It was the pep talk of a lifetime, a pre-game speech charged with enough star power to light up a stadium. Sixty four years later, Joe Monaco barely remembers a word. What he does recall, though, is the awe that swept over him and his Jefferson High teammates when five surprise guests entered the room.
The 1949 Mustangs blinked in wonder. There before them stood five SMU football stars: Doak Walker, the 1948 Heisman Trophy winner; Kyle Rote, a future Heisman runner-up; Pat Knight, a rugged all-Southwest Conference linebacker; and ends Sonny Payne and Benny White, who had starred at Jefferson with Knight and Rote.
At the invitation of Jefferson coach Jewell Wallace, the Fantastic Five arrived to inspire the Mustangs before their state championship game against Dallas Sunset. For a gathering of teen boys, it was like listening to Knute Rockne deliver “Win One For The Gipper” -- times five.
The Sunset Bisons were bigger and stronger than the Mustangs. They were playing at home in Dallas, and featured a future NFL tackle, 245-pound Don “Tiny” Goss, who was all but impossible to block. The Mustangs, on the other hand, featured a pair of 145-pound halfbacks, S.M. Meeks and Louis Pantuso, and a line anchored by 166-pound center, Dan Blenis. Only one starting lineman -- 206-pound tackle Eric Knebel -- weighed more than 188 pounds.
It didn’t matter. After the Walker-Rote and Co. speech in a Dallas hotel room, the Mustangs took apart Sunset, 31-13, at Dal-Hi Stadium to claim the school’s first and only state football title, then known as the City Conference state championship.
Quarterback Eddie Mac Chambers threw three touchdown passes to Don Raybourn. Meeks scored on a 45-yard run. Billy Quinn ran 14 yards for the final touchdown. In the jubilant aftermath, Mac Chambers told reporters, “I waited three years for this!”
Players celebrated at after-parties. Some secured dinner dates; others found fun in ways that, one player recalls, almost got them in trouble. But for most, one memory stands out. “We got to meet Walker, Rote, Knight and Payne,” says Monaco, a reserve tackle. “That was the highlight of the whole trip.”
Jefferson completed a run through adversity and adventure few modern teams could imagine. The Mustangs of 1949 -- lightly padded and dressed in helmets without facemasks -- ran out of the T-formation and lost their season-opener by three touchdowns.
In that game, fullback Paul Williams lost an eye after an Austin High player planted a cleated shoe on his face. A second Mustang, David Makar, broke a leg against Corpus Christi. Guard Jack Hammer caught the measles. Several players were felled by a virus before the state semifinal game against San Jacinto, and one of them, starting tackle Richard Tynan, spent three days at Baptist Memorial Hospital.
The Mustangs played their opener against a defense that knew when one halfback would get the ball. Former teammates, now in their 80s, recall that Pantuso, a devout Catholic, made the sign of the cross, just before taking a handoff from Mac Chambers.
“It didn’t take long for the spotters up in the press box to figure that out and the guys from Austin clobbered him,” says Morris Spector, a reserve tackle and retired physician. “I think in the second half, we found out about it. After the game we told Louie, ‘You can’t do that.’ He said, ‘I don’t know. I’m going to have to check with my parish priest.’ It was really something.”
No one is sure who persuaded Pantuso to quit crossing himself -- the coach? his priest? -- but once he did, the Mustangs began to roll. After losing to Austin, Jefferson upset Temple, 13-12, beat Kerrville Tivy and Corpus Christi by two touchdowns each, and smashed their next four opponents -- Lanier, Harlandale, Burbank and Alamo Heights -- by a combined score of 184-6.
A historic and heavily-hyped game against Fox Tech unfolded on Nov. 11. Jefferson had never lost to Tech, and sought an emotional edge by naming Williams (blinded in one eye) and Makar (broken leg) honorary captains. Tech coach Pat Shannon countered by naming three captains for the game: quarterback David Casanova, fullback Raul Valdez and offensive tackle Alvin Padilla.
The San Antonio Light reported that Wallace designed several gadget plays for his offense. The paper also reported: “Shannon’s crew is in tip-top physical condition and is confident it can give Tech its first football victory over Jefferson. ...”
The Mustangs were defending city champions. The Buffaloes had their best team in history.
Tech upset Brackenridge two weeks earlier to enter the game 7-1. Jeff arrived at 7-1. One hour before kickoff, Alamo Stadium was half full. A light drizzle fell. The night was cool, the atmosphere electric. At kickoff, an overflow crowd roared, 26,208 strong, an Alamo Stadium record that remains.
“I remember it was very loud,” Shannon told the San Antonio Express-News decades later. “Our tackles called the blocking (on the line of scrimmage) and couldn't hear too tell.“
The game featured dazzling scores and jarring tackles, missed opportunities and devastating regret. Three Mustangs hobbled to the sidelines with injuries, including Pantuso. Three Buffaloes went down, including Valdez, who was helped off the field three times.
The injured returned, took more hits and played through the pain. Pantuso scored on an 11-yard run and Raybourn caught a 16-yard touchdown pass to give Jeff a 14-0 lead.
Tech answered with two touchdowns from Valdez.
He ran 26 yards for the first score, while shaking off “half a dozen tacklers,” according to The Light. On the second, he a recovered a fumble in the end zone. Roy Camacho missed the first conversion attempt, Manuel Jung made the second and Tech trailed, 14-13.
Meeks responded with a dagger, returning the kickoff 80-yards to extend Jeff’s lead, 20-13.
Meeks rushed for 169 yards but did not score again. A battered Valdez rushed for 128 yards and carried Tech -- on its final drive -- into Jefferson territory late in the fourth.
On third down, Meeks dropped an interception. On fourth down, Roy Menchaca found himself wide open near the goal line. Quarterback Dickie Delgado threw a pass with six points written on it. The ball went through Camacho’s hands. “He could have won the game for them,” Spector says.
The Mustangs ran out the clock and carried Wallace off the field. On the bus ride home, the team followed a post-game tradition and launched into, “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
“That was our song,” Monaco says. “Coming to the stadium, we sang the school song. On the way back, we sang, ‘Onward Christian Soldiers.’ Jewell Wallace was a very religious man. We always said a prayer before we went out to play.”
Jefferson beat Brackenridge in its annual Thanksgiving Day matchup, 26-14, to complete the regular season 9-1. A virus scare followed. Days before the Mustangs played San Jacinto, Meeks, Chambers and Raybourn left school ill. Tynan was hospitalized. End Don Barksdale and back Pat Toler also battled the infectious disease.
Remarkably, the players recovered. Unfortunately, rain turned Alamo Stadium into a slop of mud. Jeff scored only once. Meeks ran 45 yards for a touchdown and Raybourn kicked the conversion, which was enough to win, 7-6, and advance to the state championship game.
In the late 1940s, schools from small Texas towns, such as New Braunfels and Wharton, competed in Class 1A. Those from mid-size cities, such as Waco and Austin, competed in 2A. But schools from the most populated cities -- San Antonio, Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth -- competed in the City Conference, the state’s largest classification. From 1948-50, the winner of that classification was known as the City Conference State Champion.
The Mustangs had played in one state championship game and lost to Odessa, 21-14, in 1946. Kyle Rote starred on that team and later made national headlines at SMU, rushing for 115 yards, passing for 146 and accounting for all three touchdowns in a 27-20 loss to No. 1 Notre Dame in 1949.
The ‘46 Mustangs sent Rote and Pat Knight to the NFL. The Mustangs of 1961 sent four players into pro ball -- Tommy Nobis, Phil Harris, Dick Cunningham and George Gaiser. The Mustangs of 1949 did not produce any NFL players. But they occupy a unique place in school history.
On Dec. 10, 1949, Meeks rushed for 134 yards against Sunset, scoring once on a 49-yard dash. Wallace pronounced him “the best running back I’ve ever coached.” While teammates celebrated, some tried to explain how difficult it was to block and run past Goss.
Jefferson guard Rudy Fuentes told an Express reporter: “One time he (Goss) picked me up in one arm and center Dan Blenis in the other and threw us both back in the backfield.”
Respect for Goss ran deep. But he alone couldn’t stop the Mustangs. As the Express put it in headline type: “Ponies slaughter Sunset.”
Five Mustangs made the newspaper’s 11-man All-City first team: Meeks, Pantuso, Raybourn, Knebel and Barksdale. Meeks starred at the University of Houston, where Wallace coached in 1946 and 1947. A few others played college ball, most notably Quinn, who made all-Southwest Conference at Texas.
Surviving Mustangs remember details from 1949 differently. Spector knows the last name of the Fox Tech receiver who dropped the touchdown pass. Some don’t recall the play. Spector and Jones remember Williams losing an eye. Others do not. But the most glaring disconnect of memory centers on the state championship pre-game speech.
Monaco and Roy Jones can still see and hear Walker and Rote, addressing the team. Spector and Buenz have no such memory. “Boy, you’d think if Doak Walker and Kyle Rote had been there, you’d remember the speech,” Buenz says. “I’m sure it happened. But I don’t remember that.”
Sonny Payne, Rote’s best friend since first grade, was there but doesn’t remember much. Payne recalls that Rote and Walker did most of the speaking. He surmises their message centered on a familiar theme. “We had always been told, ‘You’ve got four quarters to play and a lifetime to think about it,’ Payne says. “In other words, do your best and win so you can have lots of good thoughts and memories.”
Perhaps Buenz and Spector missed the pep talk. Perhaps they and others arrived late. Or
perhaps time is obscuring a gem of glory. Wallace died in 1999. Quinn passed on in 2002. Meeks and Pantuso are gone. No one knows how many Mustangs remain. Memories are crumbling like a rose, one petal at a time.
One Mustang recalls patches of light, another sees shadow. But what the eye cannot see, the heart can still feel. A warm glow. Lingering pride. The magic, after all these years, simmers somewhere between the soul and spirit, in a place not even time can touch.
Spector knows the feeling and nods, lips curling into a smile, eyes beginning to gleam. “That was probably,” he says, “the best year of my life.”