Legendary Longhorn quarterback recalls key games of '69 season and his life afterward.
By Michael Corcoran
Saturday, December 31, 2005
On a wall in a conference room in the shadow of the state Capitol hangs a painting that freezes the pivotal moment of the Texas victory over Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl that sewed up the 1969 national championship. Senior quarterback James Street is on the sidelines talking to Coach Darrell Royal under a scoreboard showing that it's fourth-and-two on the Notre Dame 10-yard line with just over two minutes to go and Texas trailing 17-14.
The quarterback known for clutch play and the folksy coach who always played for the win could not have looked calmer. After all, this situation was nothing compared with the heart-stopping fourth-and-three call in the fourth quarter at Arkansas a few weeks earlier. In that Game of the Century, as the contest between the top two undefeated teams was hyped, the power-running Horns uncharacteristically called a long pass to tight end Randy Peschel and went on to win 15-14 with President Nixon in the stands in Fayetteville and a spellbound nation watching on TV.
That perfectly thrown pass cemented Street as a Longhorn legend, but the Notre Dame game would seal his legacy.
Under pressure from an Irish pass rush on that crucial fourth-down play, Street rolled right and hit a diving Cotton Speyrer for an 8-yard completion. Texas would score the winning touchdown three plays later on a plunge by Billy Dale.
"James Street gave 110 percent on every play," says Happy Feller, whose extra point made the final score Texas 21, Notre Dame 17. "He led by example, was always positive, and the entire team responded to that leadership."
Street's hustle and toughness have also paid off in his business career and are qualities passed down to his sons, including 22-year-old Huston, a star relief pitcher for the Oakland A's who was named the 2005 American League Rookie of the Year.
Sitting in the memorabilia-filled offices of the James Street Group, the ex-quarterback says the painting tells only a part of the story. "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity," he says, reciting his favorite Royal quote. "We got a lot of good bounces, and the defense came through when it had to."
Now 57, Street is head of a company that specializes in "structured settlements," giving long-term financial advice to plaintiffs who've recently settled wrongful death or personal injury lawsuits.
He'll talk football — twist his arm and he'll tell you about "The Play," as the pass to Peschel has been tagged in Longhorn lore — but family and business come first.
"I didn't want to be one of those guys sitting on a bar stool and talking about the glory days and then realizing, one day, that it was 35 years ago and I was still telling the same stories," he says.
If Vince Young wakes up Thursday as the quarterback who led Texas to a national title, the only man in Austin who can truly identify is Street, who won 20 straight games in almost two full seasons as UT's starter. But where Wednesday's Rose Bowl game against the University of Southern California is an important steppingstone for a quarterback seemingly headed for an illustrious pro football campaign, the Jan. 1, 1970, Cotton Bowl marked the end of Street's football career.
He was the prototype wishbone quarterback, a sleight of handoff wizard nicknamed "Slick," but they didn't use the wishbone in the NFL. Also a standout pitcher at UT, with a perfect game against Texas Tech in 1970, Street figured his best chance at pro ball was on the mound.
But when that career also didn't pan out, he spent a year capitalizing on his Longhorn exploits by singing country standards, Elvis covers and "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" in Steiner rodeos all over Texas. He even hung out with Presley, who said he cheered for Texas against Arkansas, for a few hours one night in Las Vegas. When the Longview product came down to Earth, he took a job as an insurance agent in Austin.
"The transition from full-time athlete was difficult," Street says.
"From the time I was 9 years old, I always had to be someplace at 3 o'clock in the afternoon," he says. "Little League practice. Pee Wee football. Pop Warner. Track. Most kids need to learn self-discipline to survive college, but not athletes. You knew, every day, that you had to be someplace at 3 o'clock. Then you get out of school and 3 o'clock comes around, and you don't have to be anywhere and you don't know what to do."
Street's first marriage, to Shanny Lott (now married to Hudson's on the Bend chef/owner Jeff Blank), ended in divorce after six years of marriage right out of college. Their only son, Ryan Street, 31, is an architect in town who's designed Lance Armstrong's homes in Dripping Springs and Spain and the new one in Tarrytown.
Street married his second wife, Janie, who like him has a twin sister, in 1981. Huston was born two years later, followed two years after that by twins Jordon and Juston, both 20-year-old pitchers for the Longhorn baseball team. Westlake High senior Hanson rounds out the Streets.
Friends say James Street's relatively low profile through the years has less to do with an aversion to the limelight than being the father of five active, athletic sons.
"If James is not working, he's coaching kids or watching his sons play," says Feller, who has remained close to Street, as have most members of the '69 team. James Street's name started popping up in the press again in 2002, when Huston Street became a star relief pitcher for the national champion Texas baseball team.
"It's unfair having to be compared to someone else all the time," says the elder Street. "Huston had to grow up as 'James Street's son,' and now that he's having all that success, Jordon and Juston are going to be known as 'Huston Street's brothers.' That's tough. But you just have to be yourself and forget about other people's expectations."
Looking a little like Wayne Newton with graying hair and delivering his "life-isms" with a preacher's flair for drawn-out storytelling, Street could be one heckuva motivational speaker. But even though he occasionally gives formal talks at alumni functions, he says he prefers to impart "all the wisdom I've got from steppin' in chugholes" in a more person-to-person way, especially with his sons.
When Huston played in the College World Series as a freshman, his father pulled him aside and said, "You're gonna see all those people in the stands, and you're gonna think, 'This is the big show — I've gotta do more!' But all you've gotta do is throw strikes and get people out, just like in all the other games you've played. Here's what I want you to do: Pick out a stitch on the catcher's mitt and focus on hitting it. Forget about all those people and what's at stake. Hit that seam."
The Longhorns won that 2002 championship in Omaha, Neb., and Huston Street was named the tournament's outstanding player. Three years later, when he won the AL Rookie of the Year Award, his father, forever the cautionary, ego-checking coach, said, "That award is for something you've already done. What are you gonna do next?"
Last year, the elder Street watched on TV as Huston walked out to the mound at Yankee Stadium to face Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez in the bottom of the ninth to preserve an Oakland lead. The closer did his job, calmly retired the big bats in order, and on the phone that night, James told Huston he was proud of the way his son was able to concentrate on the task without getting caught in the fanfare. James Street was thinking back to the lesson in Omaha. Huston said, "Are you kidding, Dad? I kept looking up in the stands and all around me, thinking, 'Oh, my God: Yankee Stadium!' I was nervous as hell!"
James Street says he's also a bundle of nerves when he watches his sons in competition. "I'm a lot more nervous during their games than I was when I played," he says with a laugh.
Game of the Century
Teammates certainly witnessed no jitters when Street came back in the huddle during that 1969 Arkansas game and relayed the call from Royal on fourth-and-three with 4:47 left and Texas down 14-8.
"You're not going to believe this play, but it's gonna work," Street said to the other 10 players, each bearing a reflection of Street's steely gaze. "It's gonna work," he repeated, and then he called the famous right 53 veer pass to tight end Peschel. Almost everyone in the audience was sure the Horns, with the full house backfield of Steve Worster, Jim Bertelsen and Ted Koy, would run for the first down.
"Now I'm lookin' at you, Cotton," Street said to Speyrer in the huddle, "but I'm talking to you, Randy," he said to Peschel, trying to throw off any Razorback spies. "If you get behind 'em, run like hell."
Peschel was covered by a pair of fast-closing defensive backs, but Street laid the ball in perfectly, over the tight end's shoulder and into his hands. The gamble paid off, going for 44 yards to the Arkansas 13; Bertelsen ran it in from the two for a TD a couple of plays later.
The Game of the Century lived up to its billing, with Texas coming back from a 14-0 deficit in the fourth quarter to win 15-14.
Besides having the undefeated No. 1 team face off against the undefeated No. 2 team, in the 100th anniversary of college football, the Texas-Arkansas game gained importance because it came in the midst of so much cultural upheaval. 1969 was the year of Manson, moonwalks, Chappaquiddick, Woodstock, "Midnight Cowboy" and Vietnam. Especially Vietnam.
The game took place the same day a young concertgoer was stabbed to death by Hell's Angels at a free Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway in California. In 1969, America was very much a polarized nation.
"I think a lot of people wanted to watch a football game to get their minds off the other stuff," Street says.
But in the Horns' jubilant locker room after the game, when Nixon declared Texas the national champion, the timbre of the times became evident when a Horn player thanked Nixon. When Nixon said the thanks belonged to the players for such an incredible game, the Horn shot back, "I'm thanking you because my lottery number was 350!" The government had implemented a military draft lottery to shore up troops in Vietnam just six days earlier.
At Robert Mueller Municipal Airport the night of the big win, more than 20,000 fans greeted the team, toppling barricades and running out to the taxiing plane as though it carried the Beatles. Fans clawed at Street's hair and clothes until he asked one of his burly linemen to run a little interference: "Just give me an opening, and I'm gone," and he was. All Street ever needed was a little daylight.
The old and the new
Street has remained close to the Texas program, and every year, Coach Mack Brown invites the leader of the last Longhorn team to win a consensus national championship to address the team that hopes to be the next one. "The gist of what I tell them is to be prepared for a life that's completely different from football," he says.
"In football, you know your opponent well in advance. You study his moves. You look for his weaknesses, and if you and all your teammates do their jobs, you look up at the scoreboard and it declares you the winner. But there's no scoreboard in life. And you don't always know your opponent."
Street never misses a home game, nor the Red River Shootout, so long as one of his boys doesn't have a game the same day. What impresses him most about Vince Young, he says, is the way the people in the stands seem to exhale when No. 10 trots out on the field. "He just instills so much confidence. There's no panic in that guy."
The same could be said for the man who wore No. 16 from '67 to '69. "I see similarities between Vince Young and James Street in terms of leadership," says Feller, who owns TeleDynamics, a wholesale distributor of consumer electronics in Austin. "With James at the helm, we just knew we were gonna win. Never gave a second to the notion we might lose. I can sense the same thing happening now."
Last year, the 1969 Arkansas team invited its legendary adversaries up to Fayetteville for a 35th anniversary reunion, a players-only event Street calls "probably the neatest experience I've had as an ex-player." Street counts Arkansas quarterback Bill Montgomery, now a successful businessman in Dallas, among his closest friends. Players gave testimonials about how The Game changed their lives. Several choked back tears. Street started thinking about what was his favorite memory of the game that will forever define him to many.
"I remembered just being spent — emotionally, physically — as I walked off the field, but also completely re-energized because we won," Street says. "And in the middle of all that pandemonium, I saw (Arkansas Coach) Frank Broyles' kids run over to him and hug him. He had just lost the biggest game of the year, giving up a 14-point lead, no less, and yet his family was there to support him. It didn't mean much to me at the time, but that's what I was thinking about" at the reunion.
"We were kids, just playing a game and living a dream. And then it was over. But the love of your family or your work ethic, or just, I don't know, teaching a Little Leaguer how to hit — those are the things that really matter in life."