By Ryan Sprayberry
The year is 1961 and the University of Texas Longhorns are launching into another season. As always, the Longhorns carry the heavy weight of high expectations, but the undeniable star of the ’61 Longhorns doesn’t look capable of carrying his college textbooks, much less the UT football squad. At 5’11”, James “Jimmy” Saxton weighs a mere 164 pounds.
Compared to other legends of the UT gridiron, Saxton was far from physically intimidating. While many Longhorns have resembled Greek gods, Saxton looked like your next door neighbor. In the 1940s, Texas was led by Bobby Layne at 6’ 1”. Just a few years after Saxton, UT’s biggest star was Tommy Nobis at 6’2” 240. Just over a decade after Saxton, Earl Campbell became one of the most remembered Longhorns ever while measuring 5’11” 245. In even more recent years, stars such as Ricky Williams (5’10” 230) and Vince Young (6’5” 232) easily cast a physical shadow over the diminutive Saxton. But, at 164 pounds, Saxton should be considered the pound-for-pound greatest running back in UT history.
The 1961 University of Texas Longhorns belong to a select group that “should have” won a National Championship. The team dominated on both sides of the ball and easily outpaced almost every opponent. Of course, the one game where the Longhorns fell, Saxton was knocked out of the competition in the first quarter.
While the loss was unusual, the fact that Saxton didn’t complete the game was not. In fact, Saxton, the team’s star player, didn’t have enough minutes until the sixth game to earn his varsity letter. At the time, a UT player gained his varsity letter by playing a total of 60 minutes. So it took six, 60 minute games for Saxton to reach the varsity requirement for a letter. As the star half back. Saxton’s back up, Tommy Ford, lettered before Saxton did.
Over the course of the entire season, Saxton never played a fourth quarter. Not because of injury, exhaustion, ejection or any other normal reason, but because the 1961 team was simply that good.
A perfect example of the team’s strength came against the Longhorns’ annual interstate rival Oklahoma. While UT dominated the Sooners 28-7, Saxton logged a mere 11 minutes, totaling 37 yards and one rushing score.
Once in an interview with Touchdown Illustrated, Saxton was quick to give praise to the entire team saying, “Our offense got so much notoriety that year that everyone seemed to overlook our defense. I believe we allowed just one touchdown per game while scoring about five. But I always felt we were equally good on both sides of the ball.”
While Saxton may have been humble in viewing the ’61 season as a team effort, there was no doubt who the most important member of the team was. Over the course of the year, even with diminished playing time, Saxton finished with 107 rushing attempts for 846 yards with nine rushing touchdowns. A solid receiver as well, Saxton hauled in seven passes for another 123 yards. To put it another way, while playing only 50-75% of the game, Saxton racked up 969 offensive yards on just 114 touches for an astounding 8.5 yards per touch. Just for good measure, Saxton attempted and completed one pass on the season – it went for 46 yards and a touchdown.
Always a team player, Saxton contributed defensively when needed. Coach Darrell Royal typically kept Saxton rested when the Longhorn defense was on the field, but in certain situations Saxton’s athletic ability couldn’t be kept on the sideline. Considered the team’s best man-to-man defensive back, Saxton’s abilities were used early and often when the punishing aerial attack of Baylor came to Austin on November 11, 1961.
Offensively, Saxton carved up the Bears with 171 yards on just 16 carries, including a 66-yard touchdown run. Defensively, Saxton might have been even more important as he was tasked with covering Baylor’s legendary wide receiver Lawrence Elkins. Saxton and the rest of the UT team took care of business leveling Baylor 33-7.
The week after Baylor, Texas and Saxton’s national title hopes were dashed. Perhaps the team was looking ahead to the game against Texas A&M the following week or, perhaps, it was that they lost Saxton so early and couldn’t gain an offensive spark without him. Whatever the case, Texas welcomed a 24-point underdog TCU to Austin on November 18 and, after missed field goals and the offensive being stopped on the one-yard line, fell to the Horned Frogs 0-6.
The loss is probably best remembered today, because of Coach Royal’s quote after the game, saying the TCU football team was like "a bunch of cockroaches. It's not what they eat and tote off, it's what they fall into and mess up that hurts." Royal’s sentiment is probably better understood when you know that the 1961 team was his first squad to really compete for a national title – of course, he would win won just a few years later in 1963.
For his incredible senior season, Saxton was a unanimous All-American selection and finished third in Heisman voting. After graduating, Saxton would join Lamar Hunt’s Dallas Texans, but when the team moved to Kansas City (to become the Chiefs), Saxton declined to move, preferring to stay close to his business interests.
On May 28, 2014, the half back that Coach Royal once described as running “like a bucket full of minnows,” passed away. Despite his small size, Saxton’s heart, humility and hard work earned him a place among the Longhorn elite and we will always remember him.
Ryan Sprayberry is the Director for Content and Community Engagement at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame