It was battleship gray, the door to the old press box elevator in the west side of what was then known as Memorial Stadium, and fewer than five of us had keys to the solid pad lock which guarded the door.
The elevator was hand-operated, and it stopped at the ground floor and at two of the three levels of the long concrete structure, which sat atop the single level stadium. The only entrance, other than the elevator, was a single door at the north end, which exited into the top row of the stands, which were filled with wooden seats.
Except on game days, the door was barred from the inside.
On game days, the stadium buzzed with excitement. But if you had a key on a moonlit night and you wanted a place to show a date the stars of the night and the lights of the city, you could ride that elevator up and no one, not Darrell Royal or Gawd Almighty--and we weren't sure they weren't the same--could make it come down.
In other words, it seemed, in the autumn of 1963, the safest place on earth.
That press box and the Tower, were the tallest buildings on campus. There was no Jester Center, no LBJ Library. The "Moonlight Tower" which stood on the northeast corner of the stadium cast a glow over the quirky baseball field across the street to the north, and over the wooden roof of the tennis courts, which were located on the northwest corner of the stadium.
And on the field below, with a black cinder track surrounding it, a dream came true in that fall, that fateful fall of 1963, when all of our lives would change, and nothing would ever seem safe again.
This weekend, the members of the 1963 Longhorns, the guys who won for this University its first National Championship, will hold a reunion recognizing the 40th anniversary of that accomplishment. They will stand where they once stood, when the stadium and the world were different, and share stories and memories.
Darrell Royal will be there, so will Tommy Ford and Duke Carlisle and about 40 of their teammates. It is a day of celebration for a time gone by, and a group which led Texas to a title which had frustrated great teams of their past. It was as if the Longhorns and The University were riding on a great merry-go-round, and each time they reached for the gold ring, it somehow eluded them.
The 1941 team was featured on the cover of Life Magazine as the best team in college football, but a late season tie and a loss knocked them from contention. In 1961, the Longhorns had carried the No. 1 ranking until the next-to-last game, only to have TCU pull a stunning 6-0 upset. The 1962 team fell from the top because of 14-14 tie with lowly Rice.
But what 1961 and 1962 had done was create a strong winning tradition, and with an all-star cast, Royal and his staff were ready for 1963. The 'Horns began the season ranked No. 5, moved to No. 4 the second week, No. 3 the third week, and by the fourth week of the season, they were No. 2 as they headed for Dallas and the annual meeting with Oklahoma.
Since Royal's first season of 1957, the Longhorns had not lost to the Sooners, but the national voters, the writers and the coaches, had installed No. 1 ranked Oklahoma as a favorite. Joe Don Looney, the Sooners' star running back, had even challenged the biggest name on the Texas defense, by saying, "Appleton's tough, but he ain't met the Big Red yet." Neither, he would find, had he met Appleton.
The annual showdown in Dallas was the biggest game, but it came on a weekend of irony. The Friday night before UT and OU met, SMU knocked off the power of the East, Navy, and Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach, in the Cotton Bowl Stadium.
And then the next day, No. 2 met No. 1.
It was an execution of precision. With Carlisle operating the Royal Winged-T offense to perfection and the defense hammering the Sooners, Texas won, 28-7. A sportswriter from St. Louis perhaps told the story best when he wrote in his lead, "Who's No. 1? It is Texas, podner, and smile when you say that."
Texas then began the improbable gauntlet of carrying the mantle of the nation's No. 1 team for six long weeks. It made it through tough wins over Arkansas (17-13), Rice (10-6), SMU (17-12), Baylor (7-0), TCU (17-0) and Texas A&M (15-13).
The Baylor game, matching the unbeaten Horns against a Baylor team led by Don Trull and Lawrence Elkins had been the best showdown in years in the Southwest Conference, with a Duke Carlisle interception of a late sure touchdown saving the Longhorns‚ victory.
Just as it appeared Texas was on the verge of that first-ever National Championship, Texas A&M jumped to a 13-3 lead in the season finale in College Station. Carlisle and reserve quarterback Tommy Wade led a comeback, which included some great fortune. Still leading 13-9 in the closing minutes, Texas A&M intercepted a Texas pass, but fumbled on the return when they inexplicably tried to lateral the ball. Then, as Texas zeroed in on the goal line, another Aggie tipped a Texas pass and gained control only after he had fallen out of the end zone, missing what would have been a game-saving interception.
Finally, Carlisle plunged over from the one, and Texas prevailed. The National Championship was accomplished. The polls crowned Texas as champions at the end of the regular season, and they solidified it with a 28-6 triumph over No. 2 Navy in the Cotton Bowl in the final game of the season.
Wayne Hardin, coach of the Naval Academy, had lobbied for a post-bowl game decision. On the field before the game, Hardin told a national TV commentator in an interview broadcast across the nation, as well as to the crowd in the stands, "When the challenger meets the champion and the challenger wins, then there is a new champion."
To which Royal answered a crisp "We're ready."
Ford and Appleton each earned all-American honors, and they were joined by a young sophomore named Tommy Nobis, who gained the first of his three years worth of national recognition honors. The heroes were legion. When their tenure on the Forty Acres was finished, the seniors of 1963 had posted an incredible three-year record of 30-2-1.
Looking back, the most remarkable thing about the season was the closeness of the games, and yet except for the frightening moments late in the Aggie game, you never had the feeling that the team was threatened. But in our youth, there was something about our lives that was about to change.
Just as the 1941 team will forever be linked with the events of December 7 that year, so will the fall of 1963 be remembered more for tragedy than it will for football. A year before, the missiles of October in Cuba had given us our first taste of actual fear, as the country and the world stood on the brink of war, and there were stirrings of a conflict in some faraway place called Vietnam. Then, on November 22, the Friday before the Texas A&M game the following Thanksgiving Day, President Kennedy was killed in Dallas.
And we were forever changed.
Today, elevators are run by computers, and all doors have exit bars and keys. The hole in the stadium where the old door was is now full of video cables and concrete. Our world is one of caution, and security is a device in an airport, or a search at the stadium gate.
But in the chambers of the mind, on a fall evening where you can see the stars and remember, there was a team which made us proud and won it all, and set a standard that opened the way for more.
And in that space, in the memory of a time gone by, we are once again safe.