In the dawn of the era of UT football which transformed Darrell Royal and the orange and white clad “boys of autumn ” into legendary heroes of the college game in 1963, 48 players earned letters. Forty-five of them graduated. They came from big cities, from small towns, with and without pedigrees, long before scribes and pundits who never played or coached the game argued over their abilities. Their worth would be proven on the field, and so it was.
During Ford’s three years as Texas’ starting tailback, the Longhorns posted a record of 30-2-1, and claimed three Southwest Conference titles. The names of the players from that era are etched in Texas football history. The 1963 Outland Trophy winner Scott Appleton and future Maxwell Award and Outland Trophy honoree Tommy Nobis were the fierce defenders on the National Championship defense. Quarterback Duke Carlisle made the cover of Sports Illustrated after the No. 2 Longhorns’ stunning 28-7 victory over No. 1 Oklahoma that year. Phil Harris and George Sauer would be forever remembered for pass receptions in the Navy game. Men such as Jim Hudson and Pete Lammons, would go on to star in the NFL. Other players, too many to mention for fear of leaving someone out, went on to succeed in life beyond the game.
Webster’s dictionary says that the word “anomaly” means “something that deviates from what is standard, normal, or expected.” And that defines Tommy Ford. A sports writer of the time called him “one of the great five yard runners of all-time,” yet Tommy would flinch if you called him a “work horse.” He ran with power, and never backed down from anybody. In the era when the ‘Horns were famous for shunning the forward pass, Carlisle, the quarterback, once told the media, “Look, I have this guy behind me who averages four or five yards every time he touches the ball. Three carries, and it’s first down. Why should we pass?”
Each week, as the team carved its destiny through a season of challenges, dramatic wins and tough victories, they notched triumph and sometimes even seemingly snatched it from the jaws of defeat. In the end, the team was a tapestry, a mosaic of personalities, and pride carved from the roots of another time.
The Backstreet Boys had a hit song about it; philosophers and interpreters wax eloquently about the meaning of the phrase, but for Longhorn fans who witnessed the rise to Texas’ first National Championship in college football in 1963, Tommy Ford personified it. He was “larger than life.”
Ford packed his five-foot, nine-inch frame with 183 pounds of muscle, grit and determination. In a game that was transforming in the ’60s to speed and power, he earned All-American honors as a tailback as the Longhorns went 11-0, winning a unanimous National Championship, which was determined during the regular season at that time. No. 1 Texas put an exclamation point on that season with a 28-6 victory over highly-regarded and second-ranked Navy and its Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Roger Staubach, in the Cotton Bowl.
The numbers spoke for themselves. Ford carried the ball 160 times, gained 738 yards, and led the team in scoring with nine touchdowns during his senior season. Following his that season, he took a brief look at the NFL, and then chose to become a coach, working as an assistant at Texas and at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, before finishing his career at Baylor in the early 1970s. He remained in Waco, working in the sporting goods business for 32 years before retiring.
Tommy was 79 when he passed away earlier this summer in Waco, a victim of a long battle with Crohn’s disease. Described by his family as a “quiet, somewhat shy man” off the field, Tommy had requested that there be no funeral service, and the family agreed.
So, he will remain, as we said in the beginning, “larger than life.” Those who saw him play, in his hometown of San Angelo, where he was a prep superstar, and on his field of dreams in Austin, salute him. Some recall another time and a distant youth, in the capsule of memories. It is there that we remember that era, and a young man who helped change the face of Longhorn football.
There, they are “larger than life,” as they remain forever young.