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Tuesday, December 17, 2002
Updated: January 24, 10:18 AM ET
Reel Life: Lowdown on 'Junction'

By Jeff Merron
Special to Page 2

"The Junction Boys," ESPN's second original movie, aired for the first time on Dec. 14, 2002. You're probably aware that the tale of Bear Bryant's 1954 Texas A&M training camp is based on Jim Dent's 1999 book of the same title.

But Dent, a veteran reporter, created a work of nonfiction. ESPN, on the other hand, makes no claim that the movie is entirely factual. At the end appears the caveat, "While this film is a dramatization based on actual events, names and locations have been changed, and certain characters, events and conversations fictionalized."

Say what? Let's try to unravel some of the docu from the drama.

Tom Berenger
Tom Berenger had the formidable task of portraying Paul "Bear" Bryant in ESPN Original Entertainment's "The Junction Boys."
In Reel Life: The movie is set, obviously, in Junction, Texas.
In Real Life: Junction is in what's called "Central Texas Hill Country," and Texas A&M had a 411-acre adjunct campus there in 1954. In 1971, Texas Tech inherited the campus. It's located on the South Llano River, in which the Junction Boys swam.

Most of the film, though, was shot in St. Mary's, a suburb about 20 miles outside of Sydney, Australia. The location was chosen in part because of cheaper costs. "We've re-created Junction at an old Australian defense industrial site," explained ESPN programming executive Len DeLuca. "They've built the huts and they have the old cars to drive people back and forth."

Director Mike Robe made the movie quickly. He wrote the script in five weeks, spent four weeks getting ready for filming, four weeks shooting, and four weeks assembling the finished product.

In Reel Life: It looks like Texas.
In Real Life: "I've spent some time in Texas, and, as far as color and climate, it looked real to me," Tom Berenger, who plays Bear Bryant, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "The only difference were there were kangaroo and emus in the distance."

In Reel Life: We're introduced to players, girlfriends, and family who, by the twang in their voices, are clearly from Texas.
In Real Life: Almost all of the Junction survivors were Texas natives (two were from Louisiana). But except for Berenger, the actors are Australian. "It was freaky and weird hearing them with Texas accents," Berenger told SI. Unfortunately, as some reviewers have noted, if you listen with some attention, you'll catch some Aussie accents seeping through.

Skeet and Johnny
Don't bother trying to find Skeet and Johnny -- they never existed.
In Reel Life: Among the players are Skeet Keeler (Fletcher Humphrys), Claude Gearhart (Ryan Kwanten), and Johnny Haynes (Bernard Curry).
In Real Life: Don't bother looking for Skeet, Claude, or Johnny in any 1954 A&M Yearbook -- they're composite characters. "In 93 network minutes, which is all we have for this movie without commercials, we needed to come up with the best way to tell the incredible story of 35 players, and Smokey and Coach Bryant," said DeLuca. "To tell 35 individual stories would take the longest miniseries."

In Reel Life: The players learn that Bryant will be their head coach in the summer, just days or weeks before heading off to campus for training camp.
In Real Life: As detailed in Dent's book, Bryant had been at A&M for six months by the time the Junction camp started, and the players had already been through spring practice with him.

In Reel Life: There's talk about a drought.
In Real Life: That area of Texas was in the middle of may have been the worst drought in the area in 700 years. It lasted from 1950 to 1956, and most counties in the state were federal disaster areas by the time the rains came in 1957. According to Texas Water Resources, a quarterly published by the by the Texas Water Resources Institute, "Texas schoolchildren were so used to the drought that many of them reached for brown crayons, not green ones, to color a picture of grass. A Junction family gave their 10-year-old daughter a raincoat as a birthday present in 1951. Because there were no rains, neither the 10-year-old nor her 5-year-old sister were ever able to use it."

In Reel Life: Some ranchers bury a calf that's died because of the drought.
In Real Life: That dead cow is about the only animal that appears in the movie, but the filmmakers worried that kangaroos might sneak into a shoot.

In Reel Life: Hitching on his way to campus, Skeet stops off at a whorehouse. "Gotta take care of business," he tells the truck driver who drops him off.
In Real Life: In the book, that scene takes place with A&M halfback Don Watson stopping off at a whorehouse called the "Chicken Ranch," which, Dent writes, was "a fabled institution to desirous men from Austin to Houston. For almost a hundred years, the girls had been satisfying senators, soldiers, governors, cowboys, oilmen, farmers, bank robbers, train robbers, and, according to lore, even a couple of presidents."

Tom Berenger
There was a dispute over who was God -- Bryant thought he was.
In Reel Life: Bryant lectures his assistant coaches after watching game film. "One bad year and the snowball starts. I'm gonna tell you all something right now. I will not lose!"
In Real Life: If Bryant said this, he was wrong on both counts. The Aggies did lose in 1954, going 1-9. But that didn't start a snowball effect. In the long run, A&M under Bryant was a winner, going 24-5-2 from 1955-57, including an undefeated season in 1956.

In Reel Life: Smokey Harper (Nick Tate), who is the trainer, is drinking from the git-go, and we rarely see him without a pint.
In Real Life: "There were better trainers than Smokey," said Junction Boy Gene Stallings on "Outside the Lines," "but Smokey was never drunk."

In Reel Life: Bryant is rarely without a drink nearby.
In Real Life: "To my thinking, there was no drinking in Junction the way it was depicted in the movie," N.K. Ohlendorf, a lineman and A&M's co-captain in 1954, who was at Junction, told the Galveston County Daily News. Howard Schnellenberger, currently Florida Atlantic football coach who worked for Bryant for five years, told the Palm Beach Post: "Bryant didn't drink the way it's shown in the movie. "[I] never saw him drinking at meetings. There's no question he drank, but it was at home or wherever it was and never at work."

In Reel Life: Bryant is often smoking.
In Real Life: "He smoked these Chesterfield cigarettes and had a habit of spitting the tobacco over his right shoulder," Berenger told the Birmingham News. "Nobody would stand behind his right shoulder because they would get the little tobacco flakes on them."

In Reel Life: Bryant curses a lot.
In Real Life: Ohlendorf said that the Bryant's profanity, as depicted in the film, was "much more than he used," Other players also said this didn't square with their memories. But at least one Junction survivor, Charles Hall, said in Bryant's "SportsCentury" profile that the coach was like that, at least in 1954: "He was the most profane and vulgar and crude speaking person that I've ever been around in my life."

In Reel Life: Smokey seems like a pure yes-man for Bryant, and appears to care only a small bit about the well-being of the players.
In Real Life: "He did the best he could to get the player back on the field," said Stallings. "He didn't ever ask you to get back on the field if it was dangerous."

Junction Boys
Despite the severity of camp, Bryant's time in Texas was a success.
In Reel Life: When the players arrive on campus, Bryant says, "We're going on a trip. Don't bother unpacking. Bus leaves in 15 minutes. One other thing: don't tell anyone we're leaving campus. When we get where we're going, you'll have time to write your mamas and papas." The players are surprised and mystified.
In Real Life: Preseason training had, in years past, taken place on a practice field a half mile from campus, and according to Dent the Junction trip was a real surprise. But Aggie QB Ellwood Kettler remembered something different, "We got a letter in the summer telling us that we were going to camp," he told the AP. "There was supposed to be swimming, nice green grass. I was looking forward to it, I thought it was going to be like a vacation."

In Reel Life: Someone mentions that the temperature is 114 degrees.
In Real Life: Temperatures did reach 100+ each day at Junction, and that, according to senior guard Sid Theriot, made all the difference. "It wasn't so much the length or severity of the practices so much as the heat. After a couple of days all you wanted to do was rest."

In Reel Life: During practices, Bryant wears a baseball cap low, with the brim almost hiding his eyes.
In Real Life: That's a style, evident in many photos of Bryant, that Berenger learned about from former Bryant assistant Clem Gryska, who said Berenger nailed the look: "That gave me chills."

In Reel Life: At their first meal in Junction, one player asks for a Dr. Pepper.
In Real Life: ESPN made a product placement deal with the soft drink manufacturer, who shipped two cases of Dr. Pepper, in circa 1954 bottles, to Australia. The supply "was like gold," said a Dr. Pepper advertising suit. GM also had a deal that placed authentic Suburbans and Buicks in the movie.

In Reel Life: The players are woken up before dawn to practice.
In Real Life: Theriot told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that "On a typical day we woke up at 4 in the morning. Junction was surrounded by mountains. When the sun first peeped over the mountain you had to be on the practice field in uniform with helmet in hand."

In Reel Life: It's hard to tell because almost all the football consists of practice drills, but the players look decent.
In Real Life: The football scenes feature players from the Sydney University Lions American Football team (who'll soon be playing in their third consecutive Warratah Bowl) and others in the NSWGFL (New South Wales Gridiron Football League). The Lions head coach, Stephen Dunne, taught players Split T football in a two week period. "We put a scheme and a playbook together and then applied it to the action of the movie," Dunne said. "It was interesting to be teaching techniques that had last been taught 50 years ago."

In Reel Life: Bryant doesn't allow the players to drink water during practice.
In Real Life: This was common practice at the time, and for years to come. The players said during breaks at Junction, the only refreshment provided the players were two towels dunked in cold water -- one to be shared by the offense, one by the defense.

Junction Boys
Free time? Goofing off? Not at the real Junction.
In Reel Life: Bryant head-butts a player who's not wearing his helmet. His nose looks broken, and is bleeding.
In Real Life: In the book, Dent writes that Bryant did this to Henry Clark, who, Dent also reported, was dead. Wrong on both counts: "First, I want to say that I'm not dead," Clark recently told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Then I want to say that Bear never attacked me."

Clark explained that one day, on the practice field at Texas A&M (not in Junction), Bryant was showing him how to throw a block. "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."

Dent said he had searched for Clark while doing his research and not found him. He admitted the error and said it would be corrected in future editions of the book. "I got this wrong (Clark's being dead), and I am sorry," he said.

But Dent had written that Kettler witnessed the incident at Junction, and had told another player not to get involved. Kettler, according to the Post-Gazette, denies seeing or saying anything. "I think I would remember that," he said.

The debate continued on "Outside the Lines," with Dent telling Bob Ley, "Henry Clark has a bad memory. Henry Clark knows that it happened. There were players there that saw it (including Charlie Hall), I don't understand why Henry had to wait three years to suddenly come up with the fact that this did not happen."

Clark responded again, "I never even knew he wrote a book. Why should I know he wrote a book? Charlie Hall says it never happened. Every one I talked to says it never happened."

In Reel Life: Bryant makes it clear to the other coaches: "No visitors!" allowed at the camp.
In Real Life: A few reporters did visit the camp briefly, and the public saw some scrimmages. But in general, Bryant did try to keep outsiders away.

In Reel Life: One player has a dream he sees a nude woman (Australian model Stephanie Braniff) emerging from a river. Nearby is her sash, which reads, "Miss Wool 1954."
In Real Life: The Miss Wool of America pageant was first held in the early 1950s in West Texas, and was a big enough deal to be nationally televised in 1967. It was replaced in 1973 by the Fiesta del Concho in San Angelo, which is about 100 miles from Junction.

In Reel Life: Over and over again, we see players running off from camp in the middle of the night, and we also see Bryant offering to give bus tickets to players who want to quit.
In Real Life: Rob Roy Spiller, who worked at the Texaco Gas Station and bus depot in Junction, told the Associated Press that every morning when he'd arrive there'd be players who couldn't wait to get out of town. "I said, 'Which way you going?' They said, 'Which is the first bus here? That's the one we want.' They didn't care which way it went."

In Reel Life: Obviously, camp was brutal.
In Real Life: Tough, yes. But not unique at the time, say some of the Junction Boys. "My high school coach was as hard on me as he (Bryant) was," said Jack Pardee. "That was football in those days. It has changed. You can't do that now, and you're stupid to let people go without water. But everybody did that then. It wasn't just him."

"There's a difference between toughness and brutality," said Junction Boy Gene Stallings. "Coach Bryant was tough, but I never experienced or saw any brutality from him. There's some areas of the movie that portray some brutality."

Paul Bear Bryant
Until Joe Pa surpassed him in 2001, Bryant was the winningest Division I coach in history.
The still-alive Clark agrees that the camp was hard, but not unusual.

And Charles Scott, a quarterback who was at Junction, told Jeff Matthews of the Alexandria-Pineville (LA) Town Talk, "It was tough. But it was tough love. It wasn't an abusive disregard."

Bryant's camps at Kentucky, where he coached before A&M, were much more difficult, said Schnellenberger, who played for Bryant in the early 1950s: "Millersburg (Kentucky, where the University of Kentucky held its camps) makes Junction look like a Boy Scout camp."

In Reel Life: Despite it all, the players have leisure time.
In Real Life: "I don't remember having that much free time," said Schnellenberger, referring to one Kentucky training camp. "We'd practice all day and then be in meetings until 11. There wasn't time for anything but football."

In Reel Life: One player is sidelined with an injury. Bryant says: "Serves you right, Henshaw, for getting married. All your football's running out the end of your prick."
In Real Life: This may have been "inspired" by Bryant's treatment of Hall. "Even though he survived, he hated Bryant," said Dent on "Outside the Lines." "He spoke openly about the fact that he felt abused. He was one of the players who got married the summer before the hell camp, and Bryant really rode him very very hard. But Charles Hall wanted to go to vet school, and losing his scholarship would have meant that he wouldn't have finished his BS degree."

In Reel Life: Besides camp, most of the other dramatic action takes place at the medical clinic in Junction.
In Real Life: Impress your friends with this tongue-twisting trivia: these scenes were filmed in the Wollondilly Township of Warragamba; the town hall masqueraded as the clinic.

In Reel Life: The local medico, Doc Wiedeman (David Webb) is clearly concerned about what's going on at the camp -- a lot of the players have been showing up as patients at his clinic. "My job is to warn you, coach," he says to Bryant. "Every day without water, you endanger the boys lives."
In Real Life: "The craziness of it was not giving us water," said Jack Pardee. "We'd be on the field for hours. I played around 220 then, and when I'd leave the field after being in that sun I'd be under 200. I think, if we had gotten water, it wouldn't have been much different from any other training camp."

In Reel Life: Bryant tells Wiedeman that he's not God, that the boys are making their own choice to stay at (or leave) camp. Wiedeman responds that to his players, he is God.
In Real Life: Bryant may not have yet been a god in Texas in 1954, but he became one in Alabama. "We thought he could walk on water," Bryant Holmes, one of at least 389 people named after the coach, told Mike Marshall of the Huntsville (Al.) Times.

Berenger agreed: ''It was a bit like playing God. 'I'm not so sure Charlton Heston shouldn't have played him years ago. My wife is from Alabama, and when her mom learned I was going to play Bear Bryant, she said, 'I don't think you're ready for this.' ''

Hollywood history was also against Berenger, who recalled how poorly Gary Busey's portrayal of Bryant went over in the "The Bear," a 1984 biopic: "I was quite aware that a lot of people just hated Gary Busey for doing that movie," he said.

Tom Berenger as Bear Bryant
There is no disputing that camp was tough.
In Reel Life: Haynes collapses on the field, unconscious. Bryant kicks him when he's down. "He's dying" says Jimmy Nubbs (Mathew Edgerton), a student trainer. When he gets to the clinic, Wiedeman says it's heat stroke, and that he could die. He's packed in ice, and recovers. Haynes goes back to camp, and the Doc says, "You tell coach Bryant I am ready to call the state."
In Real Life: None of the players recall seeing Bryant kick Bill Schroeder, who suffered the near-fatal heat stroke at Junction, when he went down. But none said Bryant was especially concerned, either, and Hall, said on "SportsCentury" that "Coach Bryant did not pay any attention to him whatsoever. He went on with the drill, he didn't come over and look at him."

In Reel Life: Haynes leaves camp with his parents and says because of damage caused by the heat stroke, he can't play until at least mid-season. Bryant says if he can't start the season, he can't finish it.
In Real Life: Schroeder did have to quit football -- but not until after the 1954 season.

In Reel Life: When the players find out they're going home, Gearhart grabs Smokey's whiskey bottle and takes a swig.
In Real Life: Dent writes that Dennis Goehring, who went on to be an All-American guard, took the drink. Goehring says it's complete fiction: "We knew Smokey had a drinking problem, but none of us saw him drink. And I never drank whiskey at Junction. I should have kicked Jim Dent right in the butt for printing a lie like that."

In Reel Life: Smokey says, "We rolled in with 111 kids." Bryant asks, "How many now?" Smokey replies: "35."
In Real Life: That's what Dent reports, and those numbers are repeated in just about everything that's been written about Junction. But it doesn't square with Ohlendorf's memory. "The book says over 100 went to Junction," he said. "I don't think there was much more than 50, because he eliminated many of them in the spring. They either quit, or he told them they were wasting their time and his time, because they'd never play for Texas A&M."

Junction Boys
If Bear was a guest at the Junction, even he knows he would have quit.
Murray "Stubby" Trimble, an A&M freshman football player who didn't go to Junction, also says Dent's numbers are inaccurate. "It definitely wasn't more than 100 players that went to Junction like everybody is saying," Trimble told the Cullman (Alabama) Times. "It was more like 65 left for Junction and only 26 came back."

In Reel Life: The film ends where it started -- at a 25th anniversary reunion of the Junction survivors. Bryant says, "I came here today to apologize to y'all. If someone had done that to me, I think I would have quit."
In Real Life: Even though the reunion scenes that bookend the film may remind many viewers of "A League of Their Own," a 1979 reunion did take place, and the players who were there agree that these parts of the film were accurate. Bryant really did feel bad about many things that happened at Junction, and was truly concerned that even some of the survivors might carry a grudge after all those years.

In Reel Life: There's no suggestion that there were any other camps at Junction.
In Real Life: According to Frank Luska, writing in the Dallas Morning News, the NCAA never approved another off-campus camp.