JUNCTION -- One of Texas A&M's greatest football stories was born in this small West Texas town, which is framed by rolling hills and the Llano River. But for many who pass through, there is no sign or clear indication that the Aggies were ever here.
This month marks the 60th anniversary of the creation of the "Junction Boys," the name coined for the survivors of the brutal training camp at the A&M adjunct campus. The intense heat, harsh field conditions and hard-nosed discipline from coach Paul "Bear" Bryant caused a massive exodus of players from the team.
Though the Aggies won just one game that season, it set the stage for a return to glory in 1956, when A&M won its first Southwest Conference championship in 15 years.
The story inspired Jim Dent's 1999 book The Junction Boys: How Ten Days in Hell With Bear Bryant Forged a Championship Team, which ESPN adapted into a 2002 movie. Gene Stallings, one of the Junction Boys and a Bryant protégé, wrote the foreword. The tale that until then was known by few outside the state began to evolve into a legend.
"It's amazing to me the number of people that know the Junction Boys," said Marvin Tate, one of the 35 players who survived Bryant's camp. "We get a whole heck of a lot more attention now than we ever got back in 1954."
The recognition in Junction will be resolved this weekend. A historical marker is expected to be unveiled this afternoon at the fields where the Aggies practiced, and the Junction A&M Club will honor the former players on Saturday night. Club president and event organizer Carmen Bierschwale, A&M class of 2002, estimates 20 of the Junction Boys will attend.
"It's going on 60 years and they're still talking about it," Stallings says of the team's history. "It's something about doing something extremely hard, and a lot of people quitting. And some that didn't eventually won the championship. I think it says something about the way Coach Bryant handled himself, and handled us. I never thought about quitting any time in my career, and I think one of the reasons is the experience we had at Junction."
A historic drought was in full swing when the Aggies arrived on Aug. 31, 1954. The former players describe the field conditions as loaded with rocks, and wicked weeds that pricked their hands and arms.
"Goatheads and big ol' sand burs were everywhere," Stallings says. "Every time you put your hand down, you put it in sand burs."
"It wasn't a football field," says Dennis Goehring. "It wasn't any kind of field."
And Norbert "Dutch" Ohlendorf, in what the others might call the ultimate understatement: "It wasn't the best practice conditions."
Remarkably, the trend in those days was to outlaw water breaks -- something that is unthinkable in today's athletics.
"Times have changed," Stallings says. "In those days, they felt like it probably prevented you from getting in shape if you took a little water. Now, they can't give you enough water."
Tate says the players hadn't been raised around air conditioning, so they were more acclimated to the heat. And Goehring offers another reason why some of the players were able to make it -- the overall roughness of the times.
"This was the summer of 1954," he says. "We had just finished World War II ... and those guys were mentally tough. Blood and guts were part of World War II. You get your nose busted -- that's nothing. You've got to understand that that was a different perspective. I didn't think of it as anything other than just the way it was going to be."
As detailed in Dent's book, players dropped left and right. Some of the team's best players left the team because of injuries or other reasons, including Fred Broussard and Joe Boring. The worst case in terms of health was that of Billy Schroeder, who suffered a heat stroke. Dr. John Wiedeman in Junction packed Schroeder's body in ice and is credited for saving his life. The incident caused Bryant to end camp a few days before he had planned.
Bryant's manner of coaching had something to do with the mass departures as well. Stallings notes that some players "didn't want to pay the price he was asking." Goehring and Tate speak with reverence about Bryant. But in describing his coaching style, both made the same sort of face while doing it -- a hunched-over, erupting-in-rage grimace.
"There's a very fine line between fear and respect," Tate says. "He was the kind of person that you just had to have respect for, but at the same time, you were kind of fearful of him. It wasn't just the players, but the coaches, too. I found out in later years that -- anywhere you go -- if Coach Bryant came into a room, it would get quiet. I've never seen anything like it. Just his presence made that kind of impression and impact on people. But it took some getting used to."
The number of players who went to Junction is a matter of debate. Dent's book says 111, other sources put it in the 90s. But just 35 completed the camp and made the trip back to campus. As Stallings wrote in the foreword to Dent's book, "We went in two buses and we came back in one."
Left behind was freshman John David Crow, who would go on to become A&M's first Heisman Trophy winner three years later. Freshmen did not participate in the camp or play during the season in those days.
"I was standing across the street, watching them all load up in the two buses when they took off," Crow recalls. "And I was kind of saddened by the fact I wasn't going to get to go. The way it was explained to me, it was going to be almost like a camp, like a Christian camp."
Crow changed his tune when the weary players returned in one half-empty bus.
"I thought to myself, 'Well, I think that was a good idea not to go to Junction,'" he says. "Because there wasn't many of them left."
As the workday begins in Junction, Hill Country Mornings on 93.5 KOOK plays country classics by Tammy Wynette, Johnny Duncan and Johnny Lee. A sharp, retro-flavored sign sits outside the Isaack Restaurant, boasting of something the Aggie players would have drooled over in 1954 -- air conditioning.
Small-town charm is everywhere: old-school motels, quirky stores (The Jazzy Cowgirl, A II Z Taxidermy), taquerias and a barber shop with a traditional red-and-white pole. A faded "McCain-Palin" sign hangs tough outside a construction company's fence.
With the exception of banners promoting the 60th anniversary festivities this weekend, the sole Aggie note comes in the form of a Mexican eatery named A&M Restaurant. But a trip inside reveals that the "A&M" refers to the owners' last names -- Alvarez and Mendez.
Many longtime residents say Junction is much the same as it was when the Aggies hit town. The population is just 2,574. The town's one and only stoplight was installed in 1999.
Over at the Junction National Bank, you'll find Rob Roy Spiller, A&M class of 1958, who is chairman of the board. Spiller worked at the bus station during the Junction training camp. So each morning, he'd witness the Aggies who had fled camp in the night, looking for the first available ticket out of town.
Just a stone's throw from the bank is the vacant Texan Theater. As described in Dent's book, that's where Spiller caught his girlfriend watching a movie with Goehring. Both Aggies recall the story fondly, and they are longtime friends.
Bryan Booth, A&M class of 1968, is a former president of the Junction A&M Club. His family moved to Junction in 1908. Sporting a cowboy hat and a handlebar mustache, the retired vice president of the Junction National Bank is a generous tour guide, pointing out landmarks and explaining how the convergence of the North and South Llano rivers inspired the name of the town.
"Psychologically, it's sort of the same," he says of Junction. "An on-the-edge-of-West-Texas town that it was 60 years ago. We're still within a couple hundred population as what we were."
Booth's wife, Constance, is executive director of the Chamber of Commerce. She says Junction is growing, but at a methodical pace, in an effort to keep the small-town atmosphere.
"The wheels move slowly," she says. "We're trying to progress and grow, but we're trying to grow smartly. The whole town still knows whose kids are whose. There's a curfew. We're trying to progress thoughtfully, so it's not just willy-nilly -- and the next thing you know, we've lost who we are."
An odd note about the fields where the Aggies practiced and the Quonset huts in which they stayed -- the adjunct area is now operated by Texas Tech. According to Kimble County historian and former Junction mayor Frederica Wyatt, A&M wanted to focus its resources on the College Station campus, and Tech picked up the property in 1972. So black Tech flags line what was A&M's practice field, and the buildings are dotted with red double-T logos.
Earlier this week, incoming Tech students were bouncing around the field in rambunctious games for Red Raider Camp, the equivalent of A&M's Fish Camp. Robert Stubblefield, director of the Tech Center at Junction, cheerfully points out where the Aggie action happened, and embraces the history of the site.
But A&M's ties still run deep. Charles Hagood, A&M class of 1974, is the senior vice president of the other bank in town, First State Bank. He estimates Junction's Muster event brings together 60 to 80 people each year.
And, as Bryan Booth puts it: "A&M games are on FM radio every weekend. And Tech is not."
The Bear's legacy
The first formal reunion of the Junction Boys happened at the 25-year mark. Players attended the 1979 gathering in Junction, as did Bryant, who was still coaching Alabama at the time.
Hagood recalls the scene when the former players saw Bryant's plane arrive.
"Those guys were all having a libation, waiting on him to come flying in," he says. "They were all laughing and joking at the airport. When that plane circled and started to land, they put those drinks away and stood up straight. You could tell -- it hadn't ever changed. He was still the man."
Stallings followed Bryant's footsteps the closest. He coached under Bryant at Alabama, then took over at A&M in 1965. He eventually won a national championship while coaching Alabama in 1992.
During his time as the A&M head coach, Stallings faced his mentor in the 1968 Cotton Bowl. A&M upset Alabama, 20-16, and Bryant famously picked up his protégé for a postgame salute.
"It was an exciting moment," Stallings recalls. "I was really proud for our players. I wanted to play Alabama in the Cotton Bowl because I wanted the players to be exposed to Coach Bryant. It was a total surprise when he picked me up. They were probably a little bit better football team, but we played a little bit better that afternoon and won the game. So it was a very satisfying ending to it, to tell you the truth."
Bryant won six national championships at Alabama. He died on Jan. 26, 1983, just weeks after retiring. His presence still looms large for the Aggies.
"He was certainly one of the turning points in my life," says Goehring. "I've often wondered what would have happened to me if I had quit. Would I have the opportunities that I had today? The tenacity that I built up in myself -- it's that way in life, all the way."
"He was a great teacher," Ohlendorf says. "He tried to teach us, not only about football, but how the things about football can apply to life."
The legend lives on
Most of the Junction Boys are around 80 years old now, and most have had impressive professional careers -- engineers, educators, architects, attorneys and coaches. Tate served as A&M athletic director from 1978 to 1981, then as mayor of Bryan from 1985 to 1995. Goehring had a successful banking career and is now the director of economic development for Bryan. Ohlendorf is a longtime school administrator and supervises student teachers at A&M.
Several members of the group have died in recent years: Darrell Brown, Lloyd Hale, Gene Henderson, George Johnson, Paul Kennon, Billy McGowan, Jack Pardee, Troy Summerlin and Lawrence Winkler. As Tate says in a bittersweet moment, "We're just kind of fading off into the sunset."
But the Junction Boys legend carries on. The success of the book helped to increase awareness of the town. (The ESPN movie, however, makes Junction residents grumble -- it was filmed in Australia.)
Locals say outsiders frequently ask about the history, and where to find the field where Bryant and his boys played. The historical marker is sure to become a main attraction.
Crow, who emphasizes that he's not one of the Junction Boys but was part of the team, credits the success of Bryant's era in part to those days in Junction.
"I really am so proud to know that they're celebrating something that really meant a lot to them, and a lot to all of us, all of the Aggies," Crow says. "That turned the program around."
The former players get together for occasional reunions and autograph events. This weekend in Junction, old football memories and tales about Bryant will be the talk of the town.
"The older you get, the more you appreciate that bond," Stallings says. "Really, we were just trying to survive. Some people didn't survive. They went ahead and left. The ones that did, we became lifelong friends, really. We keep in touch with each other the best we can, even though it's at a distance. And we're proud of the accomplishments everyone seemed to acquire. It was an experience that turned into a good one."