The Immortals

 

Bobby Layne and Doak Walker met on a high school football field, played with and against each other for decades, and had a friendship that changed the game of college football forever.

The Immortals: The Friendship of Bobby Layne and Doak Walker

Had history turned out differently, Bobby Layne and Doak Walker could have starred in the best offense the Longhorns ever put on the field—better than the wishbone national champions of Darrell Royal and the Rose Bowl heroics of Vince Young. That fantasy, of course, never came true, but their enduring friendship was impressive enough. It is the story of two champions, sometimes allies, sometimes rivals, who met during August drills on a high school practice field in Dallas in 1942 and went on to hold a lofty place in the firmament of college football. Their bond, forged out of sheer admiration for what the other could do with a football, would carry them across decades.

Layne was born Dec. 19, 1926 in a West Texas farmhouse. In 1935, he was riding in the backseat of the family car when his father coughed and lurched backward from the passenger seat, dying of a heart attack. The experience haunted Layne the rest of his life. After his father’s death, his aunt and uncle raised him. Layne was blond, tousle-haired, and strong; his junior high football coaches lined him up at guard.

Walker was born just 13 days after Layne in Dallas, but was a year behind him in school. Their former coach, Rusty Russell, recalled a drill at his first practice as Highland Park High’s coach. “All I could hear was this very hard hitting at the end of the line,” Russell told Bob St. John for his Layne biography, Heart of a Lion. “It was Bobby and Doak really going after each other. Bobby was the rough-tough guy. He’d run over you. Now, Doak, well, he was just a great athlete. Like a violin player, smooth as silk.”

Bobby was the rough-tough guy. He’d run over you. Now, Doak, well, he was just a great athlete. Like a violin player, smooth as silk.

Layne at tailback and Walker at wingback were captains of the Highland Park Scots in 1943. They reached the state semifinals against San Angelo—a game that was, according to Harold Ratliff in his book Autumn’s Mighty Legions, “one the most thrilling ever played in Texas schoolboy football,” adding that the boys “were to become immortals.” Layne and Walker accounted for all of the Scots’ scoring and led 20-7 after three quarters, but they couldn’t halt a San Angelo rally and lost to the eventual state champs 21-20.

Because their birthdays fell in different years, Layne graduated from high school a year before Walker. Layne enrolled at UT on a baseball scholarship and played his freshman year as a reserve for the football team. Meanwhile Walker was the Texas high school player of the year in 1944, leading the Scots to a rout of San Angelo in their rematch but lost to Port Arthur in the state finals. Unlike Layne, he never doubted that his future was in football. On his bed at night he practiced jumping over a pillow front to back, then side to side, then balanced on one foot, one hand curled as if holding the ball, the other raised for ballast. A boy who knew his gift.

In 1945, after a short stint together in the Merchant Marines, the boys were together again, this time in New Orleans as guests for an SMU-Tulane game. Their old high school coach, Russell, was there with SMU and desperately wanted to snag Walker for the Mustangs. There to scout the Mustangs, the Longhorn assistant coach Blair Cherry was hoping to lure Walker to Austin. Everyone knew that Layne was trying to convince Walker to join him on the Forty Acres. “He had talked me into it,” Walker reminisced in Whit Channing’s book More Than a Hero, “and we planned to leave after the game so we could be in Austin the next week and enroll. You could do that then because the schools were still on the trimester system they had used during the war.”

Layne managed to sneak Walker away from Russell, who was hovering over the boys to keep Walker away from the Longhorn recruiter. But when they knocked on Cherry’s hotel room door there was no answer. They gave up and went down the elevator just as Cherry was coming up to return to his room. Russell drove Walker home to Dallas, coaxing him all the way, and two days later Walker signed with SMU. Had it not been for the near miss on the elevators, Texas might have fielded an offense with two young men who together would make four All-America teams, win one Heisman Trophy, and be voted All-Pro six times.

Six days later, the best friends took the field in SMU’s Ownby Stadium as opponents. Layne and Walker were single wing tailbacks who fielded the deep snaps and did most of the running and passing. And they were ball hawks and hard tacklers on defense.

In the first quarter, Walker shot past stunned Longhorn tacklers for a 30-yard touchdown. A fierce defensive struggled ensued, and the 7-0 score held up until the fourth quarter, when Layne completed a 29-yard scoring pass. On the extra point attempt diminutive Rooster Andrews faked a drop kick then cocked his arm to throw to Layne. Laughing, Walker jumped and down, waving his arms, in perfect position to stop the play. Walker guffawed because he and Layne had rehearsed the trick-play fooling around the prior summer. Flustered, Andrews threw the ball at the ground.

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Late in the game, with SMU leading 7-6, Layne intercepted a Walker pass and led Texas on a 70-yard drive. Layne threw a 33-yard pass that Peppy Blount snatched off the fingertips of Walker for the winning score. It’s remembered as the best 12-7 game the Longhorns ever played.  In the Cotton Bowl that year Layne ran, passed, and kicked for every point in a 40-27 rout of Missouri. Afterward the Missouri coach told Layne it was the best performance he’d ever seen.

The Layne-Walker rematch didn’t occur in 1946 because Walker had an army obligation, and Dana X. Bible retired as Texas’ coach after that season. Cherry, the new head coach, installed the split-T formation in 1947. Layne’s passing and ball-handling were a perfect fit in the new attack. Texas gained national attention with a 34-14 triumph over Oklahoma. Among UT’s stars was a fierce defensive safety, fullback, and former bomber pilot named Tom Landry. Another war veteran and a standout for the Sooners was Darrell Royal, a 168-pound halfback turned quarterback who would set school records by intercepting 18 passes in one season and returning a punt 96 yards.

When Texas and SMU met in November 1947 in the Cotton Bowl stadium, both teams were undefeated; the Longhorns were ranked third in the country, SMU eighth. Landry played with a broken right arm in a heavy plaster cast; the Texas coaches didn’t think they had anybody else who could tackle Walker in the open field. SMU worked a slick handoff on the opening kickoff and the play went 81 yards. At the Longhorn two Walker charged the line then handed off behind his back on a “flea flicker” to another runner who swept in for the first score. But Layne brought the Longhorns right back, with Landry banging in from 11 yards out. Just before halftime, Walker leaped high and far to make an astounding catch in front of Landry, and then ran to the two for a 54-yard gain, setting up the Mustangs’ second touchdown.

In the second half, Layne led the Longhorns on a 71-yard drive capped by his pass for a 14-yard score, but the extra point kick was wide. Late in the game, facing fourth and two on the Mustangs’ 32 and trailing 14-13, Layne called for a plunge by Landry. The turf was muddy that day. Layne took the snap and spun to hand off to Landry, who slipped and almost fell. Layne got the ball to the future Dallas Cowboys coach, but the Mustang defenders mobbed him. “I can still see that funny look on Bobby’s face,” Landry recalled in St. John’s Heart of a Lion. “He was standing there with the ball and had nobody to give it to.” Walker said that 14-13 defeat of Texas and getting the best of his friend-turned-rival was his greatest thrill in sports.

Both Layne and Walker made All-America that year. No athlete has ever put up school records for the Longhorns like Layne: most passes attempted, most completed, most yards gained, most yards per play, the longest touchdown pass. But he wasn’t through at Texas. On the baseball diamond he was the best of all Longhorn pitchers, a crowd of future major leaguers that includes Roger Clemens. In four seasons Layne was 38-7 on the mound and 28-0 against Southwest Conference teams. Before taking a start against the Aggies in 1947, he stuck his foot through a plate-glass window. Legend has it he drank 10 beers to kill the pain, and then pitched one of his two no-hitters for Texas.

The Boston Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, and then-New York Giants hoped he would pursue a career in baseball, but after marrying his college sweetheart Layne chose football. Chicago’s coach George Halas made him the third pick in the National Football League draft, but as a Bears rookie in 1948 he seldom played. Halas then traded him to the New York Bulldogs, a miserable short-lived franchise. The low points included a record-setting 65-20 blowout by the Chicago Cardinals and a season finale that might have drawn 200 fans. Layne said in his autobiography Always on Sunday, “I think New York is the greatest town in the world, but I would have traded it in a minute for Big Springs, Texas, in 1949.”

Meanwhile Walker was a phenomenon who left tacklers clutching at air with just a swing of hips and a lateral step. Demand for tickets to SMU games was so frantic that Cotton Bowl administrators added an upper deck and 32,297 more seats so that more fans could see him play. It was dubbed “the House that Doak Built.”

Sportswriters outdid themselves digging up nicknames for Doak. “Dazzling Doak,” “Dauntless Doak,” “Golden Boy Walker,” “Dynamic Doak.” He won the Heisman in 1948; thousands of kids wore his number 37 jersey; he got fan letters like a movie star. His backfield running mate Kyle Rote, a future star of the New York Giants, once saw a fellow browsing a football magazine and quipped, according to Channing’s More Than a Hero, “Don’t buy that one. It’s not official—it doesn’t have Doak Walker on the cover.”

Though Walker missed half the 1949 season with injuries, he again made All-American. Dan Jenkins, the renowned Sports Illustrated chronicler of football, later wrote, “Although he only weighed 166 pounds and stood only 5’10,” he was quite simply the greatest all-round college football player who ever lived. Did you hear me? Ever lived.”

[Walker] was quite simply the greatest all-round college football player who ever lived. Did you hear me? Ever lived.

When the New York Bulldogs’ awful 1949 season ended, Layne drove home to Texas and stopped to see Walker: “Since I now weighed 167 pounds, after going to training camp at 200,” Layne recalled in Always on Sunday, “he got quite a shock. Doak had just been drafted by the Detroit Lions and he suddenly realized that pro football was going to be no tea party.”

Then came the reputed worst trade ever made in pro football—and a storybook reunion of their friendship and tandem on the field. The Bulldogs dealt Layne to Detroit before the 1950 season, the same year Walker joined the team. Walker was taking handoffs and catching passes from his old pal just like he had done in high school. He was rookie of the year that season and led the league in scoring.

The Lions reached the title game in 1952 against the Cleveland Browns, who had a great quarterback, Otto Graham, and were playing in their seventh straight title game.

Early in the second quarter Layne completed two crucial passes and plunged in from the two for the first score. In the third quarter, with the score still 7-0, the Browns were alert for a play in which Walker sprinted right with the ball on an apparent sweep, then pulled up and threw long to the fleet receiver Cloyce Box. Layne faked to one runner then handed off to Walker who started wide while Box ran deep. But Walker cut off the tackle and blew past the linemen and linebackers. No one got a hand on Walker. Celebrating the 17-7 title win in the locker room, Layne kidded him, “I really set you up to be the hero. After that fabulous two-yard touchdown run of mine, they never suspected I’d let you run an easy 67-yarder.” That was Layne’s favorite game.

The Lions won the title again in 1953, beating the Browns 17-16 on a last-minute long heave by Layne. Time proclaimed him the NFL’s best quarterback in a 1954 cover story. Walker played six seasons with Detroit, was All-Pro four times, and led the league in scoring twice. Football’s matinee idol, he made the cover of 47 issues of national magazines. But when an attractive opportunity in the construction business came his way in Denver, he retired after the 1955 season. He said he wanted to get out of the game while he could still walk.

In August 1957, Layne was arrested and charged with erratic driving. At the trial Layne threw himself on the mercy of the court, explaining that what the officer thought was an inebriated slur was just the way Texans spoke English. The Lions celebrated his acquittal in a tavern whose owners put up a sign that read, “Ah ain’t drunk … Ah’m from Texas!”

The Lions won the title again in 1957, but Layne—now playing without his high school friend—broke his ankle late in the season, and the Lions’ quarterback that day was Kyle Rote’s cousin Tobin Rote. Then in 1958, after just two games, new coaches decided to go with Rote and traded Layne to Pittsburgh. He bitterly predicted it would be 50 years before Detroit saw another championship—the “Bobby Layne curse” that has been borne out with years to spare.

Layne got just one winning year out of the Steelers, but he battled on for 15 pro seasons in all, finishing with league records in career completions, yards gained, and touchdowns. He played defense and was one of the last NFL players to wear a helmet without protective face bars. In 1995 Sports Illustrated proclaimed him the NFL’s “all-time toughest quarterback.”

In retirement, Layne made a bid one year for the head-coaching job at Texas Tech, and was disappointed when the decision didn’t go his way. Living in Lubbock and Dallas, he invested in farms, bowling alleys, real estate, and the stock market. He was fond of saying, “The secret to a happy life is to run out of cash and air at the same time.” He died of cardiac arrest in Lubbock on Dec. 1, 1986, just short of his 60th birthday.

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Walker never partied like his best friend, but the night before Layne’s burial he and many other friends stayed up all night in his honor, laughing, playing cards, and telling stories. Rooster Andrews said of Layne’s last days in St. John’s biography Heart of a Lion, “He was still trying to crowd in every minute he could, the way he wanted it. You might say he went out swinging.”

Divorced from his college sweetheart and retired in Colorado, Walker had married Skeeter Werner, a former Olympic downhill skier. They made their home in Steamboat Springs. Walker told this writer that she yelled after him when he zoomed off on skis the first time, “You’re going to have to learn to steer!” In 1998 a bad fall on skis left him a quadriplegic at 71. The great runner died a few months later on Sept. 27, 1998.

Layne and Walker are in the NFL Hall of Fame. Layne was All-American once, Walker three times, and Walker won the Heisman. Layne is in the UT Hall of Honor, and Walker’s number 37 is the only football number retired by SMU. The Doak Walker Award now honors the year’s top collegiate running back. The Longhorns’ Ricky Williams chose to wear number 37 when he won the award the fall that Walker died.

Though the lives of Layne and Walker diverged in geography and style after their playing days were done, the game had just been the origin and medium of their friendship. In emotion, loyalty, and longevity, they were like the brothers they never had. In the epigraph of the Layne biography Heart of a Lion, Walker chose a football metaphor to pay his best friend of 42 years his highest compliment: “He never lost a game in his life. Once in a while time ran out on him.”

Photo illustration by Melissa Reese. 

From top, photo of Doak Walker courtesy the SMU Library; Bobby Layne courtesy UT Athletics; Doak Walker and Ricky Williams courtesy UT Athletics.

 

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