JD Runnels and Jeff Lebby, then recent high school graduates and Oklahoma football commits, got to know each other in 2002 communicating through AOL Instant Messenger.
They’d become best friends once they reached Norman that fall. But before that, their relationship took off at a legendary high school all-star game in Wichita Falls, Texas. Played annually from 1945-2013, the Oil Bowl pitted the best recent high school graduates from Oklahoma and Texas against one another in a junior version of the Red River rivalry that is one of football’s greatest matchups. For players and coaches who’d later become stars, like Hayden Fry, Steve Largent, Felix Jones, R.W. McQuarters and Rashaun Woods, the annual game at Memorial Field, was one of their first marquee moments.
“Met some sounded-like-a-hick kid from West Texas, and we just ended up bonding,” Runnels said of Lebby, now OU’s offensive coordinator, recounting the origins of one of countless friendships the game fostered across generations. “Really hard to explain how a guy from Andrews, Texas, and another guy from Midwest City, Oklahoma, would just click like we did.”
The game featured some of the best future Sooners ever, including Bob Kalsu, the Owens brothers, the Selmon brothers, Jack Mildren and Jason White to name a few. The once-famous rivalry, much like OU’s trip 200 miles farther west Saturday to face Texas Tech, was played for little more than bragging rights. But its players spent a week in late June meeting future teammates, forging lasting bonds and often breaking a variety of rules at the Midwestern State College dorms before the series ended in 2013 over a dispute between the organizers.
In recent years, the game has been played between Texas all-stars, but much like college bowl games, with a declining talent pool due to opt outs. Nonetheless, those who played in it are thankful for the opportunities it presented and the memories it helped make.
“No doubt about it…,” Runnels said of the Oil Bowl contributing to his relationship with Lebby. “We would have been starting behind where we were. And would we have hit it off? Maybe. Would he have hooked up with someone else? Maybe. I just can’t tell you how random it was.
“I laugh to this day remembering how strong his accent was for the first time. I can imitate it pretty well.”
2002: Shenanigans and future Sooners friendships
One night before the 2002 Oil Bowl, Runnels and other players from Oklahoma snuck off to a place called “The Body Shop.” With a laugh, and without going into too much detail, he said its employees didn’t work on cars.
“I went there willingly. But the thing is, the ritual if you will, what these lovely ladies did to this poor 18-year-old guy was not very cool…” Runnels said. “And I took it with a laugh and it’s something we still talk about.
“Coaches saw as I walked in with scratches and bleeding on my back. My elastic underwear band wrapped around my head like a bandana, and cat whiskers drawn on me. I made it in by curfew and our coaches said, ‘Man, just go to bed.’”
Runnels, who later played four seasons with the Sooners and was drafted in the sixth round of the 2006 NFL Draft, was one of five future OU players at the Oil Bowl that year, along with defensive lineman Larry Birdine and offensive lineman Chris Messner on Oklahoma’s side, and Lebby and receiver Travis Wilson with Texas.
Wilson, who was taken in the third round of the 2006 draft, played four seasons in Norman and ranks 23rd in OU history in receptions. While he also corresponded with his future teammates through AOL, he was spending more time with his Texas teammates, and roommate Larry Dibbles, a future Longhorns defensive tackle.
Wilson, who is now a high school receivers coach in Frisco, Texas, had a night-life story of his own from the Oil Bowl.
“I don’t know what they got into,” Wilson said of Runnels and Oklahoma’s shenanigans. “But I know our team did enough. I’ll never forget one night we had a curfew, so we went out before. And I forget the name of the spot, but it was like the only one out there. But we got in there and we’re all hanging out, the whole Texas team, then we went to the back corner and …
“Our coaches were there hanging out.
“And we all turn and look at each other like, ‘what?’
“They just asked us to get home safe and we were like, ‘yes, sir,’ because we had an early practice the next morning.”
While Runnels doesn’t condone his young behavior, he still carries the memories of that week, even including Texas trouncing Oklahoma 28-7 as Wilson caught three touchdown passes and was named offensive MVP.
“They’re just things you can look back and laugh at,” Runnels said. “It’s just memories I would never trade.”
“We were just young, dumb and wild back then,” he said. “But those were good times. I guess sometimes it’s kind of taken for granted, but they were definitely special. And that’s why I think we had success. That (2002) class was pretty cool.”
The Oklahoma and Texas players were mostly separated, spending most of their time in opposite dorms with their respective teammates. But the opponents annually collided before the game during a picture day for the event.
That’s when Runnels learned not to mess with Birdine, who stood 6-foot-3 and weighed 260 pounds.
“Garnet Smith, a big (highly-recruited) linebacker committed to Texas was letting us know he was ‘all this and all that,’” Runnels recalled of the photo session in an old gym. “Well, Larry Birdine didn’t take too kindly to that. … When one of the Texas guys stood up, and maybe four or five started to back him up, Birdine stood up by himself. And a lot of those guys, they didn’t want the smoke, as the kids say.”
The Texas players refused to test Birdine.
Runnels and Wilson didn’t recall much from the game itself but laughed and reminisced on the memories made off the field and relationships that last to this day.
Wilson recalled a 2014 dinner with Lebby, who was in the Dallas area after coaching with Baylor during the Cotton Bowl against Michigan State. He said they even talked about the Oil Bowl a dozen years later.
“To this day, me and Chris Messner can see each other, and we’ll be talking about the body shop incident and just start laughing,” he said. “Me and Birdine, we’re supposed to go to lunch (soon). And I’m sure that incident, or some stuff about the Oil Bowl will be brought up and we’ll just have a little laugh about it.”
1972: Five All-American Sooners
Tinker Owens’ first Oil Bowl memory was not when he played in 1972, but when his brother, Steve, the Sooners’ second Heisman winner, played in 1966.
Owens said his family took his brother Bill’s 1956 Chevrolet pickup from Miami, in far northeast Oklahoma, to Wichita Falls, just across the state’s southwest border, for the game. The truck didn’t have air conditioning, which would have been bad enough in the summer heat, but it was also stuck in second gear for the 330-mile trip.
When Tinker Owens made his own trip to play in the game six years later, he was reminded of the scorching-hot drive with another sweat-filled day. Owens said there was a game-week parade to celebrate the event, even if the players weren’t fond of the festivities.
“Back in those days, we wore those heavy jerseys,” he said. “And we were wearing jeans and stuff, and it had to be like 115 degrees riding in that convertible. Those rubber numbers on those jerseys were so hot.”
When the game rolled around, Owens remembered being upset about not getting to play as much as he wanted, although he caught a two-yard touchdown in Oklahoma’s 21-20 loss. He shared snaps with Vian’s Larry Briggs, who won Oklahoma State Player of the Year the previous season, and Briggs’ coach led Oklahoma at the Oil Bowl.
Both subsequently matriculated to OU where Briggs hardly played, and Owens turned into a back-to-back national champion and All-American in 1974 and 1975. Owens said Oklahoma later found out Briggs’ poor eyesight made it hard for him to catch the football.
That year’s Oil Bowl featured perhaps the most impressive group of future Sooners ever. In addition to Owens, future All-American defensive ends Dewey and Lee Roy Selmon participated, along with fellow All-American linebacker Jimbo Elrod, all for Oklahoma. Joe Washington, who ranks third on OU’s all-time rushing list, would’ve played for Texas, but opted out to prep for his freshman year in Norman.
Even NFL Hall of Famer Largent from Tulsa was on the roster, and he caught a 42-yard touchdown.
Seeing players like Largent and being exposed to so much talent for the first time in one game was difficult for Dewey and Lee Roy. Growing up on their family farm in Eufaula, Dewey said Wichita Falls felt like Dallas, and the game was easily the largest crowd they’d ever played in front of.
But first came getting there.
“Coming through Eufaula, we cut through Oklahoma City,” he said. “We hit the toll road in Lawton, and we saw the hills right around there. I thought they were the biggest mountains I’d ever seen.”
But Dewey’s greatest memory from the game was hearing Okmulgee’s Dewey McClain, a future NFL linebacker and current member of Georgia’s House of Representatives, try to assert his dominance.
“Texas was pretty good that year, and we were not winning that game,” Dewey said. “But McClain is just talking smack all over the field. He was getting loud, calling out numbers, calling out names, he was just barking at everybody.”
Owens first met the Selmons at the Oklahoma All-State game a few weeks before the Oil Bowl where their relationship strengthened. He said seeing the two brothers for the first time was jaw dropping.
“First time I saw them I was like, ‘who are these guys?’” Owens said. “My god. Then they told me they were running backs and I was like, ‘Running backs? These guys? They’re two of the biggest guys I’ve ever seen.”
Owens and the Selmon brothers used the Oil Bowl to their advantage as they developed a head start as teammates before being Sooners.
“It was truly amazing,” Dewey said. “You know how it is when you first meet people. The Oil Bowl was our first exposure to the level of talent and the level of football we’d actually be around.”
1976: Opposing quarterbacks turned great friends
Four years after the Oil Bowl featured a slew of future All-American Sooners, the 1976 game featured opposing quarterbacks who’d both attend OU — Oklahoma’s JC Watts and Texas’ Darrol Ray.
Watts tried his best to outduel Ray, but Texas eventually won 37-28 with Ray named offensive MVP.
Once in Norman, Watts stayed at quarterback, where he started in Norman for three seasons and was a two-time Orange Bowl MVP. Ray transitioned to safety, going on to be selected in the second round of the 1980 NFL Draft and playing five seasons with the New York Jets.
Watts and Ray didn’t know each other at the time of the Oil Bowl, and later realized though they had been on campus visits together, coaches had strategically kept the then-quarterbacks apart in hopes both would still attend Oklahoma.
They did and eventually became such good friends that Ray even lived with JC and his wife, Frankie, the summer after their freshman season when they worked construction jobs together.
“Darrol and I literally shoveled sand all summer long,” Watts said. “(We discovered) we didn’t want to shovel sand the rest of our lives. It paid really well, but Darrol and I both concluded it wasn’t our cup of tea.”
Similar to those before and after him at the Oil Bowl, Watts remains thankful for the experiences he had in 1976, and some of the relationships he made such as with Ray.
“Looking back on it, I think it was very significant,” Watts, who went on to become a U.S. representative, said of meeting Ray, who owns a local barbecue restaurant in Norman, at the Oil Bowl. “The Darrol Ray I met in 1976 at the Oil Bowl is the same Darrol Ray that I love and appreciate today. … We go back. We go back a long way.”