At the major college level, football players are often viewed as behemoth hired hands far removed from the mainstream of normal campus life. At Texas A&M , however, Coach Jackie Sherrill has taken a group of regular students and turned them into a gridiron commando unit.
This special kickoff squad is the embodiment of the school's ''Twelfth Man'' tradition, which calls for students to stand throughout Aggie games, symbolizing their readiness to enter the action if called upon. The tradition grew out of an incident in the 1922 Dixie Classic, a forerunner of the Cotton Bowl, in which undergraduate King Gill suited up at halftime with the A&M ranks dangerously thin. Gill wasn't used, but the student body has waited in the wings - at least figuratively - ever since.
Sherrill's brainstorm for a man-on-the-street team within a team has generated tremendous enthusiasm among an already rabid student body. It also has attracted more national media coverage than anything since. . .well, since A&M hired Sherrill away from Pittsburgh last year for an unheard-of financial bonanza, reportedly worth $1.6 million over six years.
For that kind of money, A&M backers obviously hope to see the school appear in the Cotton Bowl a little more regularly (the Aggies have gone just once since 1942) and maybe root for another Heisman Trophy winner (John David Crow, who played under Bear Bryant, won the award in 1957).
In Sherrill's first year, however, the Aggies didn't exactly set the Southwest Conference on fire with a 5-6 record. But, as usual, students set the skies ablaze over Aggieland with a spectacular bonfire two nights before the Texas game - a regular observance of the school's burning desire to beat the arch rival Longhorns.
The effort expended in staging this annual ritual made a deep impression on Sherrill, who was awestruck watching the students construct the towering inferno. Now he's something of an expert on the fire, and delights in sharing details of how several thousand logs are cut and stacked over six to eight weeks.
Initially, however, the new coach was a rather naive witness to this spectacle. He showed up at the pep rally expecting to stand by, watch the bonfire lit, and utter a few syllables. In other words, he wasn't going to get too involved.
''The next thing I knew,'' he recalls, '' they were hoisting me up by a crane to the top of the fourth stack of logs. The band was playing and I'm about 55 feet in the air without any safety ropes.''
With his feet back on terra firma, Sherrill was presented a pair of wire cutters used to bind the logs together. ''The cutters had been passed down each year for the past 50 years. That kind of got my attention,'' he says.
The whole experience also got Jackie to thinking about ways to recognize the role regular students have played in the college's football lore.
When the coaching staff next met, Sherrill dropped his ''Twelfth Man'' bombshell. ''I told our staff what we were going to do,'' he remembers, ''and they looked at me and said, 'Did you fall off that bonfire?' ''
Sherrill, of course, wasn't about to take just anyone who strolled across the College Station campus, the fastest growing in the country with 36,000 students and one of the friendliest.
A decision was made to hold tryouts, therefore, with the announcement first made to the Corps of Cadets, which numbers 2,300 and gives A&M the largest student military population outside the service academies. Military training has been optional since 1965, however.
The cadets have played an integral role in giving the school its image as a high-spirited, tradition-rich institution. ''The world's largest fraternity,'' some have called it.
Sherrill's assumption that the cadets would be the only ones interested in the Twelfth Man squad proved erroneous. Non-corps students reacted angrily to the perceived slight. They wanted in too, and since Sherrill never meant to slight anyone, they were immediately made to feel welcome.Consequently, when spring practice began, 252 walk-ons, including two coeds, reported for active duty.
Before making the final cut from 40 to 15 this fall, Sherrill asked, rather unnecessarily, that no one shirk his responsiblity. ''I don't want anyone to quit,'' he told those still in the running. ''Some of you are going to get banged up, but I want you to set an example.''
High-speed collisions and blind-side hits are part and parcel of this hazardous duty, but after watching corpsmen slide down 60-foot log stacks, Sherrill was convinced plenty of reckless candidates would emerge.
Those who made the Twelfth Man squad are not, of course, total novices. They bring a lot of high school football experience to bear on the job, and in many cases lack of size is the main thing keeping them from being scholarship material.
Though a diversified group, the unit is fairly homogeneous physically, with everyone weighing between 180 and 215 pounds. What this swarming squadron lacks in girth, however, it makes up for in speed, toughness, and immeasurable desire.
The squad only kicks off; it does not return kicks. This, naturally, means it sees very limited duty. Opportunities are further restricted by Alan Smith's presence on the field. A scholarship athlete, he handles the actual kicking chores, frequently booming the ball so deep with his bare right foot that returns aren't attempted.
Furthermore, when the team goes on the road, only the captain of the Twelfth Man contingent will make the trip because of restrictions on the size of travel squads. (NCAA schools can have 95 football players on scholarship, so even many of these recruited athletes are left behind.)
In two home games thus far, only three Aggie kickoffs have been returned, this despite a dozen or so kickoffs in a 19-17 loss to California and a 38-0 win over Arkansas State.
Still, a visiting team may eventually make a length-of-the-field return for a touchdown, and then what would Sherrill do with his novel idea? Probably not a thing. And based on present results, there's no reason to believe that long returns will become a common occurrence. The Twelfth Man unit has given up just 15.3 yards per return, which places it in about the middle of the nine-team Southwest Conference in terms of stinginess.
Members of the team have ''12th Man'' printed on their jersey sleeves and wear numbers 1 through 16 (Smith is No. 13). At this point, though, Kyle Field spectators don't need help in identifying these gridiron guerrillas, since the crowd already salutes their every appearance with a loud ovation.