by Jim Foreman
TCU fielded 137 starting football players and since there are only 99 playing numbers which could be assigned, most of the freshmen members, who didn't stand a ghost of a chance of being allowed to play, had to wear plain jerseys. Joe Bob Puckett was the exception because Big Bob Bradshaw had seen to it that his old number of 77 was taken away from the third string junior who had been wearing it so it could be given to the man who he had personally brought to the squad.
During his first year at TCU, Joe Bob received grades arranged by his coaches, ran wind sprints, acted as a tackling dummy during scrimmages, cheered the team on during games but never played a single official down. It didn't matter all that much to Joe Bob because he was the only freshman who had a number on his jersey and, as a member of the football team, was automatically a Big Man on Campus. The other advantage of never having his number called during a game was that he never got banged around.
During his sophomore year at TCU, Joe Bob got his first chance to play in a real game. It was down to the last three minutes of the fourth quarter, TCU was leading by thirty points and the coach figured that sending in a few young players to get experience couldn't be all that dangerous.
During the millions of years since man got up off all fours to walk erect, his knees have never been required to bend in anything but one direction. He could walk or run, he could bend or sit, he could kick or squat, but the knees needed to bend in only one direction. As a result of those millions of years of having their own way, knees tended to resist movement in any direction not of their choosing. If, due to some reason, knees were forced to bend in any other direction; such as having a boulder or tree fall on them, or else by being blind-sided by a dinosaur or a football player, considerable damage could be done to the ligaments which held the knee in its accustomed position.
It will never be known what Joe Bob was looking at or thinking about when it happened, but one thing for certain, he didn't see the two hundred fifty pounds of frustration and rage in the opponent's jersey as it smashed against his left knee, buckling it in a most unaccustomed and uncomfortable direction.
The crowd cheered for Joe Bob as he was wheeled off the field in the direction of the dressing room where the trainer decided that he needed far more than a Number 4 Codeine and three layers of tape to repair the damage. Play one down and bash one knee, about average for a lot of college football players.
In the Fort Worth General Hospital, the Orthopedic Surgeon looked a the X-Rays, prodded the swollen knee with his fingers and said, "Hmmm."
Joe Bob asked, "Think that I'll be able to play next week, Doc?"
"Monopoly perhaps, possibly a piano, but certainly not football," replied the doctor. "Prepare him for surgery tomorrow morning."
The only thing to come out of his stay in the hospital, other than an overhauled knee, was a pretty young nurse named Betty Ann Bishop who worked the graveyard shift. Their courtship began in Joe Bob's hospital bed where, due to the full cast on his left leg, he could do little to help it along except to furnish a certain erect and willing part of the lovemaking process. They were married two weeks after he got out of the hospital and they moved into the Big Bob's apartment.
During Joe Bob's junior year, Betty Ann worked at night and slept during the day. He drank beer with his buddies, went to class when he felt like it and suited out with the football team. He also played four downs that year without a single injury which, considering his prior record, was an achievement of sorts. He was lucky enough to be credited with a tackle when a running back slipped while making a cut and Joe Bob fell on top of him.
One of his high school buddies, Bubba Ray Sanders, owned Bubba's U-Pump-It Station, Auto Salvage Yard and Wrecker Service out on the Jacksboro Highway and agreed to buy occasional loads of drip gasoline for half of what the jobber charged him. Whenever Joe Bob needed a few dollars, he would drive out to Big Bob's lease, hose off a few barrels of drip and deliver it to Bubba Ray. What more could a man of his caliber need or want. He had a pretty wife with a good job, a ready source of money when he needed it and he didn't have to go to class unless he had nothing better to do. Joe Bob was living the good life of a TCU football player.
Even as a Senior, playing time for Joe Bob didn't improve to any great amount. He would go in and play a down or two if the man he replaced was injured, tired or needed to take a leak; but only if his team was leading by a considerable amount. Number 77 was seen on the field so seldom that the broadcast spotters usually didn't even bother to put it on their crib sheets.
It was the big Thanksgiving Day game with Arkansas and the last game of the season. It was also likely to be the last organized football game in which Joe Bob Puckett would ever have a chance to play. Arkansas was leading by four points as the scoreboard clock counted off the few remaining seconds of the game. Arkansas had the ball, second and ten, on their own sixteen and were simply trying to run the clock out. They would have to make at least one more first down because TCU had just used only their first timeout and had two remaining. To win the game, TCU would not only have to get the ball, they would also have to score a touchdown, both of which looked highly unlikely with only twenty seconds remaining on the clock.
Two opposing linemen, TCU's Moose Bronski and Mohammed Lavender from Arkansas, had waged their own private war during the long day and now that the game was nearly over, decided to settle things in a dignified way. As they lined up facemask to facemask, Moose made some remark which included not only ethnic, religious and social slurs, but also certain questions about Mohammed Lavender's parenthood. Instead of blocking when the ball was snapped, Mohammed swung at Moose, catching him square on the jaw, just below his face mask and laying him out cold. A yellow flag hit the ground at his feet, calling back the long pass play which had been caught and carried all the way to TCU's twenty. The Arkansas quarterback was so furious about the penalty that he grabbed up the flag and threw it back at the official, hitting him in the face with it. The air was filled with flying yellow flags.
The Arkansas lineman and the quarterback were both ejected from the game and the officials began pacing off the double penalties from where the ball had been on the sixteen. The penalty for hitting the official put the ball down on the one yard line and the personal foul by Mohammed Lavender moved it to half that distance to the TCU goal line. It was still second down but now about a mile to go for Arkansas. Twelve seconds remained on the game clock.
The backup quarterback for Arkansas was warming up on the sidelines as they carried the inert hulk of Moose Bronski off the field. "TCU still has two timeouts," the Arkansas coach told the second string quarterback as he sent him in. "We will probably have to kick it, so run a possession play to get the ball off the goal line and give the kicker some room to work. TCU certainly won't be expecting a draw and it might even work for a bunch of yards."
"Puckett, get in there for Bronski and try to keep them from moving the ball off the goal line," shouted the TCU coach as he slapped Joe Bob on the back.
Joe Bob raced onto the field, but had to return to the bench to get his helmet which was laying on the ground. "Shit! He's stupid," remarked the coach. "At least this is the last year that I'll have to put up with him to pay off Big Bob Bradshaw."
Joe Bob ran in and lined up on the wrong side of the line. The Defensive Captain moved him over to where he was supposed to be and told him, "With the people that Arkansas has on the field, it looks like a pass, but they might just call a draw play. Listen for me to yell if I read draw."
"Hut, Hut," chanted the Arkansas quarterback and the ball slipped between the center's legs to him. He stepped straight back a quick four steps, raising the ball as if to pass while his linemen dropped each way into a pass protection pocket. This split TCU's line, drawing it with them. Instead of following his man as he was supposed to do, Joe Bob lunged straight ahead, but meeting no resistance, began to fall forward as he stumbled into the end zone.
When Joe Bob failed to go with his assigned man, Arkansas was able to double-team TCU's right end, who was about to slip his block, break through and sack the quarterback in the end zone. The Arkansas quarterback suddenly lowered the ball and began to turn toward his halfback who was sprinting forward.
"DRAW! DRAW!" screamed TCU's captain and the linebackers surged forward to cover the hole which had been left in the center of the line.
The Arkansas quarterback reached out to put the ball into the halfback's stomach, but held it a bit too high and it struck him in the chest. They both grabbed for the loose ball, but it was too late. The ball bounded off to their left, hit the ground in a forest of struggling legs and rolled right under the falling Joe Bob.
At least a ton of football players descended into a pile on top of the prone Joe Bob. There was a tangle of arms and legs, digging and clawing for the ball. By the time that the officials could see what was going on in the pile, the final seconds ticked by and the game-ending gun fired.
"There are no signals from the officials yet," said the on-the-air TV announcer, but the pileup seems to be inside the end zone. If an Arkansas player has the ball, it will be a safety but they will still win by two points. If a TCU player has the ball, it's a touchdown and they will win."
Half a dozen striped shirts surged into the fray, pulling bodies from the pile, trying to see who had the ball. Finally they were down to a single player on the ground, Number 77, who was still and limp, but no ball was to be found. One of the officials rolled Joe Bob over and there on the ground, flat as a pancake, was the football; blown out like a cheap tire by the impact of so many bodies piling on top of Joe Bob. Arms shot into the air.
"Touchdown, TCU," screamed the announcer into his microphone. "Can you see which TCU player recovered the fumble?" he asked his color man.
"Number 77. He hasn't been on the field before this play and I don't have his name."
"77 is Joe Bob Puckett," shouted one of the TCU spotters from the other end of the press table.
"The TCU player who recovered the fumble in the end zone and scored the winning touchdown is Number 77, Bucket, Joe Bucket," reported the announcer.
"Puckett, not Bucket, you asshole. Joe Bob Puckett!" shouted the spotter.
But Joe Bob's single moment of glory was lost forever as the wrong name had already gone out over the airwaves. The correction of the mistake was never to be heard by the audience because the station cut away for a commercial at just that instant.
They had not only knocked the breath out of Joe Bob, but had also given his bell a good ringing, so it was several minutes before he could gather his wits enough to realize what all the shouting and cheering was about. He took the flattened, game ball home with him that night.
The professional teams draft of college players was rapidly approaching and the sports writers and broadcasters across the nation were tossing around the names of whom each thought would have the honor of being first to be drafted. Naturally, Joe Bob didn't expect to hear his name on that list, but he was certain that he would get a few calls and be picked up by some pro team. After all, good defensive linemen are always in demand. He sat by his phone and waited and waited, but no professional scout called to talk with him. Draft time was coming closer so he thought that he'd better have a talk with his old benefactor, Big Bob Bradshaw.
Big Bob told him, "I'll see what I can do for you, Joe Bob, but don't start packing your bags yet. I own a box in Texas Stadium and know the assistant defensive line coach with the Cowboys pretty well. I'll give him a call. Incidentally, you need to be out of that apartment by the end of the month because a young fellow who is coming to TCU from Kermet, Texas will be moving in."
The phone in the Cowboy's coaching office rang for the assistant defensive line coach, "Howdy, Big Bob Bradshaw is my name and the All Bidness is my game. I'm having a few fellows out to my ranch this weekend for some barbecue and bourbon. Would you like to join us and do a little deer and turkey hunting?"
Since they hadn't been having to pay rent while living in Big Bob's apartment, Betty Ann had been saving a fair amount of her salary each month for the down payment on a house, but still lacked enough to buy a nice place like she wanted. When they moved out of the apartment, she and Joe Bob rented an small, two bedroom house in River Oaks, a suburb of Fort Worth, nestled in between Carswell Air Force Base and the Jacksboro Highway. The house was clean and the neighborhood was nice. The worst problem with the location was the continuous stream of B-52s roaring in and out of Carswell every day while she was trying to sleep.
The day for the pro draft came and all 28 of the teams that make up the NFL were joined by a nationwide TV hookup. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with the worst record during the past season, had the first draft choice while Dallas, with its 14 and 2 season would get the very last choice of the last round.
The Cowboy coach, along with all of his assistant coaches, were huddled around computer terminals which were connected to a huge mainframe in the basement. Stored in its memory were the records of ever college football player in the nation. They were separated into categories according to the position that each played. The coach could instantly call up a particular position with the players from every college arranged according to a number of different criteria such as weight, race, school, age or number of points on his rating system. He could also call up data on any individual player by typing in the player's name or his school and playing number.
Using game films, scouting reports and game records, each player had been scored on a plus, zero or minus basis for each play that they had been in. If they did something better than average during the play, such as stopping a play or making a tackle, they got a plus. An extra plus was given for forcing or recovering a fumble and two extra pluses if they sacked the opposing quarterback or scored a touchdown. If they did only what they were supposed to do, they were scored with a zero but if they dropped the ball, missed an assignment or screwed up in any way during the play, they were given a minus. Since the computer didn't show how many plays each person had been in and minus and plus scores balanced out one another, it was possible, under this system, for a someone to play for four years and do an acceptable job, but end up with a score only a few points one way or the other from zero. On the other hand, it was also possible for someone to play only a few downs without screwing up and come out with more or less the same score.
This was the coach's personal scoring system which he felt would bring out the really superior players while grouping all of the average players into a area with a score somewhere around zero. He wasn't really interested in drafting average or zero point players.
The draft went along about as expected with the college hero of the year going to Tampa Bay on the first draft. Many equally good players were taken during the first several rounds, with Dallas picking up a good running back and a couple wide receivers. Along toward the last rounds of the draft, the enthusiasm began to wane and some players were selected only because the coach thought that they would make good trading material.
As the time for the final draft choice for Dallas was approaching, the coach asked his coaches, "We don't really need to fill any more particular spots, with the possible exception of adding a little depth in the defensive line. Some of our defensive players like White and Jones are getting kind of long in the tooth and we should have a few new men coming along in our system for these positions. Any suggestions?"
"How about Puckett?" suggested the assistant defensive line coach who had been out to Big Bob's place and was paying his debt.
"Puckett, Puckett Who? Never heard of him." said the coach.
"Joe Bob Puckett from TCU. You know him, defensive tackle who scored the winning touchdown on a fumble recovery in the last seconds against Arkansas last Thanksgiving. Number 77."
"A defensive lineman won the game?" asked the coach as he typed "TCU 77" into the computer.
"Puckett, Joe Bob. TCU. Defensive tackle. 245 pounds. Plus 5." appeared instantly on the computer screen.
"Plus 5, not bad for a defensive tackle, but I'd like to see a bit more weight on a man in that position. If he moves good and is fast enough, I suppose that a few pounds on the light side doesn't matter that much. Who knows what he will weigh when it comes time for him to play." Anyone know him?"
"Big Bob Bradshaw likes him," replied the assistant defensive line coach. "But I never personally saw him play." He was no fool and wanted to be able to deny responsibility if Joe Bob was a dud.
The coach typed another command into the computer and every Right Defensive Tackle in the nation appeared on the screen, arranged in order of their points under his system. "Only two other people playing his position with more than Plus 5," he said, "And they have both been drafted."
The light on the console came on, indicating that it was time for Dallas to make their final draft choice. The coach pressed the button on the microphone and said, "Puckett, TCU."
The assistant defensive line coach for the Dallas Cowboys had just paid a debt, known only to himself and Big Bob Bradshaw.
"I've been drafted by Dallas!" shouted Joe Bob over the phone to Betty Ann, whom he had roused from a deep sleep.
"That's nice," she replied. "At least we won't have to move again."
The next step for a drafted player is to negotiate a contract with the team that drafted him. Uncle Charley decided that since he had done such a good job negotiating with Big Bob Bradshaw and TCU, he would deal with the Cowboys for Joe Bob. He didn't stand a ghost of a chance with the sharks in the Cowboy front office.
The standard offer by the Cowboys for all new people, other than the super stars, was a contract which gave them a first year salary of $50,000 with an option allowing the Cowboys to keep them the for a second year with a 20% increase. This was based on the supposition that they were actually signed to play. Many of the drafted players were dropped during or shortly after spring training camp. Uncle Charley was so dead set on getting Joe Bob a three year, no cut contract that he agreed to an annual salary of $30,000 with no raises during the term of the contract..
Joe Bob was one of the first to arrive at the Cowboy's summer training camp and was surprised by the number of fresh, new faces that were also there. Many of those new faces would be competing for his position. He went through a complete physical a during which special attention was given to the knee which had been injured. The team doctor wanted some X-Rays before he made a final decision. Evidently, the doctor passed the knee because he found himself being measured and fitted with pads and a uniform. He was given a playbook to study and a thick book of rules governing his membership with the Cowboys.
"Can I have Number 77? That's what I wore at TCU," he asked one of the coaches.
"Man Mountain McGursky wears that number has been with us for ten years. Why don't you just run right over and ask him if he'll give it up for you," he replied with a smile.
"I thought McGursky was in the pen down at Huntsville," said Joe Bob. "I heard that he was given two to five years for killing some farmer's mule with his bare hands."
"He was," replied the coach. "But they let him out on a work-release program so he can play football. Besides, the warden wanted to get rid of him because he kept scaring the prisoners in death row."
Joe Bob may not have been too smart, but by the same token, he certainly wasn't that stupid he took the number that they gave him.
Summer camp began with the usual workouts, wind sprints and timed runs over a given distance. Being a lineman, a fast 40 was not nearly as important as it was to a running back or wide receiver. That was a good thing for Joe Bob because one of the coaches remarked, "I don't need a stopwatch to time Puckett, I need an almanac."
Next came walk-through drills on various defensive sets, then some light-contact practice and finally came the day for full-contact drills. The coach, who had shown up by that time, stood on the sidelines watching the men run through practice. He told one of his assistants, "Have Lamar Washington run a few toward Puckett so I can see how he does."
On the first play, Lamar, who was built like a fireplug and reputed to be the best running back in the NFL, headed straight for Joe Bob. Joe Bob spread his arms to their maximum reach to gather in the runner but at the last instant, Lamar gave him a head fake in one direction and was gone like a greased pig in the other. Joe Bob came up with his arms full of air.
The next play was almost a carbon copy of the first with Lamar heading straight for Joe Bob who wasn't about to fall for that old head fake again. Lamar came at full speed directly at him, stopped suddenly and did a little stutter step, during which Joe Bob made his grab. As he hit the ground empty handed, Lamar skipped over Joe Bob's prone body and was gone again.
"Tell Lamar to at least give the guy a chance to tackle him this next play," said Landry.
Here came Lamar, low to the ground with his shoulders set square. Joe Bob knew that he had his number this time and went for the little runner with a vengeance. Lamar hit Joe Bob so hard that it rattled his teeth, knocked the wind out of him and sent his helmet flying. Then he bounced off and was gone again.
Landry turned to one of his coaches and said, "Can you get me the TCU game film where Puckett won that game against Arkansas? I got to see that to believe it."
The coach sat in the darkened room with the special projector which allowed him to run a film forward, backward or freeze one frame at a time. The film had been shot at 24 frames per second, allowing him to see at least 96 individual photos of what went on during those four seconds which spelled doom for Arkansas. He ran the film back and forth a number of times and then he called the assistant defensive line coach to watch the film with him.
Frame by frame by frame it told the story of how Joe Bob had missed his assignment, only to stumble and fall on top of the rolling ball without ever knowing that it was there.
"Just plain, blind shithouse luck," was all that the assistant defensive line coach could say. "He couldn't do a credible job of playing with himself, much less playing football in this league.
"If he tried to play with himself, he'd probably fumble and drop it," said the coach.
"We can't simply send him packing. With that no-cut contract that he has, we'll have to keep him around and pay him for three years," mentioned the assistant coach.
"Drafting him was your idea, so it's up to you to get rid of him without costing us a bundle," replied the coach.
I'll call the front office and tell them to see if they can trade his ass off before any other team gets wise. Even though he's getting only thirty grand a year, he would be an awfully expensive person to keep around just to sweep floors or drive the team bus for three years."
"We couldn't even let him drive the bus," replied the coach. "If he did, we would be in deep shit with the Teamsters Union."
Three days later, Joe Bob Puckett had his bags packed and was on his way to the New York Jets. The coach's comment was, "Other than whipping those Dog Ass Jets, trading Puckett to them brings me the greatest pleasure."
Joe Bob spent that season on the Jet's payroll, playing a few downs during the exhibition season before being put on reserve status. Betty Ann remained in Fort Worth and continued to work at the hospital. Just before the season ended, Joe Bob, along with a running back and a rookie linebacker, was traded to the Rams for two future unspecified draft choices. Being traded for an unspecified draft choice is about the lowest value that can be placed on a player. Joe Bob never realized that he was just part of a package and the Rams had to take him in order to get the other two players they really wanted.
Joe Bob caught the first plane out of New York and reported in at the Ram's office, where he was told that the their vice president in charge of player contracts wanted to see him the next morning. Joe Bob got a haircut and bought himself a new suit to wear to the meeting. After all, this guy was a vice president and he certainly wanted to make a good impression on him.
"Have a seat Mister Puckett," said the VP as he stood to shake Joe Bob's hand.
"Hot damn, I'm in the big time now," thought Joe Bob. "First day here and I'm already being called Mister Puckett by a Vice President."
The VP shuffled through a stack of papers on his desk, pulling one out one bunch held together with a paper clip. He read what was written on a little yellow, stick-on notes and said, "I see that you have a three year, no-cut contract for thirty grand a year, Mister Pucket. How do you feel about playing for the Rams?"
"Well, if I had my choice, I'd rather be playing for Dallas or Houston because they are both Texas teams, but I suppose that LA will be good enough for the next two years until my contract runs out and I can become a free agent," replied Joe Bob.
"I don't know if we will be able to keep you on our roster because we already have two good men for your position, so we might have to trade you to Tampa Bay. How would you feel about that?"
"Tampa Bay! That would be awful. They are nothing but a bunch of losers and has-bens. I want to play on a winning team and don't think that I could stand still for a trade like that," replied Joe Bob.
Well, with your contract, it looks like you have us between a rock and a hard spot," said the VP, looking at the papers and shaking his head. "I suppose that we have no choice other than to allow you become a free agent?"
"Then I could go to any team that I wanted to and negotiate a new salary?" asked Joe Bob.
"That's right son. Free agents are open to take any contract that they wish and when teams start bidding against one another for a player, it can run into millions of dollars."
"What kind of figure did you have in mind should I agree to let you buy out my contract?" asked Joe Bob.
"Well, son. I know that the front office is going to scream bloody murder for my offering you this much money, but I like you and it's my hide that they will strip. I can have a check for ten thousand bucks, a plane ticket back to Fort Worth and a release for you to sign in the next ten minutes."
"Hot damn, let me have it," shouted Joe Bob. "Free Agent, here I come!"
The VP stepped into the treasurer's office and said, "I'd have paid him the sixty grand that he has coming, just to get us out from under his contract, but that jerk jumped at ten grand when I offered it to him. Get a check cut quick, before he has a chance to think it over and back out."
Joe Bob sat in the coach section of the American Airlines 727 as he winged his way back to Texas, looking at the ten thousand dollar check in his hand. That was more money than he had ever seen at one time in his whole life. "I'm going to buy me a new pickup soon as I get home, then drink Lone Star Beer and watch mud wrestling on TV until the right offer comes along," he thought to himself.
Joe Bob Puckett bought the new pickup and drank the Lone Star. He watched mud wrestling on TV, but the only people who ever called were telephone solicitors wanting to sell him aluminum siding, carpet cleaning or water softeners.