Before he became The University of Texas’ winningest coach, Darrell K Royal was a small-town Oklahoma boy. In DKR: The Royal Scrapbook, family friend Jenna Hays McEachern and Royal’s wife, Edith, provide a fresh look at the man you thought you already knew.
During his 20-year UT coaching career, Darrell K Royal made it his mission to build the characters of the players on his team. Few know that Royal’s own character was developed through poverty and hardship. An “Okie,” Royal was forced to leave home with his family to become a migrant worker in California. The gridiron giant revered by fans everywhere endured with the help of his first love: football.
Darrell K Royal
The K is just an initial, not an abbreviation. K is in honor of his mother, Katy Elizabeth, who died when he was just four months old.
Darrell Royal plays a crucial role in the folklore of Hollis, Oklahoma, where he was born in 1924. Hollis, which Royal called “a great little place to grow up,” basks in the glory of its favorite son. The sign on the Hollis High School stadium boasts: “We’re proud of Hollis, hometown of Darrell Royal.” In 2003, the football field at Hollis High School was officially named Darrell K Royal Field.
But back in the 1930s, he was just a freckle-faced, barefoot little boy, tagging along with his older brothers and working hard to keep up with them. They had no money, but they did have an abundance of energy and competitiveness. When he was just a toddler, Darrell started carrying a ball with him: an old Clabber Girl Baking Powder can with tape all over it to cover the sharp edges.
“I just ran everywhere I went,” he says. “I was never without a ball or a bat.”
Darrell “played up” with his older brothers, and this was one source of his fierce competitive streak, having to compete with the older boys. But on his own, even as a child, Darrell drove himself to perform better, to surpass his previous mark. He drew lines in dirt roads to aim for, and when his jump eventually reached that line, he would erase it with his foot and draw another one just a little farther away. He competed with himself, by himself, “just learning to do it a little faster and better.”
Darrell couldn’t bear to be called in for supper or for bedtime; he never was ready to stop. On Saturdays in the fall, he organized neighborhood football games in the yard. The kids would put the radio outside and tune it to the Oklahoma Sooners broadcast. As the radio blared “Boomer Sooner,” the future college all-American pretended that every time he ran with the ball he was scoring a touchdown for Oklahoma.
If Darrell played hard, he worked even harder. In the late 1930s, Hollis was at the heart of the Dust Bowl: relentless winds churned the dry soil, lifting thick red clouds of dust and rendering farmland useless. At night he slept with a wet washrag covering his face to keep the red silt out of his nose and mouth. The Royals’ house stood next to the highway, and every day Darrell watched the cars leaving town, headed west, loaded down with every stick of the families’ furniture, the canvas water bags slapping against the side of the truck. Darrell was pretty much on his own from the time he could walk, and he had always worked—shining shoes, throwing newspapers on a paper route, feeding newsprint into the presses after hours. He eventually had to quit his paper route in order to help the family pick cotton, 50 cents for 100 pounds.
“He was smaller than a lot of ’em,” his father, Burley Royal, remembered, “but he could do a day’s work with the best of them.”
Burley hung on in Hollis during most of the Depression and made it through the Dust Bowl. He worked several jobs to feed his family, including WPA projects, but in 1940, after Darrell finished junior high, he couldn’t hang on any longer. He built a crude trailer to pull behind the family’s Whippet sedan, loaded up the furniture, filled the canvas water bags, and headed to California with his wife and two youngest sons.
“We must have had 20 flats on the way to California,” Darrell said.
They landed in Porterville, in the San Joaquin Valley, and lived in what Darrell called an old shack. The 14-year-old landed jobs as a fruit picker, a construction worker, a wheelbarrow pusher, and, because farmers believed putting a touch of olive oil on the end of figs would cause them to ripen faster, a fig painter.
Darrell started high school in Porterville. He had waited with great anticipation for the day he could finally play high school football, but when he showed up for practice, he wasn’t allowed to try out for the A-team. The teams were divided by weight,the coach told him, and Darrell was just too little.“Well, now, couldn’t you just let me try?” No, the coach thought not. Rules were rules. Darrell was welcome to try out for one of the smaller, less competitive teams, but that page was not in Darrell’s playbook. He had endured poverty, neglect, lack, dirt, and bitterly hard work. He had lived through ill treatment at the hands of his stepmother and the shameful humiliation of being called “Okie.” But when his dream of playing varsity ball evaporated, it was too much to take.
Dean Wild, an assistant coach at Hollis High, had written Darrell a letter earlier, inviting him to come home to Hollis to play ball. The coach promised Darrell a job, lunch every day, a place to stay, and a chance to play varsity ball. Coach Wild’s invitation and his letter served as a compass for Darrell, pointing him back home, where he belonged.
After yet another blowup with his stepmother, it didn’t take much for the eager teenager to convince “Pop” to let him hitchhike back to Oklahoma. Burley tucked $13 dollars in Darrell’s pocket and wished him well. He carried all his possessions—his clothes and his baseball glove—in a gutted Victrola box. In his back pocket he carried the creased letter from Coach Wild.
He found a ride east with an acquaintance of his dad, but the trip was a disaster: the driver liked to pull on the bottle. After several near wrecks, Darrell jumped out and rode his thumb the rest of the way. Once back in Hollis, he stayed mostly with Grandma Harmon, his mother’s mother. Sometimes he stayed with his coach, occasionally with an aunt, but home base was Grandma’s house. Joe Bailey Metcalf, an assistant coach at Hollis, called Royal
the workingest kid you ever saw. He’d stay after practice to work on his punting, then he’d run over to sweep out for Bill Hall. Darrell was always wound pretty tight and never had much time for sitting around doing nothing.
He was a study in perpetual motion. He fed paper into the printing press of the local newspaper for 25 cents an hour. He swept and mopped Bill Hall’s Ford dealership and cleaned the grease racks at five every morning. On Saturdays he shined shoes at Cecil Sumpter’s barbershop. He even put in time as a short-order cook. He never had time for wasting time.
Just as when he was a barefoot little boy trying to keep up with his older brothers, Darrell pushed himself to improve, pushed himself toward his goals. One of his heroes was “Indian” Jack Jacobs, a punter for the Sooners. As he listened to the broadcast of the Sooner games, he envisioned Jacobs’s form. He imagined his steps, the drop of the ball, and then spent hours after practice trying to get those moves down, competing not just against other athletes but also against his own last mark.
Whether he was studying his competitors in order to improve his shoe-shining technique, using his paper route to learn to pass more accurately, or setting up his own track-and-field course to compete against himself, his will to improve was legendary. He surveyed his shortcomings, observed people he wanted to emulate, and then disciplined himself to refine his skills. He worked so hard that his classmates and teammates looked up to him. His strength of will, his presence, helped him develop into a leader.
“Everyone respected him, even when he was a little kid. Adults would listen to him; he always talked sense,” Metcalf said.
And in spite of how books and interviews later romanticized his early life,his wife, Edith, painted this picture:
It was awfully hard, just a real hard childhood. He was a poor boy, and he was so lonely. Honestly, he was neglected. I think that drove him harder than a lot of the others. He wanted so much more than he ever had in Hollis.
As was all too common for children of that era, he was forced to grow up too soon, with suffering everywhere he turned. His mother had died of cancer when he was four months old, and because that was considered a shameful way to die in 1924, Darrell’s family allowed him to believe that his mother had died giving birth to him. He bore that burden most of his life, believing until he was an adult that he was to blame for his mother’s death.
As a result, Darrell was highly sensitive, even thin-skinned, although he was able to shed that prickliness in later years. The “Okie” experience stung mightily, as did the poverty.
In his words: “I’m not saying we had it as bad as blacks or Hispanics; it wasn’t close to what they experienced. But when people called us ‘Okies,’ it was said with spite. People hated us, when all we were trying to do was find honest work.” Burley and his children worked hard, and their pride wouldn’t let them accept “commodity clothes,” the government issued overalls that marked one as poor.
In later years, Darrell Royal remarked, “I studied those people I admired . . . tried to do as they taught.” Those people—his father, his high school principal, his football coaches—along with the harsh conditions of his early years,shaped the boy who would be known throughout his life as a compassionate champion of the underdog.
Excerpted from DKR: The Royal Scrapbook by Jenna Hays McEachern, with Edith Royal. Published Sept. 1 by UT Press.
The Darrell K Royal Research Fund for Alzheimer’s Disease has been established to advance research of Alzheimer’s and of dementia, with which the coach has been diagnosed. A portion of the proceeds of DKR: The Royal Scrapbook benefits the Friends of Darrell K Royal Forty Acres Scholarships.
From top: Royal while playing for the Oklahoma Sooners; The 1941 Hollis High School Tigers. Royal, front left, is No. 11; Royal and his wife, Edith; Royal and his son, David, in 1954; Actor John Wayne visited Royal’s practice when Texas played USC in LA in 1967; A spread in the 1962 Cactus yearbook; Players carry Royal off the field after winning the 1973 Cotton Bowl game.
All images courtesy UT Press.