When author Ron J. Jackson Jr. takes on a writing project, he says he likes to walk in the footsteps of those he is chronicling.
His latest book took him to the fields of Junction, where the friendship between Gene Stallings and Paul “Bear” Bryant took shape among the old Quonset huts, which still stand.
Those hot summer days of hard work culminated in the 1968 Cotton Bowl, which ended in Texas A&M football coach Stallings beating his mentor, the legendary Alabama coach who lifted him in praise after suffering the defeat.
The moment captured in an iconic picture was the spark that resulted in Bebes and the Bear, Jackson’s seventh book published by the Texas A&M University Press.
“I instantly knew that it was a great story,” Jackson, a former sports journalist, said. “There was a whole wonderful story behind that image, and I think that’s what readers are going to really enjoy.”
Jackson’s book begins in the early years of the lives of both coaches and traces the path which brought them together at A&M. For instance, those close to Stallings referred to him as “Bebes,” a name given to the Paris, Texas, native by his younger brother, who had trouble pronouncing his name as a child.
Bryant helmed the sidelines of Kyle Field from 1954-1957 before leaving to take over the Crimson Tide program. Stallings played under Bryant from 1954-56.
The pair converged again in 1968, when A&M faced Alabama in the Cotton Bowl after going 6-4 and winning the Southwest Conference title. Alabama entered the game at 8-1-1, but A&M quarterback Edd Hargett threw two touchdown passes to help the Aggies take down the Crimson Tide 20-16.
“By the time readers get to the ’68 Cotton Bowl, they’re fully going to understand why Stallings was such an ardent disciple of Bryant and really why the two men grew to love and respect each other,” said Jackson, who almost didn’t take the project pitched to him by A&M Press senior editor Thom Lemmons.
Jackson said he typically tries to tackle subjects with little prior coverage, whereas “a small library,” has been written about Bryant. But once he began talking to other coaches, players and journalists who knew Bryant and Stallings, Jackson said it seemed clear this story had untapped potential.
“Those were the real treasures, visiting with those guys,” Jackson said.
Stallings currently resides on a ranch just outside of his hometown. Jackson had the opportunity to spend a few days with the 84-year-old, even visiting the Paris barber shop he’s visited since the age of 10. While he said he hadn’t talked to Stallings since the completion of the book, his wish is the literary walk through both coaches' lives properly lives up to their legend.
“I hope he likes it,” Jackson said with a chuckle.