It wasn’t long into their first meeting before Jerrel Bolton knew the man in front of him, Darrell Royal, was more than just another college football coach giving a recruitment speech.
“Marla Jennings, my niece, was laying in bed. She was two-and-a-half months old, and she started crying because she needed changing,” Bolton said.
“Coach Royal goes over, picks her up, gets a diaper and helps change her. Then he held her on his shoulder the whole time he was talking to us, and she was so calmed down.
“Something inside me said right then and there that this man was going to be something special to me for the rest of my life.”
Royal, from the University of Texas and one of the most recognizable college coaches in the nation, was in the tiny Granbury apartment of the Bolton family that night in 1968 to recruit one of the best football players in Texas. He left on his way to a lifelong friendship.
Long before he became one of the state’s top automobile dealers, Bolton was one fantastic football player at Granbury High and the University of Texas. He helped lead the Pirates to the program’s only state championship game appearance (1966).
Bolton could have played at just about any college he wanted. He chose Texas, mostly because of what he saw that first night.
“If you had Darrell as a friend, you were a very, very lucky person,” said Bolton. “I was one of those fortunate people.”
From their success together on the field, which included two national championships (1969-70) through many games of golf, they were as close as a father and son – or perhaps a younger and older brother.
And Bolton was by his friend’s side as the coach was losing his battle with dementia. Often Bolton, tough guy he’s always been, would cry in secret after Royal was no longer in the room during those final days.
“We were driving by the college once a little while before his death and coach Royal asked me, ‘Did we used to have something to do with UT football?’” Bolton said.
“That’s when I knew my good friend wouldn’t be on this earth much longer.”
Royal died shortly after at age 88. One of Bolton’s most prized possessions is a photo of he and Royal together, taken by current Longhorns coach Mack Brown, at Royal’s 88th birthday party.
REMEMBERING THE BEST
But Bolton, like so many who knew Royal, prefers to remember the greatness of the man. Royal was a man of integrity and honor, a man who always had some memorable quotation handy, and most of all a friend who would always be no more than a phone call away.
No time was this more evident to Bolton than in 1985.
“My wife was murdered. Coach Royal had lost a daughter in an automobile accident and a son in a motorcycle accident, so he knew the kind of pain I was feeling,” said Bolton.
“He told me, ‘This is like a giant scab bleeding profusely. You’re going to knock it off, and it’ll scab over again. Then, you’ll knock it off again.
“‘As time goes by, you’ll knock it off less and it’ll bleed less each time. But it will never go away completely.’”
One of Royal’s most famous quotes was about throwing the football. “Three things can happen, and two of them are bad.”
Bolton loves that one, even though he played tight end. He also likes the famous, “Dance with the one that brought you” quote, which Royal also said in reference to running instead of passing.
“I can testify to him not liking to throw the ball. I only caught nine passes in my entire career there,” said Bolton. “But it didn’t matter because we won, and we won as a team.”
Royal, however, used something he didn’t like to win the most heralded game of his career. Bolton was on the field that frigid December day in 1969 in Fayetteville, Ark., when the Longhorns used a long pass from James Street to Randy Peschel to rally past the rival Arkansas Razorbacks 15-14 to win the national championship.
“Arkansas still had a chance to win. They moved the ball inside the Texas 25 and had an All-American placekicker, but Tony Campbell intercepted a pass in the end zone to seal the win,” said Bolton.
“Later, some guy who’d had a few too many asked (former Arkansas coach Frank) Broyles, ‘Do you ever regret throwing that pass in the end zone?’ He spit that salad he was eating all over that pretty white table cloth and stormed off.
“Coach Royal made that guy go apologize to him right away. I know because that guy was me.
“Darrell loved to win games, but he loved his friends even more.”
TRUE DEFINITION OF A FRIEND
And when he retired from coaching at the young age of 53, Royal called on those friends, including Bolton, to help him adjust to a new life.
“He got out at 53 because Oklahoma and other schools were buying players,” said Bolton. “He said he hated to quit coaching so early, but he told me when it got to where he was going to have to cheat to keep up, his integrity was worth more than any games or championships he’d ever win.”
Barry Switzer won a lot of games coaching Oklahoma, but Bolton said he never won Royal’s respect.
Bolton said Royal was one of those people who knew how to be friends with those like him and even those who were nothing like him. If Royal liked you, he liked you and that was all there was to it.
“We were playing golf with Willie Nelson, who was a terrible golfer,” said Bolton with a chuckle. “Willie hits it out of bounds on the first hole, then again on the second hole, the third hole and again on the fourth.
“At this point, Willie quits and pulls out a reefer as big as a cigar. He calmly lights it up, looks at Darrell and says, ‘Coach, you want a toke?’
“Darrell looked at him and said ‘Willie, put that thing away! You know I don’t do that!’
“Then, when he got back in the cart, Darrell turned to me and said, ‘You will NOT tell anyone about this.’
“But I couldn’t help myself. That damn Willie had put coach Royal on the spot, and you just didn’t see that too often.”
Then, Bolton sighed, fought back a tear, and continued.
“I will forever miss my friend, but I don’t cry anymore because he’s much better off,” he said.
“He had so much to be proud of here on this earth, and when he reached a point where he couldn’t remember any of it, it was time for him to go. He couldn’t live without being proud.”
Bolton said he takes comfort in believing that Royal is looking down from Heaven, watching every Longhorns play.
And speaking of such, Bolton’s hoping for one final favor from his friend.
“I’m guessing the reason Alabama’s getting to play for so many national championships lately is Bear Bryant has figured out a way to bribe the Good Lord,” Bolton said with a grin.
“But now that Darrell’s up there, maybe we can even that out a little bit and get Texas in a few more. After all, you know Bear never beat Darrell.”
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