Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Eyes on Texas: Remembering Bobby Lackey, the Longhorns' first Sports Illustrated cover boy

Lackey, QB of Darrell Royal’s first SWC championship team in 1959, died earlier this month from ‘a broken heart.’ He was 83.

Bobby Lackey never would have made it to Texas, much less won a conference title in cover boy fashion, had it not been for the kindness of others. There’s just not enough of that anymore.

Lackey grew up in Weslaco, once a hard-scrabble town in the Rio Grande Valley. Some were rich. Lackey grew up below whatever qualified as poor, living in rent houses and working on farms. The term was “agricultural labor camps.” 

It wasn’t until the sixth grade that Lackey lived in a house with running water.

“His mother couldn’t read or write a lick,” Bobby’s son, John, said this week. “His father had a third-grade education.” Lackey once wore shoes that looked so bad, a girl teased him and asked why he wore shoes with holes. “To let the stink out,” he told her.

But, like everyone else in small-town Texas in the 1940s and ’50s, Lackey somehow made it. “When he was hungry, he was fed,” John Lackey said. “When he needed shoes, they appeared.”

Eyes on Texas: Luke Brockermeyer’s story of football survival is a lesson for all recruits

Lackey never forgot the kindness of others, and he paid it forward whenever he could. Karma rewarded him for decades to come, you might say. 

Quarterback Bobby Lackey guided the Longhorns to the 1959 Southwest Conference championship, the first under coach Darrell Royal.

The summer after Lackey graduated from high school, he’d heard about a boy who fell out of a tree and landed in the hospital. Being the town’s best athlete, Lackey went to visit the boy to cheer him up. Turns out, it was Judy McManus’ younger brother. Judy was a year ahead of Bobby in school. Oh, but he knew who she was.

“That led to a milkshake at the drugstore, and that was their first date,” John Lackey said.

Bobby and Judy both came to Austin and eventually got married in the summer of ’57. Bobby was a hellacious athlete, 6 feet 3 inches tall — just massive for the times. He was signed by Texas coach Ed Price to play football but wanted to play other sports, too. The same year the Lackeys got married, the new Horns coach just happened to see him out at the baseball field.

“Hey, listen, we’re getting ready to start football practice, and you’re here on a football scholarship,” Darrell Royal told him. “You’re not playing baseball.”

Eyes on Texas:While you were quarantined, all the rules changed regarding college sports

Lackey, like everybody else in those days, was a two-way football player, and he also was the kicker. As a quarterback, he split time with Walter Fondren in the fall of 1957. The next year, Texas jumped up to 16th in the country before facing No. 2 Oklahoma at the Cotton Bowl.

It was your typical nail-biter. Trailing 14-8, Texas faced a do-or-die moment on third-and-goal from the OU 7. Royal called for Lackey to hit tight end Bobby Bryant over the middle. Touchdown. Lackey kicked the extra point, and the Horns led 15-14.

Bobby Lackey threw a 7-yard touchdown pass, kicked the extra point and made the game-saving interception in a 15-14 victory over Oklahoma in 1958 at the Cotton Bowl. The win over the No. 2 Sooners moved the Longhorns into the national top 10 the next week.

The Sooners converted an impressive fourth-and-5 on the ensuing possession. But on the next play, Lackey made an incredible one-handed, game-sealing interception. Royal’s Horns snapped a six-game losing streak in the Red River rivalry.

Walking up the Cotton Bowl tunnel, Lackey had his arm around Judy and took one look back, the tunnel framing his mental photo. Bryant walked behind the Lackeys with his arm around his own wife, Carol.

A real-life photographer snapped the moment in real time.

“He’s probably saying, ‘Can you believe it? We actually beat the Sooners!’” John Lackey said.

More than a year later, that photo appeared on the Nov. 9, 1959, cover of Sports Illustrated. It was the first time a Texas athlete had landed on such prime real estate, thus beginning a string of SI covers that helped shape the Longhorns’ national reputation.

Bobby Lackey and his wife, Judy, leave the field through the Cotton Bowl tunnel after the Longhorns' 15-14 upset of Oklahoma in 1958. The photo appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated a year later. The couple received copies of the magazine in the mail for decades as people sought autographs.

The Texas football program has been featured on SI’s cover 17 times. Take the UT football team, individual players and other Longhorns sports, add it all up, and the university has made the cover 43 times since Bobby and Judy landed in mailboxes nationwide. 

“I don’t think at the time he thought it was a big deal,” John Lackey said. “He always said, ‘It wasn’t a photo of me on the cover; it was a photo of my wife.’”

Lackey and the Horns went 9-2 in 1959 as Texas won its first Southwest Conference title under Royal. That season included wins over No. 13 Oklahoma and Texas A&M but ended with a loss to No. 1 Syracuse in the Cotton Bowl. Lackey led the team in passing and punting.

He got drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, but Dad always told his son, “It was a wild scene,” John Lackey said.

Texas vs. Rice:'I've waited a long time for this opportunity.' Casey Thompson is ready to start against Rice

“Although he was there, his heart was here,” John said. Judy “notified him while he was there that she was pregnant with me. And he said, ‘I’m coming home.’ They talked him into coming back for another week or two, and that was it. He came home. 

“Both times, the way I understood it, he hitchhiked all the way home — from Pittsburgh.”

Lackey went to work for his father-in-law, who owned a successful produce packing company. Farmers grew the cantaloupes; workers picked them; Lackey packed them. Along the way, he and Judy raised three children — John and his younger sisters, Lissa and Mindy. 

Lackey never forgot his roots. The family stayed in Weslaco. The school board named the gymnasium after him in the mid-1970s. He served on the City Council and did a stint on the school board, too. Weslaco's Panther Stadium was renamed Bobby Lackey Stadium in 2002.

He was inducted into the Rio Grande Valley Sports Hall of Fame. Got into the Texas Athletics Hall of Honor in 1977. And the Texas High School Hall of Fame in 2011. 

For decades, copies of that 1959 Sports Illustrated somehow showed up in Lackey’s mailbox. Bobby and Judy loved it.

“I don’t know how often, maybe an average of three or four times a year, they would receive the magazine with people wanting their signatures on it,” John said. Bobby and Judy signed the magazines and returned to senders.

One year, a magazine showed up with a note. Apparently, a post office had been torn down in Indiana. “When they knocked down the post office, they found a copy of the magazine,” John said. “Those people got it and found my mom and dad and sent it for their autographs. What are the chances?”

Judy Lackey was one tough bird herself. Diagnosed with lung cancer, she was given a few years to live and blew past that. Breast cancer didn’t stop her, either. Finally on May 24, 2020, she died at age 83. Bobby and Judy Lackey had been married 63 years.

On Sept. 2, two days before the Texas season opener, Bobby Lackey died. He also was 83.

“He had a good life,” John Lackey said. “When we knew she was going, he was breaking down. A part of him died when my mom died.”

The town of Weslaco held a public memorial Thursday, and John Lackey wasn’t sure how many would come. Former teammates, the ones who are still around anyway, have been reaching out with well wishes and funny stories. In Weslaco, Bobby Lackey was still larger than life. 

“Like a real-life character that John Wayne played in his movies,” one of John Lackey’s friends described him. ”For me, he was Dad,” John said.

Kindness always gets rewarded. Bobby Lackey was kind. As I said, there’s just not enough of that anymore. 

Contact Brian Davis by phone or text at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or @BDavisAAS.