Like a lot of little boys growing up in Oklahoma during the late Sixties and early Seventies, my fall Saturdays revolved solely around Sooner football and the exploits of such players as Steve Owens, Greg Pruitt, Ray Hamilton and Jack Mildren.
Those days were spent listening to the weekly radio broadcasts or watching the occasional televised University of Oklahoma game. I hung on every word describing every play of every game of every season.
In 1971, when I was 11, I scoured the sports pages every morning in hopes of finding any morsel of news or information pertaining to OU football. On the way to school, I would work on my option pitch with every rock that crossed my path, doing my best to emulate the artistry Mildren displayed as the Sooners’ wishbone quarterback.
Mildren had come to Oklahoma from Abilene Cooper High School, deep in the heart of Texas, and was billed as the guy who could lead the Sooners to the promised land. While he did not win a national championship during his four seasons in Norman, Mildren helped usher in ” and perfect ” the offense that would eventually be OU’s catalyst to two national titles in the mid-Seventies.
During that magical ’71 season, he was a key figure in what is still known as the “Game of the Century,” which pitted No. 2 Oklahoma against No. 1 Nebraska. In the contest, Mildren ran for two touchdowns and threw for two scores against the Huskers’ top-ranked defense in the country.
Although the Sooners lost, 35-31, Mildren’s performance was one for the ages. It helped earn him the title “Godfather of the Wishbone” and forever etched his name in OU football lore.
I remember watching an interview with Mildren in the moments after the Nebraska game and thinking how gracious he was even though the loss had to be eating away at him. That always stuck with me ” his sportsmanship and dignity.
Years later, I had become a sportswriter and Mildren had graduated to a successful life in politics and the business world. Covering the Sooners, I had the good fortune to meet and interview Mildren on several occasions.
Not surprisingly, I found him to be the same person face-to-face as I remembered from my childhood. He did not lack in confidence, but any brashness he displayed was always tinged with a hint of sarcasm.
Mostly, Jack was funny, witty and down-to-earth. His intellectual side always showed through when he did sports radio the last few years. He was passionate about his family, football and politics, and about helping people who were less fortunate than himself.
He was gracious enough to sit down with me for three hours one day back in 2002, when I was doing research on a book I was writing about OU football. He shared stories and jokes, and was a great resource for my project.
Besides our Sooner ties, we shared similar political views, and there was rarely a time I saw Jack when we didn’t talk politics. I always came away from those conversations a little more informed and a little wiser than before.
When I initially heard he had been diagnosed with stomach cancer two years ago, my first thought was “if anyone can beat it, Jack can.” I knew him to be a strong person with strong convictions, and he was someone who had so much more to give.
Since then, Jack continued to work in radio and TV. He was active in politics and he remained passionate about Oklahoma football and proud of his role in the program’s overall success story.
Jack seemed to be winning his battle with cancer, but it came back recently. And sadly, on May 22, it took his life.
As I thought of his family and friends ” and the fact the world only had him for 58 years ” I cried.
Then remembering what Jack Mildren, the hero, had meant to me as a little boy ” and what he had meant to so many people throughout his lifetime ” I smiled.
He will be missed, but his legacy lives on with all who watched him and knew him.
Jay C. Upchurch is the editor of Sooner Spectator magazine.