It seems only yesterday, albeit has actually been over 30 years. The Darrell Royal TV Show was on, with Cactus Pryor interviewing him, and the subject of the feature was running back Jim Bertelsen.
And in that final show of 1971, it was a tribute to a departing senior.
“Who are they talking about?” asked a friend from the middle of a card game.
“Jim Bertelsen,” I said. “He’s a senior.”
“Oh,” replied the friend. “I had kinda gotten used to having him around.”
In a short sentence, that sums up the essence of college football. It is part of its value that new folks come and excite us, and it is also part of its heritage that having stayed their time, they leave. In a few short years, they grow up, mature, get an education both on and off the field, and when the day is done, they go out to make a difference in the world.
And so it is that Friday, we will bid good-by to one of the most successful classes in Texas history. And no two players have contributed more to the legacy of Texas Longhorn football than Cedric Benson and Derrick Johnson.
We all first knew about Cedric Benson before we had a chance to get to know him. As a high school star in Midland, he was the most publicized football player in Texas prep history. As a senior, he became the only high school player ever to be featured on the cover of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football Magazine, the annual publication which has covered football in this state for well over 40 years.
At the same time, Derrick Johnson was earning his niche as a fine defensive player in Waco.
And together they came, in 2001, to Texas.
The records they will leave are impressive. Together, they are national finalists for the top individual awards on each side of the football. That speaks well not only of them, but of where the Texas program is.
Not since 1977, when Earl Campbell as a running back and Brad Shearer as a defensive player both won national awards, has Texas had a player in the running for the top awards in the same season.
Benson, who has scored a touchdown in more games than any player in NCAA history (36), is sixth on the NCAA all-time rushing list, and has two games (since bowl games now count in the official statistics) remaining. With reasonable games, he likely will finish fourth all-time, behind only Ron Dayne of Wisconsin, Ricky Williams and Tony Dorsett of Pittsburgh.
And he’s done all of that despite having to come out of the Big 12 championship game in the first half after suffering a scary shoulder injury in a collision with big Mike Williams, and missing last season’s Baylor game.
Defensive statistics are not as consistently accurate as the offensive statistics, but Johnson’s performance has made him the odds-on favorite to win most of the national Defensive Player of the Year honors.
The two players are also unique in this time of college football, in that neither took a red-shirt season, and both came back for their senior season instead of going to play professionally. In the class of 19 seniors who will be playing their last game and suiting up for the final time during the regular season for the Longhorns, there are others who have also been a significant part of a group that could well become the winningest class ever in school history.
Since freshmen became eligible in 1972, the most wins ever for a freshman class is 41. That mark was set by last year’s senior class (41-10). This one also has 41, with eight defeats. At home, they have lost once (to Arkansas). On the road on an opponent’s home field, they have lost only once (to Texas Tech).
Eleven of them have played key roles in 2004, and eight are starters. Senior Day will honor Benson and Johnson, as well as Phillip Geiggar, Jason Glynn, Tony Jeffery, Dusty Mangum, Will Matthews, Bo Scaife, Chance Mock, Stevie Stigall, Trey Bates, Stevie Lee and squadmen James Baker, Dustin Bruce, Robert Crawley, Josh Graham-Chapman, Le’Von Griffin, Mohammed Khan and Yomi Odunsi.
We will miss their performances on the field, and we will miss all the victories which they brought us. Most of all, however, we will miss WHO they are, and not WHAT they were.
Cedric Benson has had perhaps the most remarkable career of any back in state history. He led his team to state championships, and gained tremendous fame before he ever entered Texas. He was good enough at baseball to sign a professional contract out of high school, and this season chose to give that up to concentrate on football.
Most of all, he has brought the character of a stand-up guy who has spent more time in the spot light because of today’s media microscope (including his high school and college career) than anybody. When other guys could have ducked and run, Cedric accepted that which was dealt him, and in the old-fashioned phrase “took it like a man.”
Derrick Johnson has emerged this season as one of the greatest defensive players in Texas history. He has been exemplary since he first stepped on the field as a freshman. But as good as he has been, he has made every effort not to call attention to himself. Mack Brown noted when Derrick asked if he could wear jersey No. 60 as a tribute to those such as Tommy Nobis who etched it into Texas history, “he wanted to do it for those who had come before him. Most guys these days are all about themselves. Derrick sincerely cares about the history of the people who wore that number.”
That is why, prior to deciding to wear it, Derrick called Nobis and asked him about it during the visit.
Johnson and Benson both set a tone of leadership, and they have helped carry this team, and this senior class, to the brink of history.
The many stories of the lives they have touched with some kind deed, or the time they have taken, without caring who got the credit, will be their legacy long after their playing days are finished.
They not only have been good, they have been dependable.
A university’s purpose is to educate, and education comes in many, many different ways. The college life is a time for growing, and a time for learning, and not all of it comes from books or football.
At its best, it is a time of maturing, of assessing values, and of coming of age.
In a time in society when we search for heroes, and at a time of the year when we pause for Thanksgiving, it is fitting that we stop for a minute and reflect on the value of good people who do good things.
What we have been fortunate to have, with Cedric and Derrick and the seniors who will leave with them, are young men who are a credit to their class, and to their university.
Their excellence on the field speaks for itself, and we’ll miss that.
At Texas, they have grown and learned, and they have shown us that this game is about more than just wins and losses. It is about people.
They have given us much.
And we are all better for it.