of the all-everything quarterback the Longhorns had landed the year before—Bill Bradley.
“I guess a lot of schools are throwing Bradley up to you,” Royal said.
Royal said slowly, “if you start running away from competition now, you’ll never know if you could have played
with the best or competed against the best. You’ll never know that.”
It was as if Royal was daring Street to keep pitching as the blood ran down his face. Street
never took that recruiting visit to Arkansas, and by the time he was a senior at Texas, he was the entrenched starter,
the established master of the triple option, and a cocaptain—along with halfback Ted Koy and linebacker Glen
Halsell. He also was the baseball program’s ace pitcher, and on baseball trips he roomed with another dual-sport
player—outfielder/tight end Randy Peschel. “He just did not take defeat in anything,” Peschel says. “He
wouldn’t accept it and wouldn’t let anybody around him accept it.”
When 1969 preseason practice began, Street had just returned from a summer of playing semipro
baseball in Colorado with the Boulder Collegians, a team of college all-stars. The Longhorns’ Press Day came after
a few days of daily double practices, and Street was wearing shorts and a bandage on his leg when he went through
a mass interview with reporters.
that bandage for? Does it hurt?” a writer asked.
help himself. His mouth got going, and he couldn’t stop it.
Well, as you
guys know, I was in Colorado for the summer, playing baseball, and I worked as a substitute mail carrier on
the side, and just the other day, a dog bit me, and now they’re checking it for rabies and they’re
a little worried that I may go mad . . .
The writers were
scribbling. As he continued, Street was starting to letsaliva drip from his mouth, and he was on the verge of laughing, too.
Just kidding, fellas.
He was so adept at scraping the line of scrimmage as he ran the triple option, Street often was kicked
by his linemen. That’s why he often had a bandage on his leg.
Royal was in the room, and he was livid.
likes a smartass,” Royal snapped after the session.
to follow the coach’s guidelines for dealing with the press: Be polite, be classy, compliment your opponents, don’t
say anything controversial, and then compliment your opponents again to make sure everybody got the point.
But to James Street, life was a revival meeting, a filibuster, a soapbox. “I tell
you what, I can’t stress enough that James Street was such a catalyst, not only with his play, but with being in
the huddle,” Cotton Speyrer says.
a guy you couldn’t ever get to shut up,” a laughing Steve Worster says. “He was a great guy, and there
was just something about James Street you didn’t see until you put him on the football field. He was just a winner,
plain and simple. The guy obviously had talent, but he threw a pass like a wounded duck. I mean, he threw it kind of
like I would. That was fine, because we didn’t have to throw it very often.”
Once the wishbone got rolling, in fact, the Longhorns hammered everyone.
With Street usually starting the play by extending the ball into Worster’s
belly, and with the Texas offensive linemen making the decisions easier because they were blowing away the defensive
front, Texas looked unstoppable.