Three days before his death last week at 88, Darrell K Royal told his wife, Edith: “We need to go back to Hollis”—in Oklahoma. “Uncle Otis died.”
“Oh, Darrell,” she said, “Uncle Otis didn’t die.”
Royal, a former University of Texas football coach, chuckled and said, “Well, Uncle Otis will be glad to hear that.”
The Royal humor never faded, even as he sank deeper into Alzheimer’s disease. The last three years, I came to understand this as well as anyone. We had known each other for more than 40 years.
In the 1970s, Royal was a virile, driven, demanding man with a chip on his shoulder bigger than Bevo, the Longhorns’ mascot. He rarely raised his voice to players. “But we were scared to death of him,” the former quarterback Bill Bradley said.
Royal won 3 national championships and 167 games before retiring at 52. He was a giant in college football, having stood shoulder to shoulder with the Alabama coach Bear Bryant. Royal’s Longhorns defeated one of Bryant’s greatest teams, with Joe Namath at quarterback, in the 1965 Orange Bowl. Royal went 3-0-1 in games against Bryant.
Royal and I were reunited in the spring of 2010. I barely recognized him. The swagger was gone. His mind had faded. Often he stared aimlessly across the room. I scheduled an interview with him for my book Courage Beyond the Game: The Freddie Steinmark Story. Still, I worried that his withering mind could no longer conjure up images of Steinmark, the undersize safety who started 21 straight winning games for the Longhorns in the late 1960s. Steinmark later developed bone cancer that robbed him of his left leg.
When I met with Royal and his wife, I quickly learned that his long-term memory was as clear as a church bell. For two hours, Royal took me back to Steinmark’s recruiting trip to Austin in 1967, through the Big Shootout against Arkansas in 1969, to the moment President Richard M. Nixon handed him the national championship trophy in the cramped locker room in Fayetteville. He recalled the day at M. D. Anderson Hospital in Houston the next week when doctors informed Steinmark that his leg would be amputated if a biopsy revealed cancer. Royal never forgot the determined expression on Steinmark’s face, nor the bravery in his heart.
The next morning, Royal paced the crowded waiting room floor and said: “This just can’t be happening to a good kid like Freddie Steinmark. This just can’t be happening.”
With the love of his coach, Steinmark rose to meet the misfortune. Nineteen days after the amputation, he stood with crutches on the sideline at the Cotton Bowl for the Notre Dame game. After the Longhorns defeated the Fighting Irish, Royal tearfully presented the game ball to Steinmark.
Four decades later, while researching the Steinmark book, I became close to Royal again. As I was leaving his condominium the day of the interview, I said, “Coach, do you still remember me?” He smiled and said, “Now, Jim Dent, how could I ever forget you?”
My sense of self-importance lasted about three seconds. Royal chuckled. He pointed across the room to the message board next to the front door that read, “Jim Dent appt. at 10 a.m.”
Edith and his assistant, Colleen Kieke, read parts of my book to him. One day, Royal told me, “It’s really a great book.” But I can’t be certain how much he knew of the story.
Like others, I was troubled to see Royal’s memory loss. He didn’t speak for long stretches. He smiled and posed for photographs. He seemed the happiest around his former players. He would call his longtime friend Tom Campbell, an all-Southwest Conference defensive back from the 1960s, and say, “What are you up to?” That always meant, “Let’s go drink a beer.”
As her husband’s memory wore thin, Edith did not hide him. Instead, she organized his 85th birthday party and invited all of his former players. Quarterback James Street, who engineered the famous 15-14 comeback against Arkansas in 1969, sat by Royal’s side and helped him remember faces and names. The players hugged their coach, then turned away to hide the tears.
In the spring of 2010, I was invited to the annual Mexican lunch for Royal attended by about 75 of his former players. A handful of them were designated to stand up and tell Royal what he meant to them. Royal smiled through each speech as his eyes twinkled. I was mesmerized by a story the former defensive tackle Jerrel Bolton told. He recalled that Royal had supported him after the murder of his wife some 30 year earlier.
“Coach, you told me it was like a big cut on my arm, that the scab would heal, but that the wound would always come back,” Bolton said. “It always did.”
Royal seemed to drink it all in. But everyone knew his mind would soon dim.
The last time I saw him was June 20 at the County Line, a barbecue restaurant next to Bull Creek in Austin. Because Royal hated wheelchairs and walkers, the former Longhorn Mike Campbell, Tom’s twin, and I helped him down the stairs by wrapping our arms around his waist and gripping the back of his belt. I ordered his lunch, fed him his sandwich and cleaned his face with a napkin. He looked at me and said, “Was I a college player in the 1960s?”
“No, Coach,” I said. “But you were a great player for the Oklahoma Sooners in the late 1940s. You quarterbacked Oklahoma to an 11-0 record and the Sooners’ first national championship in 1949.”
He smiled and said, “Well, I’ll be doggone.”
After lunch, Mike Campbell and I carried him up the stairs. We sat him on a bench outside as Tom Campbell fetched the car. In that moment, the lunch crowd began to spill out of the restaurant. About 20 customers recognized Royal. They took his photograph with camera phones. Royal smiled and welcomed the hugs.
“He didn’t remember a thing about it,” Tom Campbell said later. “But it did his heart a whole lot of good.”
This story first appeared in the New York Times.
Jim Dent is the author of The Junction Boys, Courage Beyond the Game: The Freddie Steinmark Story, and seven other books.
Photo: Darrell K Royal. Courtesy Texas Athletics.
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