This is Part 2 in a Multi-Part series of the great traditions of our Alma Mater. Part of this article is taken from my piece on the Championship Chronicles for the 1958 team.
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 on his faithful steed Soapsuds 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.”
If you go to A&M-Commerce football games, you notice that after the wins, something happens that has remain unchanged over the past 62 years. After whoever the Coach is addresses his players, the Lions wait for a coach or special guest, while yelling ””’Ohhhhh””and holding the Lucky Lion symbol in the air, to start the singing. Then, the 80 some odd members of the roster along with fans on the field swell the chorus to the high church hymn “When The Roll is Called Up Yonder.” If you grew up in Church, you knew the song, or even if you didn’t you probably heard some of your favorite country, bluegrass, folk, and early rock and roll artists cover the song on a gospel album they may have recorded. But, how did this song make it’s way to Commerce, America and become as much a part of the tradition of Lion football as anything else?
JV Sikes ran a tight ship as head coach at East Texas State. If he felt his team needed a boost, he made practices tough, and he only wanted tough players. Sikes also believed that the early bird got the worm in college football. The 5 AM practices in Commerce were rough on the players, but Sikes and his staff believed that the early practices were the best. Former players said in a 2006 interview with The Pride Newsletter that 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 Man when it came to religion, 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 practices started with the song, and soon, it wasn’t a practice unless the song was sung.
The Lions kicked off the 1958 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, as The Sikes Boys said it was simply a happy response to beating a tough team, but became that in short order a staple of ET football celebrations for decades to come. Abilene Christian still took offense to it, and usually when the Lions beat the Wildcats, especially in Abilene, there was a louder sound to the singing. As the late and great Lion QB Sam McCord said with a wink “We might have stuck some mud in their eyes.”
When Sikes passed away in the Spring of 1964, his successor, the great Ernest Hawkins wholly embraced the tradition. In fact, after the wins, it was Hawkins that would lead the roll call after Sikes addressed his team, but Sikes put in a strict rule; “No winning, no singing.” Hawkins took that same approach and in his first two seasons, there was not a whole lot of singing as the Lions only won 6 games in his first two seasons. However it would not be long before Championships were being won again, from 1966-1972 there were many wins, 3 conference titles, and a National Championship. Singing the song became a tradition. Hawkins became the man to lead his players in singing after wins, but kept Sikes’ rule, “no winning, so singing.” Hawkins was the first coach in program history to take full control of the post game ritual.
Of all the great traditions at Texas A&M-Commerce, this one has been the most enduring. Every coach has embraced it and invited former players and coaches to lead the roll call after the game, and there have been some great and joyous times in singing the song. Everything about it has stayed the same. When former Lion Linebacker and former Defensive Coordinator Mark Copeland was asked by the Dallas Morning News in 1992 what happens if they don’t win, his reply could have come from Sikes or Hawkins, “We don’t win, we don’t sing.” It was a tradition that had to be earned to partake in.
Lion Wire At-Large Editor Russell McLean remembers those roll calls. “Two stand out. After the A&I game in 79. That was such a huge upset, plus my Dad was there to see it, and 2017, Coach Hawkins’s last one. I shook hands with him as time ran out, and told him that I loved him, and was glad he was there to see it. I walked out there with him and (Hawkins Son) Ray.”
Wire Contributor Billy Minor has two that stand out as well. “A&I in 91 at their place and when we stopped Pittsburg State’s 60 game win streak earlier that year, but all 35 (wins) were pretty special though.” Both Russ and Billy say the most meaningful thing was simply getting to be a part of that tradition, and just knowing you were part of something bigger than you in partaking in that.
However, wins are not the only time they are sung. When a Lion player passes away, it is tradition to sing the song at his funeral, led by players and surviving coaches. Lion greats that have passed away such as Arthur James, Wade Wilson, Terry Bagsby, and the great Ernest Hawkins all had the songs sung at their funeral, and according to former Lion Head Coach Eddie Vowell, “thats absolutely the way it should be.” It is hard to disagree with that, a song that affirms where someone will be when their battle has been fought and the victory won. A part of Lion lore and tradition, now, and until that Roll is called up yonder for all of us.
“When the roll is called up yonder, when the roll is called up yonder, when the roll is called up yonder……When the ROLL IS CALLED UP YONDER I’LL BE THERE!”