Davey O’Brien: Sugar Bowl Legend

By Ted Lewis for the Allstate Sugar Bowl

[This story originally appeared in the Official Game Program for the 2019 Allstate Sugar Bowl.]

Above the door to the old football offices at TCU’s Amon Carter Stadium is etched the Latin phrase, “Crede Quod Habeus et Habes” – “Believe that you can, and you will.”

At Tulane Stadium on January 1, 1939, with his team trailing Carnegie Tech 7-6 in the Sugar Bowl, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Davey O’Brien channeled that motto – imploring his Horned Frog teammates to do just that, telling them to keep their poise, play like they knew how to play and that they would win the game.

Maybe O’Brien, playing in his final college game, was trying to pump himself up.

A do-everything player in that era of single-platoon football, O’Brien had, by his standards, a poor first half. He’d missed an extra point following TCU’s only touchdown and later let Carnegie Tech’s George Mura get behind him for a 44-yard TD pass.

A made PAT put the Frogs behind for the first time all season, one that had already seen them declared national champions by the Associated Press and O’Brien, all 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds of him, sweep the major awards while leading the country in passing.

Nicknamed “Little Davey,” because of his size (he actually preferred “David,” and was called that by his teammates and friends), O’Brien was also the team captain.

To fabled sports writer and TCU graduate Dan Jenkins, who as a child growing up in Fort Worth saw all of O’Brien’s home games, “Davey could do it all. Not just passing but running – he bounced off tackles like a rubber ball. Never got injured and often played 60 minutes.

“His heart was bigger than the whole team and his leadership skills may have been his greatest quality. An amazing player.”

O’Brien was such a hero that when Fort Worth Star-Telegram publisher and No. 1 TCU booster Amon Carter learned that there was no ticker-tape parade given in New York for Heisman winners, he ordered up one of sorts himself – a stagecoach pulled by six white horses, Paul Whiteman and his orchestra and, in a carriage, O’Brien and Carter in boots and 10-gallon hats.

Behind O’Brien, who also played defensive back along with handling the kicking, the 10-0 Frogs won nine games by double digits, a 21-14 victory against Arkansas being the lone exception. The Razorbacks were also the only opponent to manage more than seven points against TCU.

Photo Courtesy of the Davey O’Brien Foundation.

The Sugar Bowl took great pride that O’Brien and TCU were coming to New Orleans instead of the Rose Bowl – so much so that Florence Buster, O’Brien’s future bride, was crowned Sugar Bowl queen.

Carnegie Tech was no slouch either, winning the Lambert Trophy as the top team in the East and losing only to Notre Dame, whose own loss in its finale against Southern Cal had enabled TCU to move to No. 1.

So, it was no surprise that the game was tight at halftime.

But TCU coach Dutch Meyer was surprised when, at halftime, he asked his players if they had anything to say, and it was O’Brien who stood up.

It was, Meyer related, the only time O’Brien ever did anything like that.

The words must have had an effect though, especially on O’Brien.

Five plays into the second half, he connected with Durwood Homer for a 44-yard touchdown pass that put TCU back in the lead, although he would again miss the extra point.

O’Brien would go on to make a 20-yard field goal and come up with an interception late in the game to seal a 15-7 victory.

For the day, O’Brien threw for 224 yards, a Sugar Bowl record that stood until 1963, and also punted for a 40-yard average.

It was a performance that earned O’Brien a spot in the inaugural Sugar Bowl Hall of Fame.

And, according to his son, David O’Brien Jr., it was that kind of belief his father, who died at age 60 in 1977 after a seven-year battle with cancer, carried himself with through that day and many others.

“That pretty much sums up how he felt,” O’Brien Jr., said. “He never considered his size to be a disadvantage. He always thought that whatever he wanted to do, if he worked hard enough, then he could do it.”

It was an attitude that dated back to growing up in Dallas where O’Brien was an all-city, all-state and All-Southern player at Woodrow Wilson High (the only public school to produce two Heisman winners, Tim Brown of Notre Dame in 1987 being the other) while also excelling in baseball and track.

O’Brien, along with many other stars of the future national championship team, made his way to TCU in 1935 where the Horned Frogs already had an outstanding quarterback, Sammy Baugh.

In an era when the pass was still little used by most teams, Meyer’s wide-open (for the time) style earned Baugh the sobriquet “Slingin’ Sammy.”

Baugh, who would in the NFL become the prototype for the modern quarterback, would lead the Frogs to the 1936 Sugar Bowl where they would edge LSU, 3-2, to finish off a 10-1 season.

As a freshman that year, O’Brien was ineligible, and the following season he saw little action as Baugh’s backup as the Frogs went 9-2 and beat Marquette in the Cotton Bowl.

But by 1937 he was ready to step in. Playing in all but 14 minutes, O’Brien led the nation in completions and was third in passing yards, although the Frogs slumped to 4-4-2.

In the offseason, O’Brien worked on his passing game. The result was raising his completion percentage from 40.2 to 55.7 and a nation-leading 1,457 yards, a mark which would stand for a decade, and 19 touchdowns, almost unbelievable-stats for the time.

All of that despite being considered too short, even in the 1930s.

“I know that there were a lot of times that I would go out for a pass and look back for Davey, and I couldn’t see him,” said Don Looney, TCU’s top receiver. “Then, all of a sudden the ball would come flying out of nowhere right into my arms.”

After college, O’Brien signed a two-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles with a $12,000 bonus. But he had the misfortune to be playing for the worst team in the league. The Eagles went 1-9-1 in 1939 and 1-10-0 in 1940, although O’Brien would break Baugh’s season yardage record in 1940, completing 33 of 60 passes for 313 yards against his former teammate’s Washington Redskins in the season finale, all league individual game marks.

But that was it for O’Brien’s professional career. The day after that last game he joined the FBI, trading his $10,000 salary and share of the gate receipts for $3,200 as an agent.

O’Brien would spend 10 years in the bureau, part of it as a marksmanship instructor and making the national pistol team, a legacy of his great athletic skills and growing up hunting in Texas.

“Dad loved the FBI,” David Jr. said. “He didn’t just go in there and live off his name.”

In 1950, O’Brien made another career switch – putting the geology degree he’d earned at TCU to good use as an oil man, working for H.L. Hunt among others before eventually starting his own firm.

His association with Hunt led him to assist Lamar Hunt in his unsuccessful quest to bring an NFL franchise to Dallas (Hunt would settle for founding the AFL).

That, and four years as the original radio analyst for the Cowboys, were O’Brien’s only formal tie to football after his playing days ended.

“I’m sure that being Davey O’Brien opened doors for him,” David Jr. said. “But he was a working oil man. My father was extremely modest. My favorite stories about him are from people who talk about how nice he was.”

O’Brien was active in the community with the YMCA and Golden Gloves.

But his true love was TCU, which had his loyalty and support until his death.

“I was sitting with him and my stepmom in the stands one day when we were losing something awful to Texas (81-16 in 1974), but he wouldn’t go home,” David Jr. said. “He said, ‘I don’t leave when they’re winning, and I don’t leave when they’re losing.’

“He was like that. He used to say that TCU did a lot more for him than he ever did for TCU.”

Near the end of O’Brien’s life, his longtime friend and business partner Charles Ringler established the Davey O’Brien Foundation to recognize student-athletes for their academic as well as athletic performances. The foundation also presents the Davey O’Brien Award to the nation’s top college quarterback.

O’Brien would have been a college football legend even without his exploits that one day in the Sugar Bowl. A statue of O’Brien stands outside Amon Carter Stadium and earlier this season the school honored the 80th anniversary of his winning the Heisman.

But that day in the Sugar Bowl certainly helped cement that legend.

“Davey always talked about Carnegie Tech being the biggest, hardest-hitting team he’d ever faced,” Jenkins said. “But he beat ‘em. Davey O’Brien was an all-around hero.”

Or, as another inscription at TCU’s stadium says, “Mens Sens in Corpore Sano” – “A sound mind in a sound body.”

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