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"Junction Boys" controversy: Key figure in Bear Bryant sports biography surfaces; disputes episode alleging coach brutality

Author voices regret over error on Henry Clark's death, but stands by balance of content in book set for ESPN movie release

Wednesday, December 04, 2002

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Millions of readers thought that Henry Clark, the most-abused member of football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant's famous Junction Boys, was dead and buried.

Author Jim Dent reported on Clark's luckless life and death in his 1999 bestseller about Bryant and the hell camp he ran for his first Texas A&M team.

As Dent told it in "The Junction Boys," Bryant head-butted Clark into unconsciousness because the boy's poor play enraged him.

The book detailing Bryant's brutality was so compelling that Dent landed a movie deal with ESPN, which will air "The Junction Boys" on Dec. 14.

But Clark said yesterday that Dent fabricated the head-butting story, and that "The Junction Boys" is loaded with other errors.

Yes, to Dent's shock, Henry Clark is alive and condemning sections of "The Junction Boys" as a fraud.

"First, I want to say that I'm not dead. Then I want to say that Bear never attacked me," Clark said yesterday from his home in Fort Worth, Texas, where he has lived for 21 years.

Dent used to be a newspaperman in Dallas, but said he never could find this key "Junction Boys" witness, who lived a half-hour away from him.

"I seriously regret the error" in reporting that Clark was dead, Dent said last night. "I got this wrong, and I am sorry."

He said he looked for Clark for weeks or months while researching the book. Finally, Dent said, he accepted a suspicion voiced by other A&M players that Clark was dead.

Future printings of "The Junction Boys," published by St. Martin's Press, will be amended to correct the error about Clark being dead, Dent said.

But, he said, he stands by everything else in "The Junction Boys" as "wholly accurate," including Bryant battering Clark into unconsciousness.

"I had that corroborated by four or five players," Dent said. "Why did Clark wait three years to challenge it?"

Clark said he has not read the entire book but relatives sent him excerpts with the erroneous information about his being dead. As for the assault, Clark says the assault happened only in Dent's imagination.

This is Dent's account of what Bryant did to Clark.

"He ripped Henry's helmet from his head and grabbed the back of the boy's head with two meaty hands. ... He yanked his head forward again and again, bashing his skull into Henry's nose, lips and eyes. Blood poured down Henry's neck and began to soak his white jersey. Even from 40 yards away, players could hear the sickening thud as Bryant's forehead slammed into the boy's face. Finally, Henry fell like a sack of potatoes onto the hard ground."

Dent claims that Bryant's attack on Clark broke the player's nose, split his lip and caused his eyes to swell shut.

After trainers revived Clark from unconsciousness with smelling salts, Dent wrote, Bryant ordered them to make sure he finished football practice on a hundred-degree day in Junction, Texas, the town where Bryant held a training camp for his first A&M team in 1954.

Clark, now 69, said everything Dent wrote about him was false.

He said Dent demonized Bryant to inflate the myth of "The Junction Boys," sell books and perhaps land the movie deal.

"Did the Bear butt me and draw blood? Did he break my nose, knock me out? No sir. None of that happened."

Because Dent assumed Clark was dead, Clark says, he probably never expected a serious challenge to his over-the-top account of the Junction camp.

The truth, Clark said, is that Bryant once incidentally butted him in the head while demonstrating a blocking technique.

He said that encounter did not happen in Junction, but 260 miles away at the A&M practice field in College Station.

"What the Bear did with me was instructional. He was showing me how to block my man," said Clark, a tackle who earned a football letter at A&M in 1955.

"We didn't wear facemasks in those days, and Bear's head hit my head one time. I remember I ended up with some of his hair in my teeth. But I didn't bleed. I wasn't knocked out. I wasn't hurt."

Clark said he suspects that Dent heard something vague about a head-butting episode from Junction survivors he interviewed for his book.

"Then he took it and embellished it," said Clark, a former Air Force pilot and flight instructor for American Airlines for the past 17 years.

Dent wrote that Elwood Kettler, quarterback of Bryant's '54 A&M team, was among the witnesses to the coach's attack on Clark in Junction. Dent claimed that Kettler urged another player not to intervene on Clark's behalf, for fear that Bryant would assault him, too.

Not true, says Kettler, adding that he never heard of Bryant assaulting Clark until he read Dent's account in "The Junction Boys."

Kettler said he did not like the book because of its errors and excesses.

Another Junction player said Dent fabricated a story about him, too, in an effort to swell the Junction legend.

Dennis Goehring, who became an all-American guard for Bryant, said Dent concocted a story about A&M's trainer, Smokey Harper, parading about with a bottle of whiskey as he treated Goehring for a neck injury.

Dent even wrote that Goehring stole Harper's liquor and chugged it during a searing day of the Junction camp.

"As Smokey walked by, Dennis yanked the whiskey bottle from his hip pocket, ripped off the cap and took a long, soothing drink," Dent wrote.

That story, Goehring said, is more fiction intermingled with a little fact.

"We knew Smokey had a drinking problem, but none of us saw him drink," Goehring said in an interview. "And I never drank whiskey at Junction. I should have kicked Jim Dent right in the butt for printing a lie like that."

Dent says the story, as he reported it, is factual. As many as 10 players told him of Harper drinking and even knew his whiskey brand -- I.W. Harper.

"I think Dennis is guilty of nit-picking," Dent said.

Unlike Dent, ESPN does not purport to tell the whole truth about what happened in Junction. The network has turned Bryant's A&M players into composite characters with fictional names, a tactic designed to condense and simplify events for dramatic purposes. The ESPN website says the movie draws "inspiration" from Dent's book.

So even the big names who survived Bryant's Junction camp -- future NFL coaches Jack Pardee and Gene Stallings -- will not get attention in the movie.

The focus will be on Bryant and how he purportedly changed his ways after brutalizing his team in Junction.

One A&M player, tackle Billy Schroeder, almost died in Junction after having a heat stroke. Goehring said Bryant broke the camp because of that near tragedy, at last mindful that hours-long practices in which players were denied water had almost cost Schroeder his life.

By most accounts, more than 100 A&M players began practice in Junction. About 70 quit, leaving Bryant with a roster of 31 healthy players to start the '54 season.

That team finished 1-9, Bryant's only losing season in a 38-year career. Bryant spent four years at A&M before jumping to Alabama. He retired after the 1982-83 season and died a month later.

A theme of Dent's book is that Bryant's ruthlessness at Junction hardened the team and turned A&M into the Southwest Conference champion two years later.

But only eight Junction players were still on the team that won the title. If Bryant learned any lesson at Junction, perhaps it was that he needed better talent to defeat the likes of Texas, Oklahoma and UCLA.

By bending and breaking recruiting rules, he began landing blue-chip players. His best team at A&M included 1957 Heisman Trophy winner John David Crow and lineman Charlie Krueger. Both were so talented that they had long careers in the National Football League. Neither was at Junction.

Tom Berenger will play Bryant in the movie. Goehring said Bryant would revel in the attention.

"He loved being center stage," said Goehring, who remembers Bryant as a man shaped by the Depression, war and a feeling that he had to be tougher and better than anybody else.

Goehring himself is thrilled by the movie because "it's kind of nice to still have people talking about you 45 years after you played."

Clark feels differently. He said Dent has misled the public with a fictionalized story passed off as fact. The Junction camp was demanding, Clark said, but not so different from what coaches everywhere did in that era.

"I think this whole mess is kind of funny," Clark said. "I'll watch the movie, record it, and see how ridiculous it is."

Milan Simonich can be reached at msimonich@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1956.

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