Certain athletes just never really get their due. For all
sorts of reasons, they are overlooked while they play, underappreciated once
their playing days are done, and then largely forgotten.
Aye. ‘Tis enough to bring a tear to the eye.
All professional franchises and college programs experience
this phenomenon and Texas Tech is certainly no exception. So here’s one man’s
nomination—based on 34 seasons of viewing and/or reporting—of the
Red Raider football players most undeservedly unsung and prematurely relegated
to the dusty corners of Tech football history.
Cumbie: It seems that walkons
often fail to get full credit for their accomplishments, and so it is with
Sonny Cumbie. The Snyder, Texas product rose from
anonymous walkon to starter during his senior season
of 2004. He won the starting job over highly touted JUCO transfer Robert Johnson, who later moved to inside receiver and did well there.
After a poor start to the 2004 season, Cumbie
caught fire late in the first half against TCU and never really looked back.
The Red Raiders destroyed TCU 70-35 that afternoon, and would later annihilate
Nebraska 70-10. Cumbie would cap his Tech career by
earning MVP honors in a colossal 45-31 upset of No.4 California in the Holiday
Bowl. This was Mike Leach’s greatest win prior to the defeat of No.1 Texas in
Back—Larry Isaac: Few Red Raider fans sufficiently gray of beard will
ever forget the 1976 team that won a SWC co-championship. And most will fondly
recall the exploits of rugged quarterback Rodney Allison and future NFL
fullback Billy Taylor. Somewhat lost in the shuffle though, is Lubbock’s own
Isaac, Taylor and Allison may have been the best backfield
in Tech history, and Isaac was a huge part of its success. He was shifty, fleet
and when his career came to a close, was also Tech’s all-time leading rusher
with 2,687 yards on 551 carries.
Back—Robert Lewis: Unfortunately for Greenville product Robert Lewis,
he never got to play on a team as glamorous as the 1976 club on which Larry
Isaac starred. Lewis played during Tech football’s dark age, specifically
1981-4. This contributes to his obscurity. As does the fact that he was plagued
by injury. But when healthy what a tremendous running back Lewis was.
Nicknamed “Peterboy,” Lewis had
uncanny balance, excellent speed and superb vision. He was always a threat to
break the long run. Had he not succumbed to injury, Lewis would have had a very
good NFL career.
Harris: At five-foot-eight and 155 pounds Leonard Harris was the classic
Smurf receiver for Tech back in the early 80s when diminutive receivers were
all the rage. The McKinney product, whose brother Jamie signed with Tech but
transferred to Oklahoma State, was a waterbug with
tremendous hands and excellent run-after-the-catch ability. He put up massive
numbers in his Tech career, and one can only imagine what he would have done
had he played in the Air Raid.
At any rate, playing for Jerry Moore did not hurt his
prospects too much. He had an excellent NFL career with the Houston Oilers and
Atlanta Falcons from 1987 through 1994.
Walker: This escapee from Waco was only a bit larger than Leonard Harris,
but was much, much faster (he clocked a 6.19 in the 55 meters). Walker’s
signature play came early in the 1987 season opener at Florida State when he
burned Deion Sanders for a long touchdown from Scott Toman
who had replaced an injured Billy Joe Tolliver. Walker, along with Eddy
Anderson and Tyrone Thurman, was a favorite target of Tolliver’s, and
ultimately followed him to the San Diego Chargers where he played the 1989
Tight End—Buzz Tatom: Outside of Andre Tillman in the early 70s, Texas
Tech has not produced a wealth of tight end talent. But among those who
followed Tillman, Buzz Tatom was probably the best.
At six-foot-four and no more than 220 pounds, Tatom was not a crushing blocker, but he was a fast,
athletic receiver with excellent hands. Over the course of his career, which
included starting roles in 1982 and 1983, Tatom
grabbed 61 passes for 760 yards and nine touchdowns while averaging 12.5 yards
per grab. His signature play was a 16-yard touchdown pass from Jim Hart against
No.2 SMU as the Red Raiders mounted an ultimately unsuccessful comeback against
the Mustangs. This was the game known as Miracle on 4th Street,
which took place in 1983.
Line—Stephen Hamby: Like quarterback Sonny Cumbie,
Stephen Hamby was a walkon. He was also one of the
roughest, toughest and most skilled centers to play for Texas Tech in the
modern era. Hamby anchored the excellent offensive line that helped power Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree to the cusp of the Heisman Trophy in 2008.
Line—Matt Harlein: Texas Tech didn’t sign
too many blue chippers in the late 1970s, but Matt Harlein
of Corpus Christi was an exception. He could have signed anywhere, but chose
the scarlet and black.
Harlein, who bench pressed well
over 500 pounds, was reportedly the strongest player in Tech football history
to that point. Unfortunately, he was dogged by knee injuries throughout his
stint as a Red Raider. Still, he was a starter at guard in 1980 and at tackle
in 1982 and 1983.
Line—Glenn January: During the Mike Leach era Texas Tech cranked out
a basket full of talented offensive linemen, several of whom
went on to good NFL careers. Tackle Glenn January never picked up an NFL
paycheck, but through dogged perseverance, developed into a fine tackle for the
Red Raiders. Early in his career, he had difficulties handling speed rushers,
but by his senior year in 2006, was totally reliable on the edge.
Keith: Few offensive linemen start four straight seasons, but Arlington’s
Jeff Keith did just that at guard from 1984 through 1987. Keith, who was highly
regarded coming out of the prep ranks, was a quick and very polished lineman.
During his career he paved the way for the likes of Robert Lewis, Timmy Smith
and James Gray.
Line—Mike McBride: Keith’s partner at guard was three-year starter
Mike McBride. This Lewisville product, whose brother Joe would later sign on to
play linebacker for the Red Raiders, was a rough-and-tumble blocker with a
serious mean streak. He, Keith and center Chris Tanner combined to give Tech a
very formidable interior offensive line in 1985 and 1986.