On Nov. 29, 1963, San Antonio Brackenridge faced off against San Antonio Robert E. Lee. The nation was still in shocked disbelief over the assassination of President John F. Kennedy a week earlier. In Texas, the unthinkable horror knocked us off our feet, because it took place on our watch in Dallas. The high school football playoffs were set to begin, but football coaches, players and fans wondered whether it was permissible to return to sport.
In San Antonio, the defending state champion Brackenridge Eagles drew the Lee Volunteers in the opening round. It was too good a game for fans to pass up, and so the people of San Antonio gave themselves permission to care about football, at least for a night.
The game sold 22,000 in-demand tickets as hundreds stood in line in the cold November rain, even all night some nights, during the week leading up to the Friday-night contest. Many more who failed to obtain a ticket watched the television broadcast on WOAI. Former players recall it as the first bi-district football game ever televised in the state.
I spoke with Linus Baer, one of the key players in the unfolding drama, in his San Antonio office in early February 2015. Before we met, Baer mailed me a copy of a documentary titled simply “The Game,” produced by Gary DeLaune, a Texas Radio Hall of Fame broadcaster.
In it, DeLaune unpacks all the elements that made this game special, using interviews with Baer, Brackenridge’s Warren McVea and other members of both teams.
But I still wanted to know more about the environment in the wake of a national tragedy. Having covered high school sports in the uncertain days following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, I wanted to see whether there were parallels. It seems there was the same sense of not knowing exactly how to move on.
Baer said no one wanted to play football a week earlier, on the day of the JFK assassination. He recalled how the teams walked through a ball game on a surreal evening. But a week later, football was something people needed to hold close.
“The Lee-Brack game served as a release, an outlet for people to go to the game or watch it on TV and enjoy it,” Baer said. “Get their mind off the Kennedy assassination, give them something else to think about. I think it did that. I think that’s one of the reasons people remember it so well.”
The Lee-Brackenridge game still resonates with football fans because of a rich collection of ingredients, both between the lines and outside them.
Brackenridge had won the state championship in the state’s largest classification in 1962, defeating Borger, 30–26, in the Class 4A title game. The Eagles entered the postseason in 1963 with an 8–2 record, but with a reputation to match that of any undefeated squad. Lee boasted a 10–0 regular season, but approached the game more like an underdog.
Both teams came in with tricks up their sleeves. Brackenridge shifted star running back McVea to quarterback in order to multiply his number of touches. But Lee’s philosophy not to punt and to employ only onside kicks was the slightly more dramatic strategy.
Each of those measures influenced the game from its early stages. As I watched the grainy black-and-white film of the contest, it’s easy to see why The Game electrifies football fans.
Though the documentary includes almost the entire game, it still plays like a highlight reel. Before the dust cleared and a winner was declared, the combatants would be smiling at each other on the field, shaking their heads in disbelief at how much fun they were having. They were playing football, but they were also bringing about cultural change.
In 1963, Brackenridge was made up of mostly African-American players and a few Hispanic players, while Lee was all white. Texas was still years away from full-scale integration, and in researching this book, I heard stories of racial hostility at ball games from much later in the tumultuous 1960s.
The Lee-Brack game had it where it mattered most. The storyline was uplifting when people needed it, but the play between the lines made it legendary, and the jaw-dropping action began with the opening series.
Lee marched for a touchdown on its game-opening possession, then recovered its first onside kick attempt. Baer scored to cap the second drive, giving the Volunteers a 14–0 lead before McVea or any of the Brackenridge offensive players had touched the ball.
But the Eagles were wise to Lee’s strategy after that, recovering every onside kick attempt the rest of the way. Down 14–0, the Eagles recovered the second one and went to work digging out of a hole.
McVea’s first run of the game at once justified both teams’ strategy and showed that the early two-touchdown lead wasn’t safe. McVea scrambled around the left side of his offensive line and then darted down the sideline for a fifty-four-yard touchdown.
Lee called timeout the first time the Volunteers saw McVea step in at quarterback, but the powwow didn’t do much good. “It was a great call for Coach (Weldon) Forren to do that,” Baer said. “To get (McVea’s) hands on the ball every play was genius, because he could do things with the football that I’d never seen anybody do before.”
McVea’s high school career made him a sought-after football recruit who received dozens of college scholarship offers. He went on to the University of Houston, where he was the Cougars’ first African-American player.
Viewed retrospectively, it’s no wonder that Forren put the ball in McVea’s hands on every offensive play on that cold night at Alamo Stadium.
McVea told me that Forren pulled him aside during the week leading up to the game and said the only chance the Eagles had was to move him to quarterback. McVea, of course, was on board. Brackenridge simplified its game plan to accommodate the change in strategy.
“I only had about four or five plays,” McVea said. “That’s all we did. We ran Floyd Boone off tackle, Floyd Boone around the end, Floyd Boone up the middle, and then me around the end. That’s all we had.”
It looked for a moment in the second half as if that would be all the Eagles needed to advance, despite the fact that Lee had taken a 34–19 lead to intermission.
Brackenridge recovered Lee’s onside kick to start the second half and began taking control of the scoreboard. McVea scored two touchdowns in the third quarter, helping the Eagles win the third quarter 14–7, marking the first period of the game in which Brackenridge gained an edge.
The Eagles went to the fourth quarter trailing 41–33, but holding the momentum.
With 74 points on the board going into the final period, the early 1960s contest became the kind of evenly matched offensive slugfest that delights fans. It not only resonated, but also grew like a big fish story.
“If everybody was at that game that said they were at the game, there was like 100,000 people there,” Baer said. “Everybody you talked to was at the game or knew somebody who was at the game and always wanted to talk about it. And it was always called ‘The Game.’ ”
The players were loving it, too.
“After the game got going, what’s so amazing about that football game is all the guys on both teams started having fun,” McVea said. “While we were out there playing, me and Linus were just laughing and saying this is like a track meet.”
The Eagles needed a stop to start the fourth quarter in order to pull even with Lee. But Brackenridge made the most crucial tactical mistake up to that point by putting the ball in Baer’s hands in the open field.
Baer rushed for 150 yards in the contest and caught two passes for 95 more yards. He finished with four rushing or receiving touchdowns, but his biggest play came on the rare occasion that either team opted to kick deep.
He hauled in the kickoff in the first minute of the fourth quarter and found a seam up the left hash mark. Baer and McVea had formed a relationship during track season, and Baer knew that the one player capable of catching him once he cranked up his engine was McVea.
Only McVea, who kicked the ball deep and served as the last line of defense, was wearing human ankle cuffs.
“(A Lee blocker) fell down and crawled over there so I wouldn’t see him,” McVea recounted. “He had a leg lock, and I couldn’t get him loose. I looked down, and the guy had his legs around me in a leg lock. I was like, ‘What is going on here, man?’ And Linus ran it back for a touchdown.
“I had a chance to get him, and the referee let it go.”
The black-and-white film from DeLaune’s documentary confirms McVea’s story, though the film is a little too grainy to identify the Lee player.
Baer’s kick-return touchdown boosted Lee’s lead to 47–33, with more than 11 minutes remaining. Brackenridge wasn’t finished, though.
McVea, perhaps still riled up from being held, answered with a 46-yard touchdown run. On the point-after attempt, he grabbed the ball on a fake kick, scrambled to his left and threw back across the field to complete the two-point conversion pass, cutting Lee’s lead to 47–41.
Then came the Eagles’ big break as they turned the tables by recovering an onside kick.
On the ensuing drive, McVea handed to Boone, who gained a pair of key first downs, setting up McVea’s five-yard touchdown run, which tied it. McVea kicked the extra point to put Brackenridge ahead, and for the first time it appeared as if the defending state champions might survive the battle.
McVea scored the go-ahead touchdown with more than six minutes left. If the game had been played in the early 21st century, with both defenses exhausted and quick-strike offenses sensing blood in the water, six minutes would be a virtual eternity.
But this was 1960s football, heavy on the run, so the last half of the fourth quarter represented the final gasp of a fantastic game.
Brackenridge came close to stopping Lee when the Eagles forced the Volunteers into a third-and-seven from the Brackenridge 28-yard line. But Lee quarterback Gary Kemph dropped back, pumped once, and then threaded a pass to Eddie Markette over the middle for a 16-yard gain to the Eagles’ 12-yard line.
From there, the Volunteers plodded forward until fullback Larry Townsend plunged into the end zone from one yard out. A successful two-point conversion put Lee ahead, 55-48, with a little more than 30 seconds left.
Though only a few ticks remained, Lee definitely didn’t want McVea touching the ball too many times.
“It seemed like a whole quarter was left, to me,” Baer said. “I did all the kicking. I lined up, and I was going to kick it opposite where McVea was. He lined up in the middle, so I kind of angled over this way, and he moves over this way. Then I line up over there, and he moves over that way. And I just said, ‘Ah, hell, I’ll just kick it.’
“I kick to this guy and he laterals it back, and now I’ve got to catch (McVea).”
The Eagles did corral McVea on the kickoff. Then on the final play, from his own 43-yard line, McVea scrambled to his right, looking for the kind of hole that had been there so often that night. McVea finished with 215 rushing yards and six touchdowns, but he couldn’t get away on his last carry.
Lee tackled McVea and grasped a 55–48 win.
The Volunteers prevailed from the underdog role, but on this night there was no room for chest pounding. The nation had lost its leader a week earlier and perhaps more meaningfully in the context of the game, a white school and a predominantly black school from San Antonio had won each other’s respect through a thrilling football game.
The two principal players had formed a relationship going into the contest, but it was strengthened after the memorable night. They roomed together the next summer at the Texas High School Coaches Association All-Star Game.
Baer, who went on to play college football at the University of Texas, graduated from high school having formed an unusually tight bond with an athlete from another school.
“We played basketball against each other, ran track against each other,” Baer said. “He’d call me up and ask me to go to parties. We were good friends and had a lot of respect for each other.”
San Antonio has long since had the reputation as a culturally and ethnically diverse city. An attempt to explain the reasons and roots of that distinction would fill up another book. But the players involved in the classic football clash of Nov. 29, 1963, credit that experience with playing a huge role in the city’s evolution.
“What really, I think, happened is it drew the communities closer together,” McVea said. “Robert E. Lee was kind of like the mother ship in all that stuff. They didn’t have any black players. The thing that really stood out is how the guys on the other team, how they treated us. They treated us with a lot of respect.”
Excerpted from “The Republic of Football: Legends of the Texas High School Game,” © 2016 by Chad Conine. The book will be released in September by the University of Texas Press.