Past Players

Some of the old-time sports legends could have easily competed with today's athletes.

While you were feverishly thumbing your way to my column this month, you probably noticed that the magazine is doing a piece on the greatest athletes in Fort Worth history. The answers always vary, depending on the era of your youth. Most people today will tell you that the stars of yesteryear couldn't even compete with today's athletes. Maybe. It's true that they are stronger, faster and much larger. Sixty years ago, about the only time you could see anyone who weighed more than 300 pounds was at a carnival. It's hard to believe that Mike Dean, one of the starting offensive linemen for the University of Texas when they won the national championship in 1969, weighed less than 200 pounds.

But I think that most of the size difference has to do with changes in training methods and diet. (And possibly some pharmaceuticals.) And although having a body that looks like a yield sign is nice, it isn't particularly necessary to be a great athlete. Look at Johnny Manziel. He has the build of an undernourished accountant, but few would argue that he might be one of the greatest college quarterbacks ever.

Because I grew up in Fort Worth back in the 50s and 60s, my recollection of great athletes was mostly football players, with a few exceptions. The first sporting event I ever attended was a TCU football game at Amon Carter Stadium when I was probably 6 or 7 years old and had been pestering my parents to take me. To keep from buying me a ticket, Dad would throw me over his shoulder as we walked through the gate. It worked every time, although it got pretty rough on his knees after I turned 21. Of course a player everyone remembers from back then was Jim Swink, who finished second in the Heisman voting to John David Crow of Texas A&M. But there were three other players I'll never forget.

You may have never heard of this first one, but he was one of my mother's favorites. His name was Virgil Miller, and he actually played behind Swink at halfback. He wasn't very big, but man, was he ever quick and fun to watch. Virgil didn't run, he darted. Every time they gave him the ball, my mother would jump to her feet and inadvertently elbow me in the head. I had to start keeping an eye on him just to protect myself.
Then there was Harry Moreland. I don't think Usain Bolt could have caught him on a football field. Darrell Royal might have agreed. In 1959, TCU beat Texas in Austin, thanks to a 56-yard touchdown dash by Harry in the fourth quarter. It happened so fast, some of the Texas linemen never got out of their stance.

The third player probably had one of the greatest careers ever in college and professional football. But that's not why I remember him. In the late 50s, Pittsburgh came to play TCU with their All-America end, Mike Ditka. During the game, things got a little heated, and Ditka decided to start a fight. Now, the next to last thing you do when you pick a fight on the football field is take off your helmet. The last thing you do is pick a fight with Bob Lilly. As you might have guessed, the final outcome didn't bode well for Mike. But it's still one of the best bench-emptying brawls I've ever seen. According to Dan Jenkins, Harry Moreland had one of the best quotes ever about his rugged teammate. "If I was as big as Lilly, I would charge people $10 a day to live.”

I really can't leave out a guy that became an instant legend while playing football at Kirkpatrick High School in Fort Worth during the mid-60s. His name was Margene Adkins, and he was phenomenal. His football coach had a very simple game plan. Just throw the ball anywhere and don't worry. Margene will be there. I was fortunate enough to see him once, and by the third quarter, I'd lost count of how many touchdowns he scored.

So what made players like this so talented? I think some of it had to do with the guys they practiced with every day. In fact, the real sports heroes on every team are the ones who know they're not going to play that much. They're the second and third teamers that never miss a practice and give it their all every day. The better they perform, the better they make the starters play. And because of their intensity and love of the game, some of them later excel in other areas of a sport, such as coaching. A guy at TCU comes to mind.

I definitely considered myself to be one of those guys. I can honestly say that whenever I played ball, I always made the starters better. Unfortunately, they played for the other team.