Signing Day – Then and Now

Wednesday was national signing day and created a marginal amount of excitement for hardcore college football fans around the country. The excitement has been eroding from national signing day in previous years with the emphasis on early recruiting and the fact that the majority of players commit before their senior year. Sure, you still have some last minute switches and a little bit of drama down the stretch, but it’s nothing like in years past. For example, the drama for Texas A&M was that an athlete who had been committed to the Aggies since June decided to go to Texas A&M, and a punter came out of nowhere to show up on the commitment list. Wow!

Of course, in the 1970’s things were a little bit different. In the era before fax machines, coaches, alumni, and in some cases friends of the program or hired guns would camp out in front of recruits houses and snare that signature first thing in the morning. This created a certain amount of drama when representatives from several schools converged on the same player. That was back in the days when every program was as dirty as Oklahoma, USC, and the SEC is now.

The 80’s changed all that. The facsimile machine, later known as the fax machine, allowed student athletes to fax their letters of intent to the school of their choice on national signing day. The school would then know that the athlete in question was intending to attend that school, and the athlete wouldn’t have to worry about mailing all that stuff. Few people know this, but when this practice started, the faxed document was not considered a legal document. The player wasn’t officially locked into a school until his signed hard copies arrived in the mail.

Around this time, I worked in the athletic office doing odd jobs. A lot of the time I would follow RC Slocum around with a broom in case he spilled any of the peanuts out of his Coke. During my first national signing day as an employee of the athletic department, I was told to man the fax machine. I sat in a small room with a fax machine. When a fax would come in, I would call up to the coaches, who were all sitting in a different room sweating and waiting for these faxes, and I would tell them what just came in. It was kind of exciting for five bucks an hour. I must have done a pretty good job, because next February, they asked me to do the same thing.

The morning of signing day, I crawled out of bed early and got ready for work. Just for fun, I pulled all the old faxes from last year’s signing day out of a box in my closet. To my utter dismay, they all looked like blank pieces of paper. Apparently, the thermal rolls of paper in the fax machine just didn’t seem to cut it. I had never given these signed letters of intent to anyone because, frankly, they never asked and they weren’t legal documents, anyway.

When I arrived at work, I told RC about the faded faxes from last year. He let out a squeal and started using language that was more confusing than anything else. “Deathburger,” he told me, “This year, these faxes are legal documents. We need a better fax machine.”

“I have one in my apartment,” I said.

“Let’s go get it!”

RC and I ran out to the parking lot and jumped in his Buick. We drove as fast as the speed limit would allow to my apartment that was only half a mile away. I ran in and grabbed my fax machine, which was still new in the box, and we drove safely back to campus. After running back to the office room and plugging the fax in, we looked at the clock and saw that it was just a few minutes after 7:00. It was doubtful that anyone had tried to fax in their letter of intent this early.

RC left me to my job. About ten minutes later, just as the first letter of intent started to whir and whistle its way into my fax machine, Shelby Metcalf walked into the office.

“What the hell are you doing in my office?” he asked.

“Well, sir, I’m getting the faxes for the football players’ letters of intent.”

Shelby grumbled and said, “Okay, I can see that. Football is number one around here. They can have my office for a day. But, hey, that’s a nice fax machine. If I want to fax something, I have to use one with that rolled up toilet paper.”

“That’s my fax machine,” I said. “I’m just letting them use it today.”

Shelby glared at me past his pointed nose. “What the hell is a college student doing with a piece of equipment like that?”

So, as the faxes continued to pour in, I told Shelby the story of how I acquired a fax machine.

There’s an event once a month called the SWC Poker Challenge. I don’t know when it started, and I don’t know if it’s still going on, but I got the privilege of playing in it twice. Once a month, 8 players from the former SWC schools would meet somewhere to play poker. Arkansas had never been invited to play in this event. They simply weren’t relevant. The site would rotate between the member institutions’ cities. An individual could only play once a year. The first time I played was at a get together in Dallas, since an SMU student was hosting the event. I didn’t do so well that time. I played a year later in Waco and was the big winner.

The Baylor guy that was hosting the poker party ran out of money real quick. Early in the evening the Texas guy spilled some red wine on the Baylor’s guy shirt. The Baylor guy really got mad. He kept yelling that it was his only pink Izod shirt. He nearly lost it completely. I thought they were going to fight. But, he sat down to play some more and just played like a complete idiot. He lost all his money early and started asking people if he could borrow money. Technically, this is against the rules, but I leant him some money since he assured us his roommate would be home soon. He lost the money I gave him and borrowed some more.

He was well on his way to losing the rest of my money when his roommate came in. The Baylor guy asked his roommate, whose name was Skip, if he could borrow some money. Skip started to look pretty nervous. He accused us all of gambling and said he was going to report us if we didn’t leave immediately. He started telling us alcohol was evil. Skip pointed at the UH student and said he wasn’t an American and shouldn’t be in his apartment since it was so close to campus. He told the Texas guy that he was an abomination before God and wouldn’t be allowed in Heaven. Skip looked at the TCU guy and told him to lighten up on the hair product. Skip was starting to get on a serious roll. He yelled at the SMU guy about how SMU was a crooked football program. He screamed at the Tech guy to leave the apartment, but the Tech guy was asleep in the corner since he’d forgotten to bring any money to the game. Skip grabbed the Rice guy’s shirt and told him he sucked at Dungeons and Dragons.

Then, Skip turned his attention to me. Before he could say anything, I said, “Lighten up, Skippy. Your roommate owes me some money. He said you would give it to me. I need you to give it to me right now. Otherwise, I’m calling the police to report this poker game. You know what the police will do? Nothing. But they’ll have to write up a report, and in that report it’ll say that you, Skip, had a poker game in your apartment. Now, you don’t want someone at school getting that police report, do you?”

“Yeah,” said the TCU guy.

Skippy looked down at the ground and said he didn’t have any money. The other Baylor guy was scared. To make things right, he gave me a brand new $500 fax machine to compensate me for the $40 I loaned him. I took it because I’m a nice guy, but I never thought I’d need that fax machine until a few months later on national signing day.

I think God does things for a reason.

Shelby seemed impressed with the story and sat with me for a while in his office while the fax machine continued to churn out nice, crisp letters of intent on plain paper.

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