By Trey Williams
Bowl season kicks off Friday, a period that always evokes images – one image, at least – of Bo Austin.
A four-sport athlete at Science Hill, Austin was the Sun Bowl Most Valuable Player after propelling George Washington to a 13-0 upset of Texas Western in 1957.
The MVP spoils included being photographed while holding the trophy with four smiling girls, two of whom were kissing Austin’s face.
Fifty years later, when they were being inducted in the inaugural class of the Science Hill Athletics Hall of Fame with the likes of Steve Spurrier, Ferrell Bowman and Joe McClain, Austin and stoic former Science Hill teammate Bob May smiled when the photograph was mentioned.
“Bo always reminds us (about the picture),” May said in typically succinct fashion.
Austin laughed, flashing the same big smile that’s captured in the photograph.
Austin rushed 20 times for 108 yards in a GW upset that had many similarities to East Tennessee State’s 1969 Rice Bowl win against Terry Bradshaw-led Louisiana Tech in Baton Rouge.
Texas Western was essentially playing a home game as a significant favorite (13 points) and featured a future Pro Football Hall of Famer/Super Bowl champion in receiver Don Maynard. And, like Bradshaw’s Bulldogs, the Miners probably weren’t overly inspired by their opponent.
“They were overconfident,” said Austin, a Vietnam-tested Marine who died at the age of 74 in 2009 after an inspirational battle with leukemia.
Austin was a rugged 6-foot-1, 190-pounder in high school and his physicality made a 50-year impression on many of his Hilltoppers teammates.
“Bo was a really good inside runner,” said McClain, a former Hilltoppers teammate who pitched for the Washington Senators. “That sucker would knock your ear off.”
Austin was packing that much more of a wallop four years later in El Paso during a performance that helped get him drafted 153rd overall by the Washington Redskins.
The pad-popping fullback made an impression on the Associated Press writer at the Sun Bowl: “The unexpected GW victory, which came behind the pounding ground-work of fullback Claude (Bo) Austin, was over a Texas Western team that had been rated a 14-point favorite.”
Austin was All-Southern Conference in football and baseball at George Washington. The Colonials played in Griffith Stadium, the home of MLB’s Washington Senators. Austin said the stadium was 400 feet down the left field line at one point and recalled watching a Mickey Mantle home run hit off a 20-foot sign that had 18-20 rows of seats in front of it.
“Mantle had power,” Austin said. “And that was before the balls were hot.”
Baseball was the reason Austin ended up in Washington, D.C. He initially signed with Tennessee to play football on Dec. 10, 1952.
Tennessee coach Robert Neyland was irritated at Science Hill football coach Niles “Mule” Brown when Austin reversed field and headed to George Washington to play two sports.
“Neyland blamed Mule,” Austin said. “I don’t think he ever talked to Coach Brown after that.”
Brown had no say in the matter, according to Austin, but the fact that Tennessee was bringing in some 80 freshmen might have.
“Those were (long odds) and I was really interested in playing baseball too,” Austin said. “And what better place to play baseball than Washington, D.C.? The Senators were the closest team to us back then.”
Brown wasn’t prone to hyperbole.
“Coach Brown was a good man,” Austin said, “but you didn’t have to worry about him helping your ego get out of hand. He didn’t give compliments. He always chewed tobacco, and he’d walk up to you and look you right in the eye for a minute, never saying a word – then he’d just spit.”
Brown made a powerhouse of Elizabethton before taking the Science Hill job. The ‘Toppers and Cyclones played to a scoreless tie during Austin’s senior season.
The late Bob Taylor, who played at Vanderbilt and was drafted by the Baltimore Colts 69th overall the year after Austin was drafted, couldn’t ever completely digest the tie with Elizabethton.
Austin occasionally passed from his fullback position in Brown’s Single Wing and Wing-T offenses.
“Bo threw the ball perfectly over my left shoulder but I turned the wrong way (against Elizabethton),” Taylor said. “I would’ve scored and we would’ve won that game, but I looked over the wrong shoulder.”
Science Hill finished 7-1-2 during Austin’s senior season. The loss was a 6-0 season-ending setback at Dobyns-Bennett.
Of course, Austin could tell you that Science Hill had defeated D-B, 13-12, the previous year.He passed to May for the game-winning touchdown.
“We always liked to tell him how I had to stretch out for it,” May said with a smile. “Bo would say, ‘You couldn’t have missed it; I put it right in your hands.’ And he did. It was a really good pass.”
Austin was also all-conference in basketball and track & field at Science Hill for coach Sidney Smallwood.
“I wasn’t our best basketball player,” Austin said. “Coach Smallwood would say, ‘Austin, just rebound and then get out of the way.’”
The best player was Bowman, who went on to play basketball at ETSU before playing shortstop for the San Francisco Giants in the 1962 World Series. Still, he always revered Austin.
“People kind of measured themselves by Bo Austin,” said Bowman, who was a year behind Austin at Science Hill. “Bo was always good-natured. I don’t think I ever saw him mad. Yeah, I did once, when Dickie Warren ran me into a wall at Science Hill.
“Bo was tough as nails. You know The Bus (Jerome Bettis) and (Larry) Csonka? That’s the way Bo would run.”
Austin grew up next to the Veterans Administration where his dad, a fiery sports fan, was a plumber.
“He told me, ‘If you have to tell people you’re good, don’t bother. If you’re good, they’ll tell you,’” Austin said.
Austin was also a capable left-footed punter. He enjoyed the fact that punting was one of many things he had in common with Steve Spurrier, who coached the Redskins 46 years after Austin was drafted by them. Spurrier and Austin each attended Henry Johnson Elementary School and honed their skills at Kiwanis Park. Spurrier moved to Johnson City from Newport in ’57, the year Austin starred in the Sun Bowl.
“You certainly knew who Bo Austin was,” Spurrier said.
Austin hurt his shoulder in his second NFL preseason game.
“I rode a train from here to D.C., got on a plane for training camp in California and then I came back from California with my arm in a sling – crushed (emotionally),” Austin said. “I’d made the tackle on the first kickoff and thought, ‘Man, there’s nothing to this.’ On the next one, I was running down through there and a guy hit me blind from the right side. He hit me so hard I saw triple. They told me I’d probably be out for the season.”
Austin said he found out by telegram he’d been drafted by the Redskins, and he said he didn’t know until the following day.
“The biggest thing working for me during the draft was getting Most Valuable Player in the Sun Bowl,” Austin said. “That was quite a day.”