BROWNWOOD, Texas — Lawrence Elkins’ house sits near the shore of Lake Brownwood in a quiet neighborhood surrounded by live oaks.
There’s nothing flashy about the house, but inside the den you get the idea why the former Baylor star was one of the most groundbreaking receivers in the history of college football in the early 1960s.
There’s a photo of Elkins standing with Ed Sullivan when he was invited to New York after making the 1964 All-America team. There’s his mugshot along with famous players such as Dick Butkus, Gale Sayers and Ralph Neely on the 75th American Football Coaches All-America team in 1964.
Above the window overlooking the lake, there’s a handwritten note from legendary Brownwood High School coach Gordon Wood that reads, “You were the greatest I ever coached.”
“Coach Wood probably wrote that to all the guys he coached,” Elkins said.
It’s been 40 years since Elkins last played a football game, but his name is far from forgotten. In the 50th anniversary edition of Texas Football magazine, Elkins is ranked as the 13th-most memorable player in the history of the state behind guys like Earl Campbell, Bob Lilly and Roger Staubach.
In February, Elkins will be inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.
“I was speechless when they told me,” Elkins said. “I said, ‘Why are you putting me in there with all of those big-time names?’ ”
In an era of college football when running attacks ruled the day, Baylor broke the mold with coach John Bridgers’ pro-style offense that he developed as an assistant for the Johnny Unitas-era Baltimore Colts. Nobody had seen a passing combination like quarterback Don Trull and Elkins, who set a national record with 70 catches for 873 yards and eight touchdowns in 10 games in 1963.
Elkins’ record stood for almost 40 years before Reggie Newhouse caught 75 passes in 12 games in 2002. Twelve of Elkins’ catches in 1963 came against No. 1 Texas, a record that’s been tied three times at Baylor but never broken.
“Lawrence had phenomenal talent,” said John Jessup, a Baylor lineman from 1961-63. “He was fast and caught every ball he got his hands on. You just didn’t see people at his position with that kind of physical ability. Big, strong kids played the line, smart kids played quarterback, and fast kids played halfback. But Lawrence was a big, fast end. He was also a smart man and a very good student.”
Because many college teams had never seen a pro-style offense, they didn’t know how to defend it. Trull felt he could complete a down-and-out pattern to Elkins any time, and the flanker had the speed to turn plays into long gains.
“Back when we were playing, our passing attack was so far ahead of anybody,” Trull said. “Lawrence could break off the line of scrimmage and go from zero to whatever speed he needed so quick. Then he’d cut and separate himself from the defensive back. When people covered him one-on-one, he could always get open.”
Before Elkins arrived at Baylor in 1961, he lived a hardscrabble life in Brownwood in a poor part of town known as the flats. He was the youngest of 10 children, and his father did all kinds of jobs to support the family, including driving a truck and operating an elevator.
“My dad served in World War I, and he got a $61-a-month pension after getting mustard gas,” Elkins said. “Without that pension, we would have starved to death.”
Elkins’ mother had three husbands, including Marshall Ratliff, who became known as the Santa Claus bank robber after he dressed up in a Santa outfit and robbed a bank in Cisco in 1927.
“My mother had already quit him before he robbed the bank,” Elkins said. “His gang was caught when their car ran out of gas, and they ended up hanging him in Eastland County. He was probably Texas’ best-known bank robber besides Bonnie and Clyde.”
Elkins learned how to play football from brothers Herman and Robert Moore.
“I had to get tough or die,” Elkins said. “They were a lot older than me, and they’d throw the ball at me as hard as they could. I got a lot of bloody noses. I don’t think I quit crying until I was 16.”
By his high school years, Elkins had developed into one of the best players in Brownwood, but his career really took off as a senior when Gordon Wood took over as coach in 1960. With Elkins starring at tight end and defensive end, the Lions went 13-1 and won the Class 3A state championship, the school’s first of seven under Wood.
“Coach Wood was a great motivator and had a steel-trap mind,” Elkins said. “He was tough but fair. Though he never cussed, he could really give you a tongue lashing. He’d make you tough as a rattlesnake.”
After his senior year, Elkins was recruited by coaches across the Southwest Conference, including legendary Texas coach Darrell Royal.
“Coach Royal and his entire coaching staff drove up to the house in a limousine,” Elkins said. “But Coach Wood told me I need to go to Baylor because they ran a pro-style offense. He said I’d be just another number at Texas.”
The sight of Elkins driving to the Baylor campus for the first time left a lasting impression on former Baylor running back Clint Mitchell.
“He drove up to campus with his ma and pa in what I think was a ’48 Chevy,” Mitchell said. “Lawrence was wearing a straw hat. They were like a throwback to the Real McCoys.”
During his brilliant junior year, Elkins’ record-setting performance against the Longhorns is still talked about by old Baylor fans. On a rainy day in Austin, the Bears moved up and down the field against the Longhorns as Elkins caught 12 passes for 151 yards but couldn’t score.
Late in the game, Duke Carlisle intercepted Trull’s pass to the end zone to Elkins to preserve the unbeaten Longhorns’ 7-0 win en route to their first national championship.
“Duke played quarterback for Texas, but Coach Royal brought him in to play safety and showed what a great athlete he is,” Elkins said. “Texas really worked me over that day. They made hamburger out of my back. It was the old days of no-holds-barred football.”
The Bears finished the 1963 season 8-3 after beating LSU in the Bluebonnet Bowl. After making 50 catches for 851 yards and seven touchdowns as a senior, Elkins was drafted in the first round by both the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and the AFL’s Houston Oilers in 1965.
“Coach Bridgers told me I should sign with Green Bay because Coach (Vince) Lombardi would make a football player out of me,” Elkins said. “The Packers offered me $50,000 up front and the Oilers offered me $70,000. But (Oilers owner) Bud Adams offered me a Phillips 66 service station after I retired, so I took it. But I wish I’d played with the Packers because I could have been on three world championship teams.”
In his first exhibition game with the Oilers, Elkins tore up his left knee against the New York Jets. After catching a touchdown pass from old Baylor teammate Trull, Elkins planted his foot wrong when he tried to avoid the goal post, and crumpled to the ground.
“I limped around for the next five years,” Elkins said. “But I did play long enough to get an NFL pension. It’s enough to pay a few bills.”
After retirement from pro football in 1970, Elkins began working for Brown and Root as an engineer in the United States and Europe. Before moving to back to Brownwood three years ago, he worked for Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Water and Electricity.
Along the way, he’s made friends far and near. During the 1980s, actor Robert Duvall wanted to learn how an old rural Texan spoke as he prepared for his role as Gus McCrae in the TV miniseries “Lonesome Dove.” So Elkins introduced him to legendary NFL quarterback Sammy Baugh, who had a ranch north of Abilene.
Now 66, Elkins has four children and three grandchildren. He regularly makes the two-hour drive to Waco for Baylor football games and likes the direction that coach Art Briles is taking the program. He’s planned surgery in Waco in December for a replacement for the ailing knee he suffered in his NFL debut so many years ago.
“I’m still limping around on it,” Elkins said.
Elkins has lived an interesting, colorful life that has taken him around the world. He sometimes wonders how different things might have been without football, but he’s glad he’s come full circle.
“If Coach Wood hadn’t come along for my senior year at Brownwood, I might have spent 30 or 40 years working in a factory around here,” Elkins said. “I’ve had a chance to live a lot of places. But there’s no place like this.”