Fowler: Texas coach Royal provided red-letter day

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comNovember 8, 2012 

Obit Darrell Royal Football

FILE - In this Nov. 16, 1963, file photo, Texas head coach Darrell Royal is all smiles as he laces his shoe in the Texas dressing room after his Longhorns defeated Texas Christian University 17-0 in Austin, Texas Royal, who won two national championships and turned the Longhorns program into a national power, died early Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, at age 88 of complications from cardiovascular disease, school spokesman Bill Little said. Royal also had suffered from Alzheimer's disease. (AP Photo/Ted Powers, FIle)

1963 AP FILE PHOTO — AP

Legendary Texas football coach Darrell Royal died Wednesday at age 88, which reminds me of a story.

When I was seven years old, I was a huge Longhorns football fan. Everyone was where I lived back then, my birthplace of Austin, Texas. Royal, by then, had won three collegiate national championships (in 1963, 1969 and 1970) at Texas and was, as you might expect, a virtual king in Austin.

Anyway, I wrote Royal a fan letter in 1971. I can’t remember much about it, except that it included a couple of illustrations of Longhorns scoring touchdowns 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 the letter, but I still have the memory. He had signed his letter, I do remember that. It had my name at the top. He 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 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 however it happened to get into my mailbox, it was powerful.

Those sorts of things too often get lost in athletics these days: the power of a letter, or an autograph or a player or coach taking a few moments to speak with someone who idolizes him, especially if that person is a child. But if you ever had a moment like that yourself, I bet you still remember it.

I wasn’t a big letter writer at age seven – I think I only wrote two to sports figures. But the other one was answered too, a few months later. 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. After the season ended, I wrote 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 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 red 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 to the coach. He told Sharman about it.

Sharman, who is now 86 years old and at that 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 at the newspaper 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, disdained the forward pass and once made the day of a 7-year-old boy.

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler

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