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.
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
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” pitch.
“What does it matter?” snapped little James. “I struck him out!”
“It doesn’t 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
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
and he had to move off,” James, who was about twelve, says. “I didn’t
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
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 his strikeouts.
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
poor himself. “A quarterback shouldn’t be working
back there in the back.”
James quit, and each Monday,
Bain handed Street an envelope. Inside
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
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.
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.
Longview’s biggest 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
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
“I know he thinks that, but I’m innocent! The point is,
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
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
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
himself as a football player.
Street also was considering another school—the University of Arkansas.
The Phillipses’ 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
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
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 alleverything
quarterback the Longhorns had landed the year before—Bill
“I guess a lot of schools are throwing Bradley up to you,” Royal said.
“You know,” 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
Halsell. He also was the baseball program’s ace pitcher, and
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
When 1969 preseason
practice began, Street had just returned from a
summer of playing
semipro baseball in Colorado with the Boulder Collegians,
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.
“What’s that bandage for? Does it hurt?” a writer asked.
Street couldn’t help himself. His mouth got going, and he couldn’t stop
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 let
saliva 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.
“Nobody likes a smartass,” Royal snapped after the session.
Street resolved 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.
“James was 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
plain and simple. The guy obviously had talent, but he threw a pass
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.