Legendary Texas football coach Darrell Royal died Thursday at age 88, which reminds me of a story.
When I was seven years old, I was a huge Longhorn football fan. Everyone was where I lived back then – my birthplace of Austin, Texas. Royal by then had won two national championships (in 1963 and 1969) at Texas and was, as you might expect, a virtual king in Austin.
Anyway, I wrote Royal a fan letter. I can’t remember much about it, except it included a couple of illustrations of Longhorns doing various great things with the football and maybe a play-calling suggestion or two (yes, I was trying to tell football coaches what to do back then, too).
And Royal wrote back.
I wish I had saved his letter, but I still have the memory. He had signed his letter, I do remember that, and it had my name at the top. And he had thanked me for my support of Texas football and my drawings (there was no mention of the play-calling, however).
It’s very possible a Texas football secretary had a standard letter to send out in such cases and put them in front of Royal by the dozens to sign every day. But in any case, it was powerful to me.
Those sorts of things too often get lost in athletics sometimes now – the power of a letter, or an autograph, or a player or coach taking a few moments to speak with someone who idolizes him. But if you ever had a moment like that yourself with an athlete or coach, I bet you still remember it (and feel free to share it in comments section below).
I wasn’t a big letter writer at age seven – I believe I only wrote two of them to sports figures. But the other one got answered, too. I’ve told this story before in a column from 10 years ago, but indulge me:
In 1972, I was also a big fan of the L.A. Lakers. Back then, I had written a letter to the coach of the 1971-72 Lakers NBA championship team – Bill Sharman.
Although I hadn’t asked for any autographs in that letter 30 years ago, Sharman had written back from California and enclosed a sheet with all of the team’s signatures – Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich among them. I loved that sheet of paper and stuck it on my bulletin board with thumbtacks. But a few years later, I lost it.
Fast-forward thirty years. Sharman’s son-in-law in Florida somehow saw my 2002 column about my original letter. He told Sharman -- who made basketball's hall of fame as both a player and a coach -- about it.
Sharman, who is now 86 years old and at the time was 76, dug through his files. He found a picture of that 1971-72 team and signed it. He found a copy of that original set of team autographs, which he Xeroxed for me.
Then Sharman stuffed all that in an envelope and sent it to me from California along with a note that concluded, “Thanks for bringing back some very nice, exciting memories!”
I still have that one.
And I still have the memory of Darrell Royal, too – who originated the Wishbone, famously disdained the forward pass and once made the day of a seven-year-old boy.