At the start of the 1958 season, expectations were high for the ET Lions. They had won the conference outright, brought home a Tangerine Bowl Title and had double digit wins. They were also returning an All-American Quarterback that was leading an offense that was almost as potent passing as it was running and featured two Coaches who combined their offensive philosophies and fused them to create an amazing product.
Every great college team has a tradition. Texas A&M has yell practice the night before home games. Texas Tech picks members of the student body to wrap the on campus statue of Will Rodgers in red tape before the games. Florida State has a seminole mascot run out to lead the Seminoles of the field and Texas A&M-Commerce has “The Roll Call.”
The 5 AM practices in Commerce were rough on the players, but Sikes and his staff believed that the early practices were the best. While stretching, it was not uncommon for players to fall into a half sleep and have a tough time focusing in the first hour of practice. Sikes joked with players that something needed to be done. “How about singin’ Coach? asked All-American End Norman Roberts. One player replied “yeah, how about Amazing Grace?” The suggestion elicited laughter, until Sikes, a Primitive Baptist, said “If you boys are gonna wake up you need to have something with a step to it.”
Then even to this day, an unidentified player yelled “When The Roll is Called Up Yonder!” The idea was received by most everyone who knew the song. It was an immensely popular song in Churches and most everyone knew at least the chorus. So it began, the players would sing the song in it’s entirety, all 4 verses and it helped from all accounts. Soon, the tradition would make it’s debut.
The Lions kicked off their season off against Abilene Christian, a team the Lions had been struggling against, and were doing it on the road. The offense played well and the defense strangled the Wildcats leading the Lions to a 27-6 win. After the game, the happy group of Lions started to sing suddenly the chorus, “When The Roll is Called up Yonder, Ill be there!” The players sang the chorus multiple times. The fans of ACU and the players were under the impression that the ET players were mocking them, as they were singing a Church Hymn without any instrumentation, a staple of the Churches of Christ, who ran Abilene Christian. It was not meant to be, but became that in short order a staple of ET football celebrations.
The next week the Lions travelled to Southeastern Louisiana and handled the Bayou Boys another 35-20 loss and followed it up with a 32-12 home opening win against Howard Payne. Starting at 3-0 for the year, once again the Lions were downed by a tough Lamar team 21-0. Then a new rule was instituted, no win, no singing. It was meant to be a privilege only to be done when winning.
Perhaps it was the thought of never singing the great old hymn again that caused the Lions to on an absolute tear the rest of the year. Thumping McMurry 39-21 and routing Sam Houston State 52-0 in Commerce put the Lions at 5-1, and then Lamar losing two games back to back put the Lions in sole control of the LSC.
A tough win over Texas A&M-Kingsville in Kingsville proved the Lions guts. The rest of the season was a complete cake walk as ET simply overwhelmed the rest of their opponents by scoring wins against Stephen F. Austin 48-12, Southwest Texas 47-0, and Sul Ross State 56-6. Two straight outright Lone Star conference titles were something to sing and celebrate about. It was after the Sul Ross game where the team sang in front of their fans to celebrate their win and their Championship.
A few days later, the phone rang again and once again, it was the Orlando Athletic Association extending another invitation for the Lions to play in the Tangerine Bowl against Buffalo University, but that would change last the OAA prohibited integrated games and BU had two Black players. The team was faced with the choice of having to play without their two teammates simply because their skin color was different or not playing at all. Buffalo refused to endorse an immoral system and bowed out, leaving room for an undefeated Missouri Valley team to take BU’s spot.
The game was played in front of only 4,000 fans due to a wet and rainy day. The teams played to a scoreless first quarter, but then the Lions put together a 13 play 89 yard drive that was capped off by a Joe Harbour 2 yard touchdown run. Missouri Valley responded with a score of their own. At the end of the first half ET’s Ray Berry recovered an offensive fumble in the end zone to put ET up 12-7. The scoring would not pick back up until the 4th quarter when Dan Malone caught a Sam McCord 3 yard pass. McCord hooked up with Norman Roberts for a two point conversion to push the ET lead to a 20-7 margin. Late in the 4th, ET defender Tony Mandina picked off an MVU pass and returned it 53 yards to make the score 26-7 for the final.
It was another fantastic season for the Lions in the Golden Fifties. Stumblin’ Sam McCord was named Tangerine Bowl MVP and also nabbed first team Associated Press All-American honors and also took All-American Honors from the Williamson System in the first team. Norman Roberts was also first team All-American. James Miller and Gary Berry were both named to the first team all-LSC team along with Roberts and McCord.
Larry Bell, Jim Farmer, Jimmy Gafford, and Bill Lyles nabbed LSC Second Team Honors, and Joe Denver, Jon Gilliam, and Dan Malone were all named to the Honorable Mention team, and Sikes was named LSC Coach of the Year.
Most importantly, the Lions had not only established a tradition of winning, but had also created something, a call, a celebration of the Lion tradition.
“When the Roll is called up yonder, i’ll be there!”