I was 11 years old, and watching on the TV in our house on Cleveland Street, in Little Rock, when James Street achieved immortality. It was December 6, 1969, and Arkansans of a certain age, like me, still feel the pain of the dagger that Street, the elusive Texas quarterback, shoved in our guts that day.
James Street was found dead, of an apparent heart attack, in his house in Austin, Texas, this morning. He was 65, according to the calendar, but for fans of both the Razorbacks and the Longhorns, he will always be 21, and he’ll always be dropping back on fourth-and-three, deep in the fourth quarter, to fling a prayer of a pass in the greatest college football game ever played.
You can still see it on YouTube — I watched it again when I heard of Street’s passing, and it has lost none of its power to twist your insides. The numbers 1 and 2 teams in the country; President Nixon in the stands; ABC televising nationally; the Hogs playing their hearts out, and thoroughly outplaying the Horns, and going into the last 15 minutes with a two-touchdown lead that, for scarlet-clad fans used to disappointment at the hands of the richer, and bigger, and stronger, and somehow less admirable foes in burnt-orange, felt more like two points.
Arkansas and Texas first played each other in 1894. Texas won, 54-0, beginning a tradition of dominance that seems, even today, to play into many deep stereotypes of both states. It took till 1933 for the Razorbacks to beat the Longhorns, and even in the glory year of 1964, when Arkansas won its lone (and thoroughly mythical) national title, the Hogs barely squeaked by the powerful Horns, winning 14-13 — a result that would be almost exactly reversed 5 years later.
Coming exactly 100 years after the first official intercollegiate football season, the 1969 “Game of the Century” captured the nation’s imagination in a way that’s impossible in today’s multimedia world. The broadcast on ABC got a ridiculous 52.1 share, meaning that half of the TV sets in the country were tuned to the game. Michigan upset Ohio State on Thanksgiving weekend, vaulting the undefeated Longhorns to the top of the polls and the Razorback to No. 2. Played “in the heartland of America, in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains,” as the ABC announcer put it, the Game of the Century also helped mark the passing of the era of segregation in college football: not a single player on either side was African American*.
Arkansas tailback Bill Burnett scored the only TD of the first half, and Bill Montgomery, the slender, scrappy UA quarterback, threw a third-quarter TD pass to Chuck Dicus. 14-0, the end of the third quarter. Arkansas’s defense had held the vaunted Texas offense, which averaged more than 44 points a game coming in, scoreless for three quarters. But it was clear, even to me watching on TV, that the Hogs were playing beyond themselves, that they had to come back to earth, and that a comeback was inevitable. This was Texas, after all. And they had James Street.
Street was not the best quarterback in the country — that was Archie Manning, of Ole Miss – but he was slippery and gutsy and handsome in a Texan kind of way, and he ran the Wishbone with polish and guile. On the first play of the fourth quarter he skated through the Arkansas defense for a 42-yard touchdown run that was marred by an obvious, but unflagged, clip in the secondary (although it’s doubtful that the UA defender blocked in the back would have caught Street anyway). To long-suffering Arkansas fans this was a blatant injustice, perpetrated by the refs at the insistence of the TV suits, or maybe even by the beady-eyed president watching from the stands. Texas coach Darrell Royal, in an act of coaching courage unthinkable today, went for two after that first score, and Street dove into the end zone. 14-8. Still, the Hogs held on as I and the rest of the state willed the scoreboard clock to count down faster.
Montgomery threw a third-down interception in the Texas end zone on the ensuing drive; a field goal would have iced it. At midfield, under five minutes to go, the Hogs’ defense stiffened again, and Texas faced fourth-and-three from its own 43. Street faked the triple option, dropped back a few steps, and threw up a desperation pass that dropped over the head of receiver Randy Peschel, streaking behind two Arkansas defensive backs, and nestled into his arms. Texas scored a few plays later, and kicked the extra point to go up 15-14. Montgomery threw an interception on the next drive. Jimmy Street, as the announcer called him, had broken our hearts.
James Street started 20 games for Texas, and won them all. He was also a star pitcher, leading the Longhorns to two Southwest Conference baseball titles. He never had a shot at the NFL; he went on to a successful career in finance in Austin, and he had five sons, one of whom is a pitcher for the San Diego Padres. In another strange turning of fate, he was in Little Rock a few weeks before his sudden death, attending a showing of “The Big Shootout,” a documentary about the 1969 game, at the Clinton Library. My father met him there and, like just about everyone else who met him, was impressed by his modesty and his amiability. Even for Razorback fans, he was a hard guy to hate. Death doesn’t come any crueler.
But for those of us who were young, and played football, and wanted desperately to see Arkansas overcome its most hated rival in the biggest game ever, James Street’s life was condensed into a few seconds in the fourth quarter on a chilly day in Fayetteville, a single play that we will always be able to play back mentally in full, excruciating detail. Street takes the snap. He shoves the ball into the fullback’s stomach, and pulls it out. He scrambles backward, the ball held loosely in his right hand. He rears and throws it as far as he can. The ball hangs in the gray sky. It seems like it’ll never come down. It hangs there still.
*A previous version of this post said that this was the last college football game between major college football teams that didn’t include a single African-American player. That was overstated. Alabama, for instance, didn’t field an integrated team until 1971.
Richard Martin is the former editor of the Times. His book on the future of the coal industry will appear in 2015.