Be there or be square: Unless you were POTUS you needed one of these on 6 December 1969.
Forty years ago today, RN flew on Air Force One to Fort Smith, Arkansas, and then boarded Marine One for the hop to the parking lot at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville, to watch Darrel Royal’s Texas Longhorns pull out a fourth quarter 15-14 win over Frank Broyles’ Arkansas Razorbacks. What started out as the “Big Shootout” ended up as “The Game of the Century.”
A newspaper cartoon noted RN’s arrival on Marine One to join the capacity crowd of 44,000 at Razorback Stadium.
When Air Force One touched down at the Fort Smith airport, the President and his VIP passengers were greeted by Arkansas Governor Winthrop Rockefeller. RN responded:
THE PRESIDENT: Governor Rockefeller and all of the people who are here at the airport at Fort Smith, I want you to know how much I appreciate this very warm welcome. It is warm, at least as far as the welcome is concerned.
I want you to know, too, that, as I come here to this great football game at Fayetteville, that I have to be in somewhat of a nonpartisan position, because on the airplane we brought down some members of the delegation from the State of Arkansas — Senator McClellan, Senator Fulbright, John Paul Hammerschmidt, your own Congressman — but I also brought along some members of the delegation from Texas. So I have to be in between the two.
All that I know is that we are going to see today, in this 100th anniversary of football, one of the great football games of all time, and both of them I wish could be Number 1. But at the end, whichever is Number I will deserve it, and the Number 2 team will still go to a bowl and be a great team.
We want to also say, clearly apart from football, that as we flew over the airport and I saw the cars parked for, well, actually not just feet nor yards, but miles down the road, and then as I went down this line and shook hands with people and I felt how cold your hands were, and your noses a little red, and the rest, I realized some of you have been here a long time.
I just want you to know how much we appreciate it. To come from Washington, to get this kind of a welcome, in the heart of the country, right here in Arkansas, means a great deal to us.
We are going to take back memories of that welcome.
I want you to know, too, that I did not have the opportunity of visiting Arkansas during the 1968 campaign. This is the first time I have had a chance to visit Arkansas, since becoming President. After this warm welcome, it isn’t going to be the last. I want to come back here.
Now, if I could just close my remarks with one other thought, I realize that this is the beginning of a holiday season. It isn’t going to be much of a holiday season for the Congress. I think we are going to have to stay and work during most of that Christmas season, although I haven’t worked that out yet with the Congressmen and Senators. But I do want you to know, for everybody here, that Mrs. Nixon and I and our two daughters extend our very best wishes for a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of you. Thank you.
1969 was the hundredth anniversary of college football, and the season was dominated by the Longhorns, the Razorbacks, and the Nittany Lions (whose coach and fans didn’t warm to RN’s Fayetteville excursion, and whose undefeated record was recognized by RN during his post-game locker room remarks).
Richard Nixon Comes To Arkansas: A First Person Account (recalled thirty-nine years later) of RN’s Arrival in Fayetteville Arrival by Jim Stafford, Business Reporter for The Oklahoman
It was cold and rainy on Dec. 6, 1969, when Air Force One emerged from the clouds to land at the Fort Smith, Ark., airport. I was there, along with about 2,000 of my closest friends to welcome President Richard M. Nixon to Arkansas.
Nixon was on his way to Fayetteville to witness the Texas-Arkansas football game, but had to land about 60 miles south in Fort Smith because the Fayetteville airport runway wasn’t long enough to accommodate his aircraft.
Anyway, I was a sophomore in high school and begged my mom to let me take her car to the airport to see Nixon. I actually arrived before they opened the gates to the Air National Guard section of the airport about 9 a.m. Nixon’s plane didn’t arrive until about 11, so we had plenty of standing around to do.
A press plane landed about 20 minutes ahead of Nixon’s plane. Reporters came out and struck up some conversation with some of those around me along the rope barriers set up for the occassion. The Southside High School band was there to play “Hail to the Chief.”
I don’t recall Nixon making any kind of formal speech, but he came down the rope barrier shaking hands during the brief time he was there. When he got to within about six feet of my spot in line, Arkansas Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller whispered something to him, which I assumed was about the need to head up to Fayetteville in time for kick-off of the game.
Nixon turned away and started to walk to the waiting helicopter, but several hundred disappointed well wishers let out a collective “awwwww.” Nixon turned around and came back and shook hands all the way down the line, including mine. I have pictures! He even took time to shake a few hands of the high school band members.
A couple of things happened that morning that I still clearly recall:
First, a reporter who stepped off the press plane complained of the cold weather and one of the folks waiting with me offered to sell him the stocking cap he was wearing. The reporter took him up on the deal and paid about $10 for the cap. I was impressed with his walking-around money.
Second, a man armed with a Kodak Instamatic climbed up on one of the barrels that held the rope barrier just as Nixon’s plane was pulling onto the tarmac. A sheriff’s deputy came running over and shouted for the man to get down. I’ll never forget the guy’s reply after he jumped off. He said “come the revolution, you are going to get yours.” (Although, I believe the deputy was already out of earshot) We had a counter-culture wannabe in the crowd!
Finally, when I got home my mom told me that a friend of mine called minutes after I left to go to the airport. His family had tickets to the big game, but his mother decided it was too cold and wet to sit in the stands. So he was calling to offer me the extra ticket.
RICHARD NIXON COST ME THE OPPORTUNITY TO WATCH THE GAME OF THE CENTURY IN PERSON.
I didn’t hold it against him.Almost 40 years later, that day remains one of my fondest memories.
I took this photo of Air Force One sitting on the tarmac in Fort Smith and had not seen the picture for decades. It showed up in my e-mail box Monday morning courtesy of my dad, who obviously ran across it while looking through some old photos.
His only comment: “Do you remember this?”
I certainly do.
The Nation’s #1 Football Fan in his element: RN, flanked on his right by Arkansas congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt, and Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller, and, on his right, by Arkansas Senators John McClellan and J. William Fulbright, and young Texas congressman George H. W. Bush (whose eye was apparently already on the presidency).
During the half time, RN went to the ABC press booth and chatted with sportscasters Chris Schenkel and analyst (and former Oklahoma coach) Bud Wilkinson, whom he had appointed Special Consultant to the President on a wide range of issues.
The Longhorns got off to a sloppy start, losing a fumble on the second play from scrimmage and turning the ball over a total of six times. A 1-yard leap into the end zone by Bill Burnett in the first quarter and a 29-yard touchdown reception by Chuck Dicus in the third quarter put the Hogs up 14-0 with 15:00 to play.
James Street scrambled for a touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter. Longhorns coach Darrell Royal had decided before the game to go for a two-point conversion after the Longhorn’s first touchdown to avoid a tie, and Street dove into the end zone to make it 14-8.
Arkansas quarterback Bill Montgomery next led the Razorbacks on a 73-yard drive down to the Texas 7. On third down, Montgomery was intercepted in the end zone by Danny Lester, Arkansas’ first turnover of the game. A field goal would have likely put the game out of reach for Texas.
Still down 14-8, Texas began a desperate drive for the end zone that appeared to stall with 4:47 remaining when Royal opted for yet another gamble on fourth-and-3 from their own 43-yard line. During a timeout that Texas took before the fateful play, Royal shouted at Street, “Right 53 Veer pass.” The play was a deep pattern throw to the tight end. The play wasn’t in the Texas game plan package. “Are you sure that’s the call you want?” Street said. “Damn right I’m sure!” Royal snapped. Street had noticed Arkansas defenders looking into the Texas huddle, so he fixed his gaze on split end Cotton Speyrer while explaining the play to Randy Peschel, saying “Randy, I’m looking and pointing at Cotton, but I’m talking to you.” Street then hit Peschel on the dramatic play, with Peschel making a difficult catch over his shoulder in double coverage. It not only converted on fourth down, but also gained 44 yards, putting the Longhorns on the Razorbacks 13.
Two plays later Jim Bertelsen ran in for the game-tying touchdown. Donnie Wigginton, the third-string quarterback who was the holder, made a big save on a high snap and Happy Feller booted the extra point for the winning score with 3:58 remaining.
Fayetteville, 6 December, 1969, 4th and 3: ”Are you sure coach?” — QB James Street. ”I called it and I called it long.” — Coach Darrell Royal.
Here are the game highlights:
After the game, RN visited the Longhorn locker room to present the Presidential Plaque.
POTUS amidst the Longhorns: In the locker room after the game on live TV, RN presented Texas coach Darrell Royal with the presidential plaque on live TV.
THE PRESIDENT. This was one of the great games of all time, without a question. I was up in the booth, the ABC booth, at halftime, and, incidentally, I have got to brag a little. They asked what was going to happen in the second half. I said both teams were going to score, but I thought that what would really determine the second half would be whether Texas had the ability in the fourth quarter to come through. And you did. How do you feel?
MR. ROYAL. I have got to be the happiest guy in America tonight.
THE PRESIDENT. I just want to say this in presenting the plaque: In presenting this plaque, I want to say first that the AP [Associated Press] and the UPI [United Press International] will name Texas Number 1, as we know, after this game. This is a great honor in the 100th year of football.
I also want to say that, having seen this game, what convinced me that Texas deserves that is the fact that you won a tough one. For a team to be behind 14 to o and then not to lose its cool and to go on to win, that proves that you deserve to be Number 1, and that is what you are.
MR. ROYAL. Mr. President, it is a great thrill for us to win the football game, but the big thrill, I know I speak for all of our squad, is for the President of the United States to take time to endorse college football and to honor us with your presence in our locker room. This is a big moment in all of our lives. I am speaking for the coaching staff and all the players.
THE PRESIDENT. I want all of you to know that we didn’t make up the plaque in advance. It doesn’t say what team. I am taking it back to Washington and putting in Texas.
If I could add one thing, Darrell, while we are talking here, I do want to say that Penn State, of course, felt that I was a little premature in suggesting this, so we are going to present a plaque to Penn State as the team in the 100th year with the longest undefeated, untied record. Is that fair enough?
MR. ROYAL. That is fair enough.
Bevo Rex: This cartoon —showing the Texas mascot Bevo with RN— appeared on the front page of The Austin American.
RN also visited with coach Frank Broyles and the players in the Razorbacks’ locker room:
THE PRESIDENT. It is an honor to be here with a great team.
MR. BROYLES. Thank you, sir. We are proud and we feel that way, too.
THE PRESIDENT. I would like to say something to the team, because I know how you feel.
In my field of politics, I have lost some close ones and I have won some close ones. But I want you to know that in the 100th year of football, in the game to prove Which was to be Number 1, we couldn’t have had a greater game. Arkansas was magnificent throughout the game, and Texas, in order to win, had to beat a great team.
On any Saturday, if we were to make a bet, I would say we wouldn’t know which team to choose, whether it would be Arkansas or Texas.
I also want you to know this: I think you can be awfully proud of the way your fans are with you. I have never seen stands so full of life. The whole State was behind you. There was a spirit there about it, Coach, and that means that your team has done something that is really great for this State.
MR. BROYLES. Thank you, sir. We are very proud of our fans. They have had a big part in the success that we have had.
But we are doubly proud that you are a big sports fan and believe in our program across the State. This will mean a lot to football for years to come.
THE PRESIDENT. I know how the fellows feel, being right down there on that 8-yard line, ready to go over, and then losing the game after what they have done. But I do know this, that in that Sugar Bowl, watch out.
BILL FLEMMING [ABC Sports]. Mr. President, this has been, of course, the climax of the centennial year of college football, and we, indeed, are very indebted to you, sir, for not only taking your television set to your dentist so you could watch a college game, but also being here at this final game.
THE PRESIDENT. Well, I wouldn’t have missed it. I am only sorry that both teams couldn’t have won.
Thank you, fellows.
In today’s Austin-American-Statesman —under the headline “Did you think we’d forgotten?“— the highlights of the game are recalled
In a matchup billed as the “Game of the Century,” this one certainly lived up to the hype, as the old Southwest Conference foes entered the game unbeaten and ranked 1-2 in the Associated Press poll.
The Longhorns trailed 14-0 entering the fourth quarter, but James Street’s score on the first play of the final period helped top-ranked Texas climb back into the game.
The Razorbacks were in position to put the game away after driving to the Longhorns’ 7, but UT cornerback Danny Lester stepped in front of a Bill Montgomery pass in the end zone to keep the score at 14-8. Lester’s play set up the finish that made Street and Darrell Royal household names across the nation.
With his team facing a fourth-and-3 at its 43, Royal called a play that wasn’t even in the Longhorns game plan that week — ‘Right 53 Veer Pass.’
Street hit wideout Randy Peschel in double coverage for a 44-yard gain to the Razorback 13.
Two plays later, Jim Bertelsen bulldozed his way into the end zone, and Happy Feller’s point-after was good, giving UT the lead and ultimately the victory.
The Game of the Century made its way to the cover of the next issue of SI.
From The Haldeman Diaries: Saturday, December 6, 1969
P to Arkansas for the Texas game. All pleased with his plan to present Presidential plaque to winner as number one team in the 100th year of collegiate football. Great comination of circumstances to make this possible, as final game of season is between number one and number two teams on national TV. He did a great job and TV covered it thoroughly, the arrival by helicopter, the half-time interview in the press box, the plaque presentation to Texas (15-14), the crowd scene outside the locker room, the consolation visit to the Arkansas locker room.
Great stuff. Especially at half-time, when P gave thorough analysis of the game so far, and outlok for second half, which proved 100% accurate. And some really good stuff in the locker rooms, talking to the players. A real coup with the sports fans.
The post-game locker rooms: RN’s Longhorn visit begins at 2.51.
The game —and the changing nature of college football in the late ’60s— became the subject of a 2002 book by Denver Post sportswriter Terry Frei.