James Saxton, a former Texas running back that coach Darrell Royal once called the “quickest player in America” and a Heisman finalist in 1961, died Wednesday morning after battling dementia, his son Jimmy said. He was 74.
Saxton, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame who enjoyed a successful banking career, has long been passed in the Texas record books in rushing yardage. But his speed and quickness is still evident in one key statistic: Saxton still holds the school record with 7.9 yards per rushing attempt his senior year.
If not for a last-ditch recruiting attempt by Royal, Saxton probably would have ended up at Rice. The Owls and Longhorns were the only two schools that offered a scholarship to the running back from Palestine, Texas.
“Coach Royal showed up two days before signing,” Jimmy Saxton said. “Royal said, ‘James, come out to the car so I can get you away from these women. I want to talk to you without your mother and sister.”
The two walked outside and got in a car as Texas defensive coordinator Mike Campbell sat in the backseat, Jimmy Saxton said.
“Dad was all 5-foot-11 with 160 pounds soaking wet with rocks in his pockets,” Jimmy Saxton said.
James Saxton finished his career ranked third on the UT all-time rushing list with 1,524 yards. Now, that total has him just outside the top 25. Saxton helped the Longhorns post a 26-6-1 during his three seasons from 1959 to 1961. Saxton was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996.
Jimmy Saxton said the family will hold a private memorial near a lake in East Texas that James loved to fish. With help from former UT coach David McWilliams, the family hopes to hold a public memorial in mid-June.
Saxton set a Texas single-game rushing record with 173 yards against SMU and then the very next week had 171 against Baylor. Saxton’s 7.9 rushing yards per carry was also the highest total in Southwest Conference history.
Texas was undefeated and ranked No. 1 nationally going into the TCU game on Nov. 18, 1961. The woebegone Horned Frogs, who then sported a 2-4-1 record, came to Austin as a 24-point underdogs.
In the first quarter, Saxton ripped off a 45-yard run to the TCU 10-yard line. As he jumped up from the play, TCU defensive tackle Bobby Plummer came flying into the pileup. Plummer’s leg slammed into Saxton’s helmet, and the UT running back was knocked unconscious. He returned to the game intermittently but looked like a different player.
“He bulldozed Saxton,” TCU defensive end Bubby Iles told the American-Statesman in 2011.
It’s believed that had Texas won that day, the Longhorns would have easily won the 1961 national title. Royal’s club trounced Texas A&M the following week and beat No. 5 Ole Miss in the 1962 Cotton Bowl to finish third nationally with a 10-1 record. Saxton wound up finishing third in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
“He’s in the College Football Hall of Fame and all, but he never talked about it,” Jimmy Saxton said. “He wanted me and the rest of the family growing up doing something that was important, like hunting and fishing, praying and important stuff.”
Saxton is survived by his wife, Carol Ann Saxton, and three children, Jimmy Saxton, Shelley Earnest and Cathy Alexander, and six grandchildren.