New Orleans’ Sid Theriot recalls surviving Junction Boys boot camp

The message in the memo sounded good to Sid Theriot. His football team was going to camp to get in some workouts before the season started.

The notion of a leisurely paced schedule to get their football down, then relaxing or frolicking with his teammates appealed to Theriot, especially after a summer of working from sun up to sun down in the broiling Louisiana heat in Terrebonne Parish on the family sugar cane farm.

“It sounded pleasant,’’ Theriot said.

What it turned into was a notorious 10-day episode that became the stuff of legend, the subject of books and movies, the college football equivalent of the Bataan Death March.

It’s 60 years now since Theriot and his teammates — including future All-Pro linebacker Jack Pardee and end Gene Stallings, who became a national championship college coach — embarked on the seminal experience of their lives, though Theriot said there was too much Hollywood in the way it was portrayed by some authors and on the silver screen.

Still, Theriot concedes, it was pretty harrowing.

From the day the unsuspecting Texas Aggies boarded their buses — with an assistant coach standing in the aisle holding up several strips of tickets, saying, “You boys listen up. Any of y’all who want to go back home just see me. I got plenty of bus tickets. Be happy to give you one.’’ — Theriot and the other “survivors’’ would have a recognizable designation in the sport: The Junction Boys.

Bear Bryant, then a young fire-breathing coach, took his first Texas A&M football team to a preseason bivouac 300 miles from College Station to drought-sapped Junction, Texas, a remote, blazing patch of parched land covered by a sky sometimes filled with circling turkey buzzards looking for carcasses. It was described in Jim Dent’s book “The Junction Boys’’ as an apocalyptic scene.

The temperature when the Aggies arrived was reported to be 114, and for the next 10 days it seldom dipped below 100 during the day.

The camp looked like an old army base, but, as Bryant wanted, it was away from prying eyes, like the press (except for one sportswriter working his way through college, Mickey Herskowitz) and relatives of the unsuspecting players. Herskowitz wrote that Junction was about an hour from the nearest neon sign.

Bear’s boot camp

Housed in 20x18 Quonset huts with concrete slabs for floors; with corrugated roofs, the team had to rise at 4 a.m to practice — on what was best described as an unlined rock yard with cactus and gravel, littered with sand spurs — before breakfast. Another session or two was held in the searing heat (with water breaks forbidden) during the day. The players flopped onto their cots after meetings at 10 p.m.

Quarterback Elwood Kettler later said he hated going to bed at night because he’d wake up before dawn and his garb would still be wet from practice the night before.

There were dislocated fingers, broken back bones, fractured ankles, even a bloody broken nose administered by a head butt by Bryant, a profane, backwoods taskmaster on his way to becoming a coaching colossus. Those indispositions never stopped practice under the driven Bear, who had dismissed a doctor and took along a student trainer — just in case of emergencies..

The one incident Theriot said he’ll never forget was when lineman Billy Schroeder was running downfield, started getting wobbly, then went down in the dust with his face turning blue. He had to be sent to the doctor 50 miles away where he was packed in ice for his heat stroke — and had an out-of-body experience.

The first thing Schroeder said when he was revived was, “I’m sorry, coach Bryant, I really am.’’

“I’m sure he wouldn’t do it this way today,’’ Theriot said of Bryant. “But he wanted us to learn football his way. Tough, with players who wouldn’t quit when things turned against them.’’

Schroeder fit that mold. A couple f days later, against the strong wishes of his parents, Schroeder returned full bore to practice.

Theriot said he knew exactly what Bryant was trying to do: instill some discipline into a team he thought needed some.

“He was a man with a big heart, but he was also a man who had nothing else in life but football. No golf, tennis, no hobbies, just football. And he wanted to be the best at coaching football, and he wanted to squeeze the best out of the players he had.’’

None of that bothered Theriot if it helped keep him from his goal: never returning to the family sugar cane business.

“That was much worse than any football practices,’’ he recalled.

Theriot’s road to A&M

Theriot, a senior when the Saga of the Junction Boys was played out, left his own mark.

The first All-State player from Terrebonne High, Theriot was trying to find a way out of the family business in Gibson.

“I just wanted to get off that farm,’’ he said. “That sugar cane business was back-breaking work, never any time off. It just was not for me.’’

His high school coach, Buck Seeber, talked to his young lineman and asked if he’d ever thought about college. Theriot was excited at the prospect. Seeber said he’d look around. LSU didn’t recruit him, and Tulane made just a cursory pass at him. But Seeber called back with the perfect prospect: Texas A&M. “I thought I wanted to be an engineer,’’ he said. “So that sold me right off.’’

Theriot played three years under Ray George before he heard a change in the head coach was being made, and that Bryant, who had transformed Kentucky into a football power, was coming to College Station.

There’s a certain misconception about the early ’50s A&M football, that the Aggies were so bad they needed to take drastic action, which was the hiring of Bryant.

Not necessarily so. George was a good coach, leaving A&M with a rebuild-mode 12-14-4 record. During his tenure, his teams beat such national powers of the time as Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma Sooners; Red Sanders’ UCLA Bruins; and in 1953, his last season, Bryant’s Kentucky Wildcats.

George went on to be an assistant on three Southern Cal national championship teams.

Cupboard not bare for Bear

In any case, Bear wasn’t exactly finding the completely empty roster that Bryant lore would have us believe.

There were good players on hand, even all-conference players, such as lineman Fred Broussard, another Louisianan who was the face of the dozens that quit or was told there were no spots for them. Broussard, from DeQuincy, who once bear-hugged a Coke-machine in the A&M dorm, carried it up a flight of stairs, and brought it to his room for cold refreshment for a week, crossed Bryant once too often when he walked off a practice, ignored Bear’s yells to come back, then tried to get into the dining hall that evening. Bryant stood up and told the player he must have taken a wrong turn, that this was for Aggies football players.

The next day, Theriot’s wife, Loanalee, found Broussard, a good friend, sitting on the steps of married students apartments in College Station.

“What are you doing here, Fred?,’’ she asked. “You’re supposed to be with the team.’’

He said simply, “No, I’m done here.’’

Broussard transferred to Northwestern State in Natchitoches for his senior season, then played a couple of years of pro ball.

Dozens of other Aggies quit, most sneaking out of the Junction camp in the middle of the night. There was a time when several quit in broad daylight, and Bryant stood by the entrance, shook the hands of each and told them, “Bless your little ol’ heart.’’

Here again there is a certain misconception,’’ Theriot points out. The story goes that well over 100 players made the trip to Junction. Theriot says a lot of players were cut in the spring, long before the preseason camp. “There were 81 players on the two buses that took us there, and 35 were on the one bus we needed to get back. That’s a lot of attrition, but not what Hollywood would have you believe.’’

Also, Bryant did not just cast the quitters adrift, either before or during the Junction experience. He let them keep their scholarships if they would help around the program, doing odd jobs like cleaning the locker room, cutting the grass, lining the field, etc. “He didn’t just cut them loose,’’ Theriot said.

No thought of leaving

The thought of leaving was never in Theriot’s mind, even in the worst days at Junction. “I was just a few months away from getting my degree (in education after switching from engineering), and I wasn’t going to let a few hard days stop me from graduating. I wasn’t going back to that farm.’’

Finding his way back to Louisiana, and having played under both Seeber and Bryant, his career choice was no surprise: coaching. Theriot became head coach at St. Paul’s in Covington on the north shore of New Orleans. Then in 1967, he became the first coach at Mandeville High, where along with teaching math and, later, serving as assistant principal, he guided the Skippers to several district titles.

You would think after playing under two such outstanding mentors that Theriot would have emulated their coaching methods. “Maybe at first I tried,’’ he said. “We just didn’t know better than to forbid water breaks, but that changed.’’

There was something different about Theriot, too. He couldn’t intimidate others just by walking into a room, like Bear. Bryant was 6-foot-2, 220-pounds, larger than most of his players. The 1954 Aggies football averaged 182 pounds. Theriot at guard was bigger than most of the Aggies at 5-foot-10, 187 pounds.

“Today, I wouldn’t be big enough to be the water boy,’’ he chuckled.

Clearly, though, he left his own imprint. The football stadium at Mandeville High is today emblazoned across its top tier with the inscription “Sid Theriot Stadium.’’

An insight into Bryant

Amid whoops and hollers, the Junction Boys, all 31 of them, were told they were going home. There was the usual boyish pranks and goofing off to let off steam. They had survived.

They boarded buses to go back to College Station on Sept. 9.

Now the Aggies were ready to play Bear Bryant football.

But not the kind of football Bryant would become renowned for. The Aggies lost their opener to Texas Tech 41-9, then eight of their next nine, beating only Georgia 6-0.

In 38 years of coaching, this was the only losing season Bryant endured.

There was a glimmer of hope in the 1-9-0 season, however. A&M lost five games by a total of 21 points, and had a chance in the fourth quarter to take the lead in every one of the defeats after the opener with Texas Tech.

That season did provide an insight into Bryant, though. After losing to a well-regarded Oklahoma State team 14-6, Bryant warned his coaches not to raise their voices to the players.

“I’m the cause of their not playing well,’’ he said. “I took it away from them in practice.’’

“He really was so different at different times,’’ said Loanalee Theriot, who recalled sitting in the stands at practice with another wife as the snarling, snorting Bear was getting his team ready for practice. A concerned-looking assistant warned them to leave, that coach Bryant was coming and he didn’t want anybody watching his practice.

Yet when the season was over, Bryant gave a get-together at his home for his boys with a special treat for his Cajun couple, the Theriots: boiled shrimp and cold beer.

It was a special time and place for Sid Theriot, whose membership in the exclusive Junction Boys fraternity is apparent in his home workspace, filled with A&M pictures, footballs and memorabilia, including a precious maroon stone ring linking him forever with his teammates.

Bryant, too, deeply felt the bond. The man who later won six national championships and retired as college football’s all-time winningest coach, said the ’54 Aggies were his personal favorite of all his teams. Bryant, who seldom wore jewelry in life, was buried wearing his Junction Boys ring.