There was a melody working its way through the ballroom before the band even began playing.
From one handshake to the next and within each embrace or old story told anew, the 250 or so SMU supporters and former Mustangs players were all in rhythm Saturday night at the Mustang Legends for Charity event hosted by the June Jones Foundation.
Was it the legends, with 13 of SMU's greatest former players in attendance, the six-figures' worth of charity money raised, or just the chance to all be together again that brought so many of the Mustangs' faithful at every level together at the Adolphus Hotel?
Part fundraiser, part reunion, and part pep rally, the sold-out Mustang Legends event came across as an overwhelming success.
It was overwhelming in its support, as the event raised at least $160,000 for its three benefactors, overwhelming in its reach, with the football pedigree involved, and in its impact.
During the main program, stories from players with Hall of Fame busts, Super Bowl rings, All-Pro honors, and big-game memories left many attendees spell-bound as a series of former players spoke at the podium.
Each story topped the previous one. Each statement of personal thanks to Jones and athletic director Steve Orsini for including them back into the program one-upped the former, giving the evening's final hour an unforgettable crescendo.
But leave it to Mike Romo, who on Saturday was the lone post-death penalty player present and without a professional football career to relay to the crowd, to summarize the evening the best.
"I came to SMU because of the vision (former coach and athletic director) Forrest Gregg had," said Romo, who quarterbacked SMU from 1989-92 and ranks third on the school's career passing yardage list. "Tonight is big, and it's exactly what coach Gregg talked about 20 years ago. "This is more than football here. This is family."
The event was a source of healing for so many of SMU's football alumni.
"People need to understand I hadn't been invited anywhere, any time," said Arthur Whittington, SMU's rushing leader in 1976 and 1977. "They acted like I never existed. I went to a closed practice one time, and they wouldn't let me in."
"I played eight years of pro ball. I had a Super Bowl ring. I could offer something," he said. "June Jones called me on the phone, and here I am," said Whittington, who was moved enough by Jones to influence his nephew Quincy Whittington to sign with SMU last year. Quincey is a freshman wide receiver this season.
"Jones is such a class guy. (Quincey) was going to either Tulsa or SMU. When Jones came, I told him he was going to SMU," Whittington said. "I didn't make him go here, I told him he was going to go here."
That's just one of the examples of Jones' outreach to and his impact on other alumni players. More notes from Saturday's extravaganza:
Charities rewardedThe amounts given by SMU supporters to the three benefactors cannot be ignored. Jones presented matching $45,000 checks to the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education & Human Development at SMU, and the Gridiron Heroes Foundation benefiting spinal cord injury victims. Counting the estimated totals from bids at the silent auction tables, and another $60,000 raised in the live auction from four packages, close to $200,000 left the room headed for the two benefactors and the June Jones Foundation.
Jerry LeVias' jersey number to be honoredJones was so moved by hearing stories from Jerry LeVias' playing days at SMU, stories that are rarely if ever told to the public, that he has begun putting together a committee of athletic department personnel to honor LeVias. The committee will decide which member of the Mustangs team deserves to wear LeVias' number 23 jersey that season. "We'll figure out who lives up to what LeVias represents, and they'll get to wear it," Jones said.
There was music on-hand after allRobert Lee Kobb and his band, The Local Heroes, entertained guests during dinner and in the closing minutes of the event. Kobb, who befriended Jones through a mutual friend, came up with two songs in a tribute to SMU's team, one of which Jones said will be played on Sept. 6 as the Mustangs take the field. I'll guess it's going to be called "We're Going to Pony Up," based on the refrain's repetition. I couldn't catch all of it (it's humorous), but I did get the second verse down on paper: It took a long time, but we got the right guy . . . He takes a three-step drop, and lets it fly . . . We don't care if he ever runs the ball . .. . We're all Pony-ing up this fall. You'll have to trust me that it's a catchy tune and worked well within the ground, which was standing up and shaking to it but the end of the second verse.
Rudy . . . Rudy . . . RudySMU's legends actually out-did the evening's keynote speaker, Rudy Ruettiger, the Notre Dame walk-on legend and the inspiration for the 1993 film Rudy. Ruettiger, a friend of Jones' from football connections, did get one of the biggest laughs, however, in talking about Orsini's recent interest in the then-vacant Notre Dame athletic director job. "I had to pray 20 rosaries a day that Steve wasn't going to get the Notre Dame job," Ruettiger said. "June called me up during that time and told me I better be worried if he leaves SMU. Thank God he didn't. "I know I wouldn't be here tonight."
A different viewThe most forthcoming comments came from Eric Dickerson and Jerry LeVias. Dickerson related what so many of SMU's football alumni said was the cause of the disconnect between the past and the present following the two-year absence of football. "There was a time when the school shunned us. They hurt us," Dickerson said, referring to himself and other former football players who wanted to stay connected to the program. "So when I got a call from Matt Doherty, who I knew from some celebrity golf stuff, saying he wanted me to meet the new athletic director, I was skeptical. This is just another A.D., I thought. "Orsini came out to L.A. and shook my hand like you're supposed to shake a hand and made eye contact," SMU's all-time leading rusher said. "We met, and later I told him anything I can do to help the program, just call. I didn't he would call me as much as he did. Others hadn't." LeVias remains reserved talking about his experiences playing college football at SMU. But the College Football Hall of Fame member who is best known for breaking the color barrier in the Southwest Conference shared a little-known moment from playing in the 1968 Senior Bowl and being coached by Bear Bryant. "Our team was down with a minute and a half to go, and coach Bryant tells us in the huddle that he wants every play to go to LeVias," he said. "I didn't know whether to bless him or curse him. He had me running reverses, up the middle, all over. But we won the game. "Afterward coach Bryant comes up to me and says, ‘When they let me, I'm going to get some of ya'll,'" LeVias said, followed by a nervous laughter in the crowd. "One thing I learned from my playing days is that when all the people are going for one goal, you can do a lot of things. And that's what June Jones is going to do here."
Beat ya' not once, but twice, coachDickerson said his favorite game from his career remains SMU's 20-6 win at Texas in 1980, which drew a round of applause from the crowd at the mere mention of the historic upset of the then No. 2-ranked Longhorns. During his recruitment, Dickerson remembers Texas coach Fred Akers telling him ‘if you don't go to your state school, you'll never beat UT at SMU.' "I never forgot that arrogant statement," Dickerson said. "We were a team full of sophomores and freshmen. But we pulled it off. So after that game I went up to coach Akers and said ‘told ya'." Dickerson and the Mustangs also beat Texas 30-17 in 1982 en route to its undefeated season. "We had a bunch of old alumni come to the locker room following that game in 1980. Some of them were in wheelchairs," Dickerson said. "They said it's been 20 years since they could laugh in those UT faces again, and thank you for winning it. I'll never forget that." In an interview last month, Dickerson said he was asked whether, if he had to do it over again but only pick one in playing on Friday (high school), Saturday (college), or Sunday (professional), which he'd choose. "I'd play on Saturdays at SMU," he said. By-gones being by-gones, sounds like Dickerson is back on board the Pony Express.
An AFC West reunionOne table Saturday had former San Diego Chargers linemen David Richards (offensive tackle) sitting with Louie Kelcher (defensive tackle). In between was Whittington, who spent most of his career with the rival Oakland Raiders. Whittington also played a number of times against Jones' teams in the NFL. "We'd kick his butt around," Whittington said of the Raiders' games with the Atlanta Falcons. And his success against Kelcher, who he faced twice a year in the same division? "Louie would always hit me in the mouth. We'd get in the tackle mess and I'd say ‘come on', man, give a brother a break a little.'" Kelcher still looks like he could play and has hands that engulfed anyone's who wished to shake them. Nonetheless, he was one of the friendliest of the player alumni, and assisted in the bidding of the auction items.
Rudy is still taking shotsRomo spoke of SMU's game at Notre Dame in 1989, which the Mustangs played at South Bend with 50-plus freshmen on the roster. "It was a long day (a 59-6 loss)," he said. "I think the leprechaun even got into the game and got a few sacks, enough to move past Rudy on the career sack list." Ouch.