James Saxton Dies at 74

Legendary halfback was the first Longhorns RB to be named All-American and still holds the record for best per carry average in a season.
Legendary halfback was the first Longhorns RB to be named All-American and still holds the record for best per carry average in a season.

Bill Little, Texas Media Relations

He often denied it, but a "tall Texas tale" that is oft repeated blurs the line between truth and fiction. And that is why everybody in the college football universe in the early 1960s thought that Longhorns All-American running back James Saxton actually did chase -- and catch -- the legendary Texas jackrabbits.

Turns out, it was only a little cottontail rabbit instead. But by the football season of 1961, folks would swear little Jimmy Saxton caught cottontails more times than opposing defenders caught him as he led the Texas Longhorns on a ride to the top of the college football world.

Saxton, 74, died Wednesday following a long illness. He is survived by his wife, Carol Ann, son Jimmy, daughters Shelley Earnest and Cathy Alexander and their families, including six grandchildren.

Coming out of Palestine High School in East Texas, depending on how well you knew him, he was either "Jim," "Jimmy," or "James." And by any of those, he was the quintessential college football hero when he hit the Texas campus in the fall of 1958.

It was Saxton who was the genesis of many of Darrell Royal's great lines about quickness. When he recruited Saxton, he envisioned him as a running quarterback (even though he had never taken a snap in high school), and for two seasons -- on the freshman team of 1958 and as a sophomore in 1959 -- Saxton skittered his way all over the football field.

He was so elusive, in fact, that Royal once described him as being "like a balloon that you fill with air and then turn it loose and let the air out all at the same time. It goes all over the place, and it does it in a hurry."

Former Longhorns coach Fred Akers, who played against Saxton when Akers was at the University of Arkansas, recalled trying to tackle the elusive runner.

"It was like trying to tackle a feather," Akers said.

A promise, to Royal, was a promise, and his commitment to allow Saxton to play quarterback lasted for two seasons. But following his sophomore season of 1959, Royal called Saxton into his office and asked him to move to halfback, the primary running back, in the Winged-T formation.

In the book, "What it Means to be a Texas Longhorn," Saxton recalled Royal saying, "Look, I have a guy in you sitting on the bench who is averaging nine yards a carry. I'd be stupid to leave you there."

And with that, a legend began evolving. Royal moved Jack Collins, who had a superb sophomore season as the premier running back in 1959, to the wingback position, which was a more of a receiver-blocking back role. Saxton was inserted as the tailback, and led the team in rushing in 1960 with 407 yards and an average of 5.4 yards per carry. But the best was yet to come.

By his senior season of 1961, Saxton was one of the best, and most electrifying players in the country.  He scored nine touchdowns and led the high scoring Longhorns attack with breathtaking runs of 80, 79, 66,  56, 49 and 45 yards. He earned unanimous All-American honors, becoming the first running back in Longhorns history to become an All-American. When he came to Texas, he had never heard of the Heisman Trophy, but by the voting at the end of the 1961 season he had finished third in the voting for the nation's best football player, trailing only Syracuse's Ernie Davis and Ohio State's Bob Ferguson. Minnesota's quarterback Sandy Stephens was fourth.

Not only did he excel with the numbers, he had a flair for the dramatic. With Texas battling to become the No. 1 team in the nation and tied 0-0 with SMU early in the third quarter in a game in the Cotton Bowl stadium in Dallas, Saxton broke for 80 yards and the go-ahead score in a 27-0 victory. He totaled 173 yards in the game, and the next week against Baylor he rushed for 171 in an era when 100-plus yards per game was rare.

His per-carry average of 7.9 yards (846 yards on only 107 carries) that season remains the best in UT history, and was the highest ever in the history of the Southwest Conference.

The Longhorns carried a No. 1 national ranking into the next-to-last game of the season but fell, 6-0, to TCU after Saxton was knocked unconscious on a controversial knee-to-the-head early in the game. His college career ended with a 12-7 victory over Ole Miss in the 1962 Cotton Bowl Classic -- a game which featured a record setting 73-yard quick kick from Saxton.

Buoyed by his performances on the field, Saxton became the most sought after celebrity in Austin at the time. When the movie, "State Fair," premiered in Texas, it was Saxton who was asked to squire popular actress Ann-Margret around the city.

But at a slim 165 pounds, Saxton had reservations about playing football at the next level. In a time when there was open bidding competition between the established National Football League (NFL) and the American Football League (AFL), Saxton was drafted as the 146th pick of the St. Louis Cardinals in the NFL and the 75th pick of the Dallas Texans of the AFL. He signed with Dallas, and after a brief look at pro football, he decided to enter the banking business.

His competitive nature excelled there. He went on to become chairman of the board of Texas Commerce Bank in Austin and worked in the banking business for 27 years. He became one of Austin's civic leaders, was head of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, served for a time as chairman of the State Board of Insurance, and he would be known as one of the most benevolent and supportive friends in all of Central Texas.

His Longhorns family inducted him into the Longhorn Hall of Honor in 1973, but his highest sports honor came in 1996 when he was inducted into the National Football Foundation's College Hall of Fame.

Saxton's health had declined in recent years, although he had managed to beat a near-death experience that occurred in November of 1993. After a hunting trip that fall, Saxton contracted a form of "sleeping sickness" that apparently was triggered by an insect bite. He was in a coma for several weeks, but bounced back and returned to the banking business for a time before retiring.

In his three years at Texas, Saxton -- as a young boy reared by a single mom -- bonded with Royal as a father figure.

"When I went on my first recruiting visit (to Texas) he made me feel like I was the greatest thing that ever walked," Saxton recalled in 2007. Saxton never forgot that, and he never forgot his roots.

In discussing his thoughts on what it meant to be a Longhorn, this is what he said:

"The Texas Cowboys, a service organization on campus, has a motto that says, 'Give the best to Texas, and the best will come back to you.' I gave everything I had, and it has kept following me throughout my life. In football, in business, in parenting. To be a part of an organization that had such a presence in athletics and dignity in everything -- it has been an honor to be a part of that endeavor."

In the end, he was part of the myth, and yet larger than the myth. He was a farm boy, chasing cottontail rabbits across an East Texas field. He was Captain Marvel, Spiderman, Plastic Man, a bolt of lightning, a feather in the wind.

There will be a memorial service in Austin later, but this weekend the family will hold a private service, and then James -- ever the outdoorsman who loved to hunt and fish -- will be buried near Red Lake on land that belongs to the Saxtons near the East Texas town of Fairfield. The official census does not have a count of people living there. Folks say it is a serene place, where the fish bite and the birds fly.

And, of course, cottontails and jackrabbits run.

James Schleicher

James Schleicher is the publisher of Horns Illustrated magazine. He's also a fifth generation Texan and lifelong Austinite. Follow @HornsIllus twitter to keep up with all things Horns Illustrated.

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