Saturday, March 19, 2011

Kansas City, Here We Come!

  Crockett was and is predominately a football town. Baseball has been a distant second since the Bulldogs have won state championships over the past few years. The basketball teams were always competitive but rarely advanced past the district level during my years in school. The home games were well attended, mostly due to the lack of anything else to do.
In the fall of 1971, Eddie Driskill and I moved into the dormitory at Stephen F. Austin State University. Paul Craycraft and John Harold Allen lived in the same building but several rooms down the first semester. The second semester they shared the suite with us. Eugene May and Charlie Jackson lived in a rooming house a couple of miles from the campus, but one or both of them came by our rooms on a daily basis.
Through the months of September and October, we would all talk about staying in Nacogdoches each weekend to participate in the many social activities, but in the end every one of us would end up in Crockett driving the drag around the Dairy Queen and the courthouse square. All of us usually attended the home football games, mostly out of habit.
The SFA football Lumberjacks were a pitiful group. Our freshman year they served as the doormats of the Lone Star Conference. We would make an effort to attend the pep rallies on Friday in order to look at the cheerleaders. It was hard to get very excited about any of their games. That fall I attended several high school games in Crockett, but not a single Lumberjack game in Nacogdoches.
As football season wound down and basketball season neared, everyone started getting excited. The SFA men players were the celebrities in those days. Each year they were in the thick of the hunt for championship. We had never been exposed to quality basketball in Crockett, so initially we weren't caught up in the moment.
As is the case with most good basketball teams, the first few games were scheduled against smaller and less talented opponents. The aim was to work on the game plan against someone you can beat the crap out of and build up your confidence. After being apathetic to the game through high school, we were hooked when seeing the Lumberjacks play like a well-oiled machine, destroying a couple of marginal adversaries. Besides seeing some great games, we were where the action was on campus. We started feeling like we were part of the school.
The team was led by a senior named James Silas. He had been an All American guard his first three years and was expected to lead them to the promised land. We had never seen a player of his caliber. We never missed a home game that fall and couldn't wait until the conference games started in January.
One of our favorite pastimes at the games was to sit around and insult each other and make insensitive comments about everyone else. Since the noise level was high, most of the time we had to raise our voices to be heard by all of the Crockett Rockets. One night, we were smarting off to one another at halftime. A popular student named Larry was walking up the steps and, was coming our direction. He had a muscle disorder and had a terrible time walking. He was draped over the handrail and sort of pulling himself along. For some unexplained reason, for a couple of seconds the place got quiet. At that exact moment we all happened to be watching Larry laboring up the steps while wrapped around the steel railing. At the precise second the arena fell silent, one of the Crockett students (not me, I swear!) said in a loud voice so we could hear him over the background noise, "Here comes the halftime show!"
Everyone in the general area looked in our direction. They were no doubt wondering what callused bastard would say something like that. All of us began to look around to see if we could spot the jerk who would say such a thing. We moved to a different area of the gym a few minutes later.
When we returned to Nacogdoches after the Christmas break, we were hit with some disastrous news. James Silas, superstar, had flunked out. Some professor did not understand how the college sports system operated and had held him to the same standards as the rest of the student population. The team would have to enter the conference season without him. For her own safety, the name of the professor was kept quiet. Had this happened with any other athlete, the average student would have been overjoyed to see academic standards enforced. But this was the heart and soul of the basketball team, so nobody was happy.
When conference play started, the Lumberjacks continued to play to packed houses and kept on winning. The games were closer than they had been when James Silas was scoring his usual thirty points per game, but other players were stepping up. They won the Lone Star Conference and the NAIA regional playoffs and were going to the national tournament.
At the time, the NAIA national championship tournament was held in Kansas City, Missouri. Prior to their departure, a massive pep rally was held on campus. Everyone had gotten into the spirit and felt we had a good chance of winning it all. Even the Crockett Rockets had gone from basketball apathy to being rabid fans.
With no ESPN and limited local cable channels, it was impossible to see a game from the NAIA tournament. We all listened intently to the local radio station as the Lumberjacks easily won their first couple of games. Suddenly they were within three games of the national title. Most of the students on campus were now talking of a trip to Kansas City.
Eddie, Paul, John Harold and I were sitting around the room bitching, whining and lying, as was our custom each evening after eating supper in the cafeteria. From a distance we could hear a loud chant of "Kansas City here we come!" We went outside to investigate and were met by the sight of several thousand students on the march. Eddie And I joined in like lemmings marching to the ocean and began to chant along with the mob.
I saw Jerry Kemper, a classmate from Marshall, Texas, moving along with the herd. I asked him where everyone was going? He said the crowd was headed to the residence of the university president, Dr. Stein. The purpose of the march was to request a suspension of classes for the next three days so students electing to make the trip to Kansas City wouldn't suffer any consequences from any commie pinko professors that didn't fully appreciate the importance of basketball.
In 1972, most university presidents would have called out the national guard if such a mob were approaching their house at night. Dr. Stein was well liked, and the student body of SFA was by and large a conservative bunch, so there was no cause for alarm. Dr. Stein informed the gathering he could not suspend classes, but he made another proposal that met with approval. Any student returning from Kansas City with a ticket stub from the tournament in hand would get a personal excuse written by him. We returned to the dorm all fired up and ready to leave town.
Everyone was excited for the first few minutes. Eddie and I started packing our bags and preparing to hit the road. John Harold and Paul quickly backpedaled and remembered a number of reasons they couldn't make it. After throwing a few supplies into my Pinto, we decided to wake up Charlie and Eugene and offer them the opportunity to go with us.
It was nearly midnight when we banged on their door. We quickly related the story of the gathering on campus and Dr. Stein's guarantee of amnesty. Like the other two Crockett Rockets, they wimped out on us. We took off to Crockett to borrow money from our families before heading for Kansas City.
Being young and stupid certainly worked to our benefit. We left Crockett with about sixty dollars between us and an Exxon gasoline card that belonged to my mother. In those days, several national motel chains accepted gasoline cards, so we knew our rooms and fuel would be covered.
We arrived in Kansas City in the middle of the afternoon and quickly found Memorial Auditorium. We found a parking place half a mile away and sprinted to the ticket window. We had no idea when the Lumberjacks were playing. We were informed the SFA game had just ended and the Lumberjacks had won. We were also told there were no tickets available for their semifinal game the next evening. Our panic lasted only a moment. Some students from Augustana University, the school SFA had just defeated, were trying to sell their tickets to the semifinal game. They were about five dollars each, so we scarfed them up.
Since we missed the game, we had some time on our hands. We walked for several blocks around Memorial Auditorium to take in the sights. We loitered in the lobbies of several large uppity hotels; the kind we had always seen in the movies. After an hour we decided we needed to find a place to stay.
The Exxon card could be used at a Ramada Inn, Howard Johnsons or Best Western. We were told there were no available rooms anywhere near the auditorium. After consulting the phone book, we found there was a large Ramada Inn across the river in downtown Kansas City, Kansas. I gave them a call and found they had quite a few empty rooms. Their rates were considerably cheaper than their counterparts across the river in Missouri.
A lot of university students had been staying there and had started leaving as their teams were defeated in the tournament. We crossed the river and located it without any problem.
We were given a room on the tenth floor of a fifteen-story hotel. Had we been a little older and a little more experienced, we would have been in hog heaven. The rooms on the eighth through the thirteen floors were rented by college students. Most of them were drunk and rowdy. We opened our door and our window to get some air circulating. Every now and then a couple of students would wander in and ask where we were from. Being a couple of bumpkins from Crockett we were mostly concentrating on not embarrassing ourselves.
I was sitting near the open window when something flashed by just outside. A split second later there was a loud crash. As I looked out to see the source of the noise, another object flew by on the way down, followed by another bang. Each time there was a crash, it was followed by a cheer from the rooms above. The flying objects turned out to be full cans of beer being tossed into the empty swimming pool one hundred feet below. The pool was fiberglass, which made the noise more pronounced. That occupied our attention for the next few minutes. Hotel security was summoned by someone in one of the lower floors, so the excitement was quelled in short order. The fatigue of a seven hundred mile drive began to set in and we finally crashed.
We slept late the next morning and awoke ready to do some exploring. The evening before, we had parked in the large garage at the hotel. There had been an attendant that pointed us to a general area when we drove in. The floor we parked on was starting to fill up as people returned from last basketball game of the day. As we exited the elevator the following morning and entered the garage we noticed the attendant stand up and look in our direction. When he saw me unlocking the door to my Pinto he stomped out of the office and headed toward us.
Eddie made some remark to me about the wild look in his eyes as he approached. He immediately started chewing me out and I had no idea what in the hell he was talking about. He pointed to a sign by his office door and started babbling about me not obeying it. I read it for the first time. It said, "Please leave your vehicle unlocked with the keys in it so our attendant can move the cars when necessary. This is a secure facility." My first thought was "BULLSHIT!" There was no way I was going to leave my car unlocked and the keys in it with that Sammy little prick in charge of it. He kept ragging on me as we got in the car. I think I said something like we don't do that kind of crap in Texas, but I don't remember now. I was pretty pissed off when we left. We had been talking about staying somewhere a little cheaper for the second night, and the encounter with the attendant helped make up our minds.
We ate lunch and hit the freeway toward the east side of Kansas City to see the sights. Arrowhead Stadium and Royals Stadium had both recently been completed. The freeway passed both of them and we were impressed. We had seen both arenas on television, and they looked even better up close. Later in the afternoon, we found a Ramada Inn at a much lower rate in Independence, Missouri. There was no parking attendant.
SFA was playing the first semifinal game against Kentucky State. The second game was to be the number one ranked University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire against someone I can't recall. We had met a lot of UW-Eau Claire students and we were pulling for them. The feeling seemed to be mutual and we were all hoping to meet at the championship game.
We got to Memorial Auditorium about an hour before game time. A lot of students had made the trip from Nacogdoches. Up until then we hadn't seen many other SFA students. The atmosphere was electric by the time we got to our seats. It was far and away the most excited I'd ever been at a sporting event. We were sure the national championship was in our grasp.
The students from Kentucky State were very obnoxious and taunted everyone throughout the game. Their big cheer was, “Yeah Austin! Yeah Austin! Yeah Austin! Sheeeeit!” Real classy. The Kentucky State players weren't much better. The SFA players kept their cool and led the game from the start. They never trailed until the last three minutes of the game. Suddenly they went stone cold and Kentucky State took advantage of the situation. Kentucky State took the lead and pulled away at the very end.
Within a span of a few short moments we went from wild excitement to deep dejection. The Kentucky State fans jeered us as we left the area. We had planned to follow the SFA crowd to some of the nearly clubs and celebrate, but with the crushing defeat we decided to trudge back the cheap motel and crash. The next morning we headed back to East Texas.
By the time we left Kansas City, Missouri we were flat broke. We had no desire to stay in town to see SFA play in the consolation game, which they won. Our gasoline and lodging had been charged on the gasoline card. Our short supply of cash had been depleted quickly buying tickets to the game and food. The shortest route home was down the Indian Nation Turnpike through Oklahoma, but that meant we would have to pay a toll at several locations. Oklahoma makes you drive all over the place to punish you for not driving on the expensive turnpikes. Our food by then consisted of Cokes, chips and cheese crackers we could put on the credit card each time we bought gas. The trip to Kansas City had flown by due to the excitement of what was to come. The drive home seemed to take forever. We arrived in Nacogdoches tired and very hungry.
I made several more road trips over the years, but that was the first and one of the most memorable. We arrived home feeling more a part of the SFA student body than when we left. Students we would have likely never spoken to would say hello and say they saw us in Kansas City. The campus newspaper published a letter from the student editor of the newspaper at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. He praised the SFA students in Kansas City for their character and class and said he made a lot of friends. For the most part that is the impression most people get when they meet a bunch of Texans for the first time -- even when a couple of them are from Crockett.

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