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Street remembered for enthusiasm

Lyndon B. Johnson congratulates James Street and Darrell Royal after the Cotton Bowl in 1970. AP Photo

AUSTIN, Texas -- He was just so damn giddy. Especially in the huddle.

He was fierce when he'd break the huddle and got called "Slick" for his suave demeanor off the field. But when James Street was standing among his 10 best friends, about to unleash another Wishbone run, he was just too happy. His confidence was contagious.

"You felt the tone of his voice. He was convinced this is the play that's really going to work," former Texas running back Ted Koy said. "We looked forward to the next snap, because we knew good things were about to happen."

He hadn't lost a drip of that confidence, that excited way about him, at age 65. Old teammates and buddies envied that Street still had all his hair and zest. He'd hardly aged on them. That's why nobody could understand what happened Monday morning.

The legendary Longhorn quarterback passed away in his home, not long after returning from watching his son pitch one last time in California. Before sunrise, word trickled out to people who knew Street best and they were met with stunned surprise.

This was the very last person Koy thought would die early from Texas' 1969 championship team, and his teammates agreed. Street had been healthy and fit and, of course, just so happy.

He arrived in Austin as a no-name, 5-foot-11 kid from Longview, Texas, and grew into the quarterback whom Sports Illustrated would describe as a "cocky, good-looking youngster with sideburns." He was eventually plucked from the bench in 1968 and entrusted with operating Darrell Royal's innovative new offense.

"He just did things that were totally unexpected of him," his fullback, Steve Worster, said. "He was a winner. James was just a guy who would do things that were really unbelievable."

His Longhorn teammates still marvel at the relationship Street shared with Royal. Even when they grew old and would get beers together, he still called him Coach Royal. Even when Royal was fighting Alzheimer's, he didn't forget his quarterback.

"I never saw him not recognize James Street," longtime friend and business partner Bill Hall said. "He knew him every single time."

Their lives were forever changed by a 15-14 win over Arkansas in 1969, a victory clinched by the iconic moment the two shared late in the "Game of the Century." Fans won't soon forget fourth and 3 with 4:47 left.

When Street came to the sideline and Royal barked "Right 53 Veer pass," Street trotted back onto the field, then stopped and turned back. Wait a second. That's the play they were running?

"In a case like that, you just suck it up and pick a number," Royal would say after the game. "There's no logic to it. Just a hunch."

Royal told him hell yes. That's the play. So the ever-confident Street ran into the huddle and told his teammates it was going to work.

The guys who played on that offense still laugh about the effervescent optimism Street brought to a huddle. It wasn't just how he called the play. It was the constant belief that the big play was coming next.

"He was just so wired to pump us up all the time that sometimes we'd finally have to tell him to shut up and call the play," Worster said.

This time was different. They say Street stared down and pointed to his go-to receiver, Cotton Speyrer, in the huddle in Arkansas territory, knowing the Razorback defenders were watching closely. Like all good option quarterbacks, he prided himself on his deception. Street's eyes didn't betray that he was telling Randy Peschel the ball was coming his way.

Street faked the handoff and uncorked one of the great passes of the decade, a 44-yard bomb to the tight end over two defenders and into Peschel's outstretched hands.

"I know it changed James' life. He'll never be forgotten," Worster said. "That was a major turning point as far as the world getting to know who James Street was."

After the national championship, shaking hands with Nixon and LBJ in the locker room, and beating Notre Dame, Hall says Royal told Street to stick around. Why chase a minor league baseball career when he could take advantage of all that awaited him in Austin?

"At the time, James thought, 'Oh, that old man doesn't like baseball,'" Hall said.

Street earned 29 wins and three all-conference honors while pitching for Texas' baseball team. He could've tried his luck in the pros. Instead, he took Royal's advice and Texas booster Joe Jamail got him his start in the business of managing structured settlements. Colleagues say he became an innovator in that field, too, to the surprise of nobody.

Whenever Mack Brown needed a favor or someone to give a speech to his players, Street was there. When the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Ark., screened a documentary on the 1969 game last month, Street was there.

He would consider his greatest legacy to be his sons: an MLB pitcher, an architect, an actor, a philanthropist and a business student. Street was successful, his friends say, because he was a disciple of Royal. He worked hard until the day he died and loved every minute of it. The glee found in the huddle never left him.

"I don't think there was a day in his life that he woke up and thought he couldn't do something good that day," Koy said.

Street was not a great passer or a great rusher. He knew right when to pitch and when to keep it, and most times, he pitched any praise that came his way. Among friends, he'd take almost no credit for his 20-0 career record at Texas. He'd say he was the slow guy on the incredible team, that it was never about him.

"We had so much talent on that team, it was phenomenal," Worster said. "But he just did things that needed to be done, when they needed to be done. That's how we won."

Texas lost the man who never lost on Monday, and that's precisely how former Longhorns will remember him.

"I think you'll always remember James Street as a winner and a leader," Hall said. "He was that his entire life."