Beano Cook of ABC, after pouring over countless football schedules the previous spring, asked the two perennially dominant teams of the Southwest Conference to postpone their traditional October date to December with the hope of two undefeated teams squaring off on the last Saturday of the 1969 season. The bait for the two universities? President Nixon would attend the nationally televised game and crown the winner national champion in celebration of the centennial season of college football.
Coach Royal later observed that "ABC looked smarter than a tree full of owls to postpone that game." Both teams, indeed, came into the game undefeated, ranked one and two in the land. Furthering the hype, and despite their schools' bitter on-field rivalry, Royal and Arkansas Coach Frank Broyles were close friends.
On December 6th, much to the chagrin of an also undefeated Penn State and its coach Joe Paterno, Nixon boarded Air Force One with a National Championship plaque in hand and headed for Hog country. And oh, the political cast that accompanied Nixon to the Ozarks.
Among the dignitaries on Air Force One: a still relatively unknown Henry Kissinger, also Congressmen John Paul Hammerschmidt and George Bush -- both members of the same political party, both pilots and heroes during the war, but on opposite sides of the political checker board on game day. And consider the further presence at the stadium of Senator J. William Fulbright, past president of the University of Arkansas and harsh critic of Nixon's Vietnam policy. At the conclusion of the game, these two men would temporarily call a truce to their own "political shootout" and enter the Arkansas dressing room together. And God's presence in the stadium that day was expressly invoked by Billy Graham's delivery of the pre-game invocation.
But this was more than just a football game-- just as 1969 was more than just a calendar year. The summer of '69 brought us the moon landing and Woodstock, along with a tragic murder spree in California by some disciples of a fellow named Charles Manson. By that fall, war protests were occurring on college campuses across the country with more frequency than Horn and Hog touchdowns combined. Only five days before the "Shoot Out," the United States implemented a controversial draft lottery prompting thousands of college-aged youngsters to flee to Canada and Timbuktu and beyond.
One day before kick-off, an Army board conducted an inquiry concerning the murder (some would say massacre) of 109 South Vietnamese civilians in a hamlet called Mai Lai. That same night in Fayetteville, some good ole boys in a pickup truck shot a black Arkansas student in retaliation for student protest of the Arkansas band's tradition of playing Dixie after a Razorback score. Fortunately, the bullet caused little injury - the victim eventually graduated from Arkansas law school; and years later would interrogate another Arkansas graduate from that period by the name of Clinton concerning an incident known as Whitewater. Oh yeah, it was the last national championship decided with all white players on the gridiron. Integration would be realized off the bench and on the playing field for both teams only in the following year.
During the game, with Secret Service snipers strategically in place to protect Nixon, anti-war demonstrators, led by a returned Vietnam veteran, staked out their own strategic position on a hill overlooking the stadium but in full view of the President's 35 yard line seat. How ironic -- or perhaps tragically appropriate -- that one player on the field had already lost a brother in Vietnam.
It was a game for the ages played before a frenetic hog-calling crowd that not only included Nixon and his considerable entourage but also Colonel Holmes, director of ROTC for the University of Arkansas and a former World War II Pacific Theater POW. Only months before, at the encouragement of Senator Fulbright, Colonel Holmes had assisted another future president named Clinton to delay his draft notice -- a decision the Colonel would later come to regret. But on this day, despite a philosophical bridge too wide to cross, the old soldier and future president would join in rooting for the Hogs, especially Holmes whose future son-in-law would shortly score the game's first touchdown before Nixon even took his seat in the stands.
And finally, the game included a courageous performance by a Texas defensive back - in its own way as courageous as Colonel Holmes surviving the torture of the Bataan Death March while 18,000 of his fellow American soldiers did not. It was the most courageous performance ever on a football field. To repeat... ever.
This remarkable documentary provides a glimpse into one of the most fascinating and tumultuous periods in America's history through the lens of a remarkable sporting event. Interviews with TV sports icon Beano Cook, players, politicians, then White House officials, professors, protesters and the coaches bring the game (and its impact on those who played in and attended the game) to life. Legendary Texas Coach Darrell Royal and Texas quarterback James Street share their final filmed interviews in this documentary (both have passed since the film was completed), and fellow legend Frank Broyles of Arkansas discusses the "Shoot Out" publicly for the first time since the game.
This film reminds richly reminds us that life, like football, is intended to be "played" with all the strength, passion and imagination we can each bring to the field: "THE BIG SHOOTOUT."