Sooner Legacy: Jakie Sandefer

BY: Wann Smith

Proud To Be A Sooner

Historically, Breckenridge, Texas has been known for several things. Named after President James Buchanan's Vice President John Breckenridge, the city was established in 1857 when Stephens County residents designated and appointed Breckenridge as its county seat.
Breckenridge originally flourished as a cattle trade center and continued this way through the turbulent Civil War years and on into the 20th century. When oil was discovered in nearby Ranger in 1917, the population skyrocketed from just under 1,000 to more than 50,000 in a matter of 18 months as the town developed into a major hub for the oil industry.
Jefferson Davis (Jakie) Sandefer III and his family belonged to the very best of Breckenridge society. Jakie's grandfather, Jefferson Davis Sandefer, was president of Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene for 31 years, and Jakie's father, Jefferson Davis Sandefer Jr., was a successful oil man.
As the years passed, Breckenridge's population declined and another commodity disproportionately grew - high school football.
“I am the product of a little town 120 miles west of Ft. Worth- Dallas, where football was very important. Over a 30-year period, something very special happened that no one fully understands.

Breckenridge established a name that was comparable in later days to Southlake Carroll, Odessa Permian, Abilene with its 52- game winning streak, and the great programs in Oklahoma like Muskogee and Ada'' said Jakie Sandefer in a recent interview for Sooners Illustrated. “The only difference between Breckenridge and these legendary programs was that we competed against towns with populations four to five times our size.
“This all started when Breckenridge tied Port Arthur for the state championship in 1929. Port Arthur had beaten a great Paul Tyson-coached Waco team the week before. Over this period we played Abilene and Wichita Falls every year, and even though they had roughly 20 times the population we did, we broke even them.

Breckenridge won district most of the time and faced powers like Lubbock, Amarillo, Lufkin, Temple and Highland Park in the playoffs. Brownwood, a town three times our size, only beat Breckenridge once over a 30- year period. But we had the same elite reputation.

“There were only two high school classifications at this time - A and B,'' continued Sandefer. “Breckenridge was in the top classification with the big schools. In 1950, the classifications were changed from A and B to 4A, 3A, 2A, and IA. Breckenridge was placed in 3A even though they should have been in 2A, but they were too well respected to be placed in a lower division.
“In my era we won state in l 951, 1952, 1954, 1958, and tied for it in 1959, even in the higher classification,” continued Sandefer. “We beat Port Neches my senior year for the state championship and beat Abilene, 35-13, earlier in the year and they went on to win the 4A state title.

“It is still an absolute mystery how such a small school could compete with the bigger schools for so long. Football was tremendously important to everyone in that town and they went to great lengths to make sure the program was successful. A nucleus of people existed who cared very much about Breckenridge football and my dad was one of them. The team began winning in the late 20’s and, like in most things, winning perpetuated itself.”

One thing that contributed to Breckenridge's success was its Coaches. They were successful before they came and they were successful after they left. To name a few, they were Eck Curtis (installed the T-formation in Austin after World War II as an assistant coach at the University of Texas), Cooper Robbins (won a state championship at Breckenridge and later at Odessa), Joe Kerbel (coached two state championship teams at Breckenridge and sent 60 players into the NFL later while coaching at West Texas State): and Emory Bellard (won one state championship and one co-championship at Breckenridge, created the Wishbone-T offense at Texas as an assistant coach, and was Texas A&M’s head coach). “I started playing football in the fifth grade,” continued Sandefer. “We'd go up and watch the high school teams practice on a gravel field - it was pretty brutal but that's just the way it was. Then we'd go up every Friday night and watch Breckenridge beat the heck out of their opponents using about half as many players who were usually smaller.

''Even though I received a lot of recognition during my senior year at Breckenridge, I felt like I was no better than anybody else in that backfield. Our best back, Clyde Harris, didn't play college football opting instead to become a great sprinter in college. Our fullback was Dick Carpenter who started at OU and our quarterback, Bennett Watts, was the key to our offense. Bennett also came to Norman and, to me, could have been as good as any quarterback who ever played for Oklahoma, but he never reached his full potential. And then there was me. So all of our yardage out of the backfield was pretty much evenly distributed among us statistically. Harris, Carpenter, and I finished one-two-three in the district l00-yard dash and we had the best 440-yard relay team in the state of Texas. The fourth man on our relay team became a world class quarter-miler. Out of the starting 11 on our team my senior year, nine received D-l scholarships. And in the three years that I was in high school, there were 20 D-1 scholarships earned. That's an absolutely incredible statistic for any high school.”
But despite Sandefer's protestations about how average a player he had been, after high school graduation he was recruited by the Sooners as well as Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M , SMU, TCU and Notre Dame - something that simply does not happen to an average player.

“I took a visit to Notre Dame. I went with a lineman from Breckenridge and we were flown by Walter Duncan of Oklahoma City to South Bend, Indiana. I think that I was probably more interested in college football than most people because my dad was so very passionate about it. He and I would talk every Saturday and go over all the games,'' Sandefer said.

“But to go to Notre Dame with their tradition, to be able to be recruited by them and go up there and see that place was a great experience. When I was up there's smiled Jakie,” ''we were driving down the street and there was this big blonde-headed kid standing on the corner. And someone said, 'that’s that new freshman quarterbacks.’ Well, I had no idea who they were talking about but it was Paul Hornung, who became the 1956 Heisman Trophy winner and a Green Bay Packers legend. He was one year older than me. I was just getting out of high school and he was a freshman, just standing on the street corner in South Bend waiving at a bunch of girls going by. I always remembered that.

“I’d been to Austin many times when I was younger, so Texas would have been the logical choice for me. Hardin-Simmons was not a good choice because of the family connections. And besides, l was being recruited by all the big schools. I went to Austin three times and went to Norman three times. But there was just something about OU that appealed to men,” he continued. ''Oklahoma generally used smaller halfbacks and they ran the same offense, the split-T, that we ran in Breckenridge.

''Jerry Tubbs and Wayne Greenlee had chosen OU . . . I don't know how much difference that made - probably some, but they were two years older and I didn't know them very well at that time. But I’ll say this: It takes just as much effort to play at a school with low visibility as it does to play at a major university with a winning tradition. And if you're good enough, why not go where people care and where they win? You could tell by driving through Norman that people cared immensely, you'd see the Split-T Restaurant, Big Red Diner, and so on. So if you're going to go through the effort, sweat, and pain of college football, why not go somewhere where people really care? I knew how it was in Breckenridge and 1 had that same feeling up here in Norman.

''My first year at OU in 1955, I was on the freshman team,” continues Sandefer. “We rode a bus all the way to Denver, Colorado on Thanksgiving weekend to play the Air Force Academy. It was the first team they ever had and we beat them convincingly.

We also played Tulsa and Oklahoma State. I had some great, great games as a freshman. My picture appeared in Sports Illustrated in the summer of 1955 with a couple of other guys who were featured as the top incoming freshmen. So the coaching staff had a very high opinion of me, and very high hopes.

“But then I suffered a severely twisted ankle my sophomore year before the 1956 season opener against North Carolina, and what came afterwards became the biggest disappointment in my sports career. I was on the alternate squad, behind Tommy McDonald which was quarterbacked by Jay O'Nea1. As you know, the two teams played an equal amount of time on offense and defense. There was no other left halfback behind Tommy but me and he was out with an injury. It didn't look like he would be starting against North Carolina so I was practicing with the first unit. And then I twisted my ankle in practice the day before the last Saturday scrimmage; actually while I was down one of the scrubs wrenched my ankle on purpose, just trying to be gung ho. I mean, I was on my back looking up at the sky and this guy was twisting my ankle. But that sort of thing happens and it's usually no big deal. By the next day my ankle was horribly swollen and it hurt so bad I could hardly walk.

“So, although my ankle had been hurt in practice on the Thursday leading up to the final Saturday scrimmage before the North Carolina game, one of the coaches, who shall remain nameless, told me to prove how tough I was by going out and scrimmaging. I hobbled out there with the first team and tried to play on the ankle and it literally screwed it up the rest of the year. That 1956 team won the national championship and I lost my opportunity to play a big role in it. There had been no other halfback that was even close to competing with me or McDonald. As it turned outs I played third team and lettered. But that year should have been my best season. In the previous spring, I had played in the first string backfield with Harris, Thomas and Pricer during one practice and the papers the very next day headlined ‘Freshman Stars in scrimmaged.’ But hell, Billy Pricer would just wipe out that cornerback, Harris would pitch the option my way, and all I had to do was run with the ba11.''

''To this day I get a lot of attention because I was a two-year starter at Oklahoma ('57 and ‘58). I was a pretty good player, but no superstar,” continued Sandefer in typical self-deprecating fashion.

“And I’ll tell you why I say that. In 1957 I was left halfback and Clendon Thomas was right halfback. I was 5-10 and 170 pounds and Clendon was 6-3 and 198 pounds and he could run as fast as I could.

“In fact, he played pro football for 11 years and was just inducted into the Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Honor. And, of course, we knew McDonald was good, but nobody knew he was going to catch 495 passes in the pros, score 84 touchdowns, and be inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame. So,'' laughed Sandefer, “compared to these guys I was very average; they were really good.”

Although Sandefer was disappointed that an injury had limited his role on the star-studded 1956 national championship team, he is proud of the fact that he became the starting left halfback complementing Thomas at right halfback on the 1957 team that lost to Notre Dame in Norman, breaking OU's 47-game winning streak. And Jakie is frequently asked about that game to this day.

The 1957 Sooners extended the famous Oklahoma winning streak from 40 to 47 games by beating Pittsburgh, Texas, Colorado, Missouri, Iowa State, Kansas and Kansas State. After that upset loss to the Irish, Sandefer's Sooners bounced back to win their final two regular season contests against Nebraska and Oklahoma State by the combined score of 85-13. Oklahoma then accepted a berth in the 1958 Orange Bowl to play Duke.

Among Sandefer's accomplishments in ‘57 was an outstanding game against Texas in which he scored the go- ahead touchdown to break a 7-7 tie followed by a fourth quarter interception that led to Oklahoma's final score in the 21-7 victory. He was also the leading rusher in the game. His two-touchdown performance in a 48-21 win over Duke in the 1958 Orange Bowl also brought rave reviews. In the bowl game, Sandefer took a shovel pass to the Duke 2-yard line and scored on the next play - a play Wilkinson referred to as the turning point of the game. Additionally, Sandefer ranked third nationally in punt returns in '57 while only playing half the time (the starting 11 shared time with the alternates). The disappointing 1957 Sooners would finish the year 10- 1-0 and ranked fourth in the Associated Press poll.

Sandefer is also well known for another reason. In 1957, the University of Oklahoma blazed new social trails when they recruited Prentice Gautt. Gautt was the first African-American student athlete recruited by Oklahoma and would not be followed by another for five years. The Sooners assigned Prentice to room alone on the first road trip to Pittsburgh in 1957 although all other players were paired tip. Had it not been for the only Sooner named after a Confederate luminary, Jefferson Davis Sandefer III, Prentice would have roomed alone. But Jakie approached the coaching staff and volunteered to share lodgings with Gautt.

And from that day on, for the next two years, Gautt and Sandefer roomed together on all road trips.

“I didn't feel like I'd done anything out of the ordinary, but in later years l had become sort of a semi-hero. But I had done nothing special; I just did the right thing,” said Sandefer.

In 1958, Oklahoma once again finished 10-1-0 with its only loss coming to second-year Texas coach Darrell Royal and his rapidly improving Texas Longhorn team. Royal, after vociferously expressing his disdain for the recently implemented two-point conversion rule, promptly used it in a 15-14 victory over the Sooners.

Sandefer suffered a shoulder injury in that game, missed the next game with Kansas, and alternated as first-team halfback with Jimmy Carpenter up until the bowl game. At season's end, the Sooners were invited to return to Miami to play in the Orange Bowl, this time against 8-1-0 Syracuse. Sandefer passed to Brewster Hobby for a successful two-point conversion, upping OU’s lead in the second quarter to 14-0. Oklahoma would finish the Orangemen off in the Orange Bowl that afternoon, 21-6. The Sooners led the nation in defense in '58 allowing only 4.9 points per game on their way to a fifth-place finish in the Associated Press poll.

“I’ll tell you why I'm glad I came to Oklahoma. I feel truly blessed to have been part of this great football tradition. One of the ways we've been able to bridge the generation gap has been with an annual reunion that brings back all the players,'' Sandefer said. “Up until the ‘7Os, this was known as the Varsity-Alumni game, or the Old-Timers game. Many of the alumni teams had been partially composed of professional football players, so when the pros started making the big money, their teams would no longer allow their contracted players to participate because of the risk of injury.
So the Varsity-Alumni game became the Red-White game. And even though alumni don't play now, over the years, the players still come back. That game has been instrumental in uniting players from different decades into one family.

“Thanks to the spring game, I've been able to get to know players who came before me like Darrell Royal, Jack Ging, Eddie Crowder, Billy Vessel, Burt Clark, Merle Greathouse, and George Brewer, as well as the many players that followed me like Joe Washington, the Selmon brothers, Jimbo Elrod, the Owens brothers, Keith Jackson, Greg Pruitt, and Bobby Warmack. And for every player I’ve mentioned, there are probably dozens of others. It's been a great honor for me. And getting to know the coaches, both past and present, such as Larry Lacewell, Merv Johnson, Bobby Jack Wright, to name but a few, has been a great experience as well. Knowing all of these guys has been one of the highlights of my life.

“Getting to know Billy Vessels was really something,'' smiled Sandefer. “He was one of the all-time nicest people I have ever met.

He came from very humble surroundings; his parents had abandoned him while he was still in high school and he was living by himself.
Just a terrible situation. And let me tell you something about Billy he always treated me like I was special even though I was just another player. He was a charming man. In the Varsity-Alumni game, Billy Vessels hit me harder then I was ever hit before in the game of football. He had knocked a guy out in the Texas game and he knocked a guy out in the Kansas game, which were two famous stories. And I asked Billy later on if he had hit me in the Alumni game the same way he hit those two players from Texas and Kansas; he just smiled and gave that little laugh of his...'heh heh, heh heh ... no.’ What he was telling me was that if he had hit me that hard, I wouldn't have gotten up under my own power. Knowing Billy was one of my joys.”

After Sandefer graduated from OU, he moved back to Breckenridge and entered the oil business. Later, he moved to Abilene, and finally to Houston, where he formed Sandefer Oil and Gas.

“I met Barry Switzer in Norman but we didn't really become close until 1968 when he came to Abilene to recruit Jack Mildren,'' he says. ''Over the years, Barry and his family came to visit our lake home on Possum Kingdom Lake a few times, and also to Breckenridge where he got to know my parents. Barry, myself, and others flew to Mexico in my King Air on a fishing trip one time.

“Knowing Barry Switzer has made my life better. He gives of himself in every conceivable way; he will sign autographs all night long and unselfishly give of himself to people in need. Barry is the epitome of compassion. I have never known a better person.

“In 1975,” continued Sandefer, “I bought a King Air A100 and got a call from Switzer several days later asking me if I would fly some recruits to Norman for their official visit, a practice that was permitted by NCAA rules at that time. I had only had the plane about three days. Now, I normally wouldn't have let anyone else even get near the airplane but for Barry I said, ‘sure.’

“And so the pilot and I left at 4:30 in the morning, and went from Abilene to Snyder to Midland to Odessa to Monahans to Lubbock, picked up five players (including a young tight end named Victor Hicks and a linebacker named Daryl Hunt, both of whom became All-Americans at OU), and flew them up here at 20,000 feet in smooth air. And before we knew it we were in Norman. There's quite a difference between flying below the clouds in a small plane where it's mighty rough rather than above them in a pressurized cabin where it's smooth as silk. Incidentally, all five of those players committed to play for Oklahoma, but OU only offered scholarships to Victor Hicks, Daryl Hunt, and one other player.”

Sandefer isn't the type to boast about it but it is a well-known fact that he was instrumental in organizing and making available to the university air transportation in first-class airplanes for visiting prospective student athletes. At the time, this practice was permitted by NCAA rules.
“Switzer would have probably gotten the recruits he wanted even without the airplanes because he was the best recruiter in football,” continued Jakie, “but the flying definitely helped the process. The NCAA rules during this time also permitted correspondence with prospects so I wrote letters to recruits, telling them about my experiences and encouraging them. There are about 1,700 D-1 prospects each year in the state of Texas. I'd like to think that I helped OU's football program by encouraging some of those young men to become Sooners.

“And quite honestly, I would not discourage a kid from going to Texas. There are two schools in this part of the country where you're going to win, and that's Oklahoma and Texas; they have both been winning for over 50 years and they'll both still be winning 50 years from now. Players are attracted to places with winning traditions.

“Back in my day, OU was recruiting against SMU, TCU, Baylor, and Rice; they all had good programs but they didn't win like Oklahoma and Texas. And I've been to 12 Orange Bowl games, played in two of them and won both of those. Where else could you go to have that sort of opportunity? This is the message I tried to convey to prospective recruits.”

“Since my time as a student and player at Oklahoma, my nieces and nephews and my son have all gone to the University of Texas,'' continued Sandefer. “I was the only one that came to Oklahoma out of my whole family and it was just on a hunch, on a feeling.

“But my kids grew up on Oklahoma football. When my son Jeff was 13 and my daughter Julie was 12, we went with the Switzers to the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Barry and my daughter, Julie, were the only ones in our group who went out to see the decathlon and saw Bruce Jenner win the gold. My kids are still close to Barry today.”

Even though Sandefer was disappointed by his injury in 1956, he fought through the adversity by regaining his starting halfback position for the 1957 and 1958 seasons. He has gone above and beyond the call of duty in his relationship to the University of Oklahoma as a player, a student, and an alumnus. In 2001, due to his many contributions to enhance both education and athletics at the University of Oklahoma, he was presented with the Oklahoma Regents Alumni Award.

Sandefer has also been inducted into the Texas High School Hall of Fame.
“I don't feel worthy of the honor when you look over the Texas High School Hall of Fame honor roll and find six Heisman Trophy winners including Billy Sims, Doak Walker, and Earl Campbell, plus others like Bobby Layne, Kyle Rote, Joe Washington, Greg Pruitt, Jerry Tubbs, Y.A. Tittle, and Tom Landry, some of the greatest players to ever play college or pro ball are in there. I don't scratch with that bunch, but I'm very honored to be in there,” Sandefer said.

Sandefer is retired as owner of Sandefer Oil & Gas, which was at one time one of the most active independent oil companies in the mid-continent area. Over the course of his career, he has been responsible for more than 600 ''wildcat'' webs being drilled. Among his many honors was being selected to become a member of the prestigious All-American Wildcatters by his peers. Sandefer and his wife, Melissa, reside in both Norman and Houston, have three children, Jeff, Julie, and Laurie, and seven grandchildren.

After the Sooners' loss to Notre Dame on Nov. 16, 1957, Wilkinson addressed his dejected team in the locker room. Sandefer recalled, “Bud told us, 'I'm proud of you. You have done something that no other major college football team will ever do again. You won 47 straight games. And remember, the only ones who never lose are the ones who never compete.''' He never forgot Bud's words.

Reflecting back on his roots, Sandefer's attention returned to Hardin-Simmons University. ''My granddad died when I was seven years old. Both of my grandparents are buried on the campus. On one side of the tombstone the inscription reads, 'A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.' The inscription on the others side says, 'If you want to see this monument, look around, '''

The same might very well be said of Jefferson Davis Sandefer III.


Jackie Sandefer Football

Jackie Sandefer Football