Growing up in the 1980s, Tracy Saul knew some channel called ESPN existed, but he doesn’t remember getting it at his house. So when it came to watching college football, that Saturday afternoon Southwest Conference game of the week was must-see TV.
Saul remembers watching Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, SMU, Texas Tech — and all the rest. So when he finally got his own opportunity to play in the SWC for the Red Raiders, he figured, how could it get any bigger than that?
“As a little kid, all I wanted to do was play in the Southwest Conference someday,” said Saul, who will be inducted into the SWC Hall of Fame Monday in Dallas. “Those games were the ones I always watched, the ones with Texas, Arkansas, A&M, TCU. Those are the memories I have. So to live that dream that I dreamed as a kid was a pretty big blessing.”
Of course, just about any athletic team Saul ever suited up for probably considered themselves blessed. A pure athlete, Saul may have been an even better basketball player at little Idalou High School in West Texas than he was a football player — and he was pretty darn impressive on the gridiron. On the basketball court, Saul averaged more than 30 points per game as a senior and once poured in 55 points in a 100-27 win over New Deal.
On the football field, Saul starred as an option quarterback and field-patrolling safety for the Wildcats. His senior year Idalou won its first 11 games before succumbing to Quanah, 25-20, in a helmet-knocking playoff clash.
Saul received some scholarship offers in basketball, but couldn’t resist the gridiron’s gravitational pull.
“To me, football is the ultimate team game,” he said. “There are so many moving pieces in a football game, and that’s what I loved about it the most. In college, I really enjoyed watching film, learning the intricacies of the opposing offense. That part of it was a lot of fun. Plus, growing up, football was always king in Texas, so I followed what everyone else followed.”
Saul made visits to Baylor, Arkansas, Texas Tech and the Big 8’s Oklahoma. But he felt most home at Tech, which was about 12 miles away from his hometown of Idalou. He’d made the short drive to Lubbock many times over the years to sit on the grass at Jones Stadium and follow the Red Raiders.
When Saul arrived on campus in 1989, it just so happened that a starting spot at safety had opened. Waco native Donald Harris was the incumbent starting safety for the Red Raiders, but decided to sign a professional baseball contract with the Texas Rangers organization. So Saul made an early beeline to the field.
“I was in the right place in the right time,” Saul said. “Donald had been the free safety before and then he got drafted by the Rangers, so I came in when there was basically an open position. If Donald hadn’t been drafted, I would have sat for two years. So it was definitely a case of right place, right time.”
Saul always had a knack for being on the right spot on the field anyway, so he may have played his way into a spot even if Harris had been around. As a freshman he picked off eight passes on his way to an eventual SWC record of 25.
“I was always comfortable on the field,” Saul said “Never was there a time where it didn’t feel right. My main concern was reading the quarterback, and that was very natural to me. My job was to backpedal and watch which way he turned that shoulder. Back then guys often ran one route, and we studied so that we knew if they came out in this set, this was the route they were going to run. So it really felt natural to me.”
Fitting that Saul used that adjective, because his instinctive play for the Red Raiders earned him the nickname “The Natural.” He won consensus all-SWC honors all four years at Tech, the only player to earn that recognition in the conference’s 81-year history. He also was a second-team All-American following his junior season.
After college, Saul went to camp with the Chicago Bears before falling victim to a late-August cut. He coached for a year at Lubbock Cooper High School, then entered his family’s sporting good business in Waco. He and his wife Kyna and their two daughters have called Waco home for more than 15 years now, but he still makes it out to Lubbock as often as possible to root for the Red Raiders.
“I’m most proud of the friendships I made,” Saul said. “I was out there in Lubbock last weekend, and going back, there were some guys I hadn’t seen in 20 years. But you sit down and get to talking, and it’s like you never left. Those relationships I built were the biggest thing for me.”