WILDER'S WHOLE WORLD: Thinking on Austin College's 1981 football season

By Dwayne Wilder
Special to the Herald Democrat

I don’t remember how I heard about the game, but I found the radio station where I could listen to it.

It was finals week and there were two more test days until I could leave Lubbock for home. Yet, there was something else happening and it involved my hometown. It was 40 years ago on Dec. 12 as the Austin College Kangaroos played for the NAIA Division II national championship in football. I remember alternating back and forth between the game and studying that Saturday afternoon. It was exciting; my hometown was playing for a national championship!

To be truthful, I was not the world’s greatest AC football fan. I only knew that the college played the game and was in a small school category. I had heard that there were no scholarships; those college students played because they loved the game. I thought that was incredibly cool; and rare in that world of ours. I knew about Larry Kramer and Gene Branum, famous players/coaches in the program.

But I didn’t know they had started playing football in 1896; and here it was 1981 and they were playing Concordia College from Minnesota for all the marbles. And they were playing on the Kangaroo campus!

Of course, what I remember most was the field goal of 57 yards that tied the game with about a minute left to go. It was AC’s claim to fame as the championship ended in a tie; and the rules crowned co-champions for that year. The Austin College Kangaroos were national champions in football! Wow!!!

Fast forward 40 years and I’m a journalist with a deadline looming…okay, not exactly ‘looming’ as I began the anniversary story last December…I had remembered that fateful Saturday afternoon listening to the radio and how the years fell: 2021 would be the 40th anniversary. In my mind that meant ‘Time for a story!’

It has been one of the most satisfying stories I have had the pleasure of compiling in my 20 year career. I knew the players would be nostalgic, but the sheer emotion that still held sway over their minds and lives of that day and that season just overpowers me when I stop to think about it. I simply wanted to give everybody a voice in the article. I found that I got contact information for others when I was talking to someone else; and so on…until I had dozens of ‘voices’ in this monumental article.

One of the reasons it was so long was the sheer volume of memories and emotions that each person had about that season, that game and the legacy that they became part of because of a football game. Some of the players watch football together today on a regular basis and refer back to Dec. 12’s game (40 years ago) during play as today’s current players do something that reminds them of that incredible game—that incredibly tough game—on a December Saturday in a small town on a small college campus.

Oh, and the stories they have! The trash talk, the reverence for their coach (deceased Larry Kramer) and the respect for opposing players (Concordia’s Jim Klug); and mostly for their teammates and the bond that was forged during that season on a practice field where no one cared that they were there. (At least, not on a national level)

Defensive lineman Ed Holt, after a crucial sack in the national semi-final game to help seal the victory, looked down at the quarterback – who with his teammates had joked that the AC players looked more like basketball players before the game – and asked if he ‘wanted to shoot some hoops’ after the game! Receiver Rory Dukes, after a two touchdown performance in the national quarterfinal game, walked through the defense after his second touchdown and said, “Not bad for the waterboy, huh?!’ This was after opposing players had dubbed Dukes a scrub because he looked like a ‘water-boy’ before the game.

Every player I spoke to about that season and championship was unanimously reverent when it came to talking about Larry Kramer. They each said they would ‘run through a brick wall’ for Kramer – without conferring with each other before the question! Kramer commanded a respect born of toughness and loyalty and common goals. He treated them with respect and believed in them, and in turn, those players believed in him and his system. Kramer believed hard work would get you where you wanted to be, and for the Austin College Kangaroos in 1981, it was a national championship…

….on a small football field on a small college campus in a small town on a cold Saturday afternoon some 40 years ago.

Dwayne Wilder

Dwayne Wilder is a Sherman native who currently lives in Denison. Wilder’s Whole World is his commentary about life in Texoma and the world. Wilder can be reached at cmandad17@gmail.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.