TULSA — Barry Switzer remembers how Oklahoma’s famed 1972 freshman class and other Sooners always wanted to test Jimbo Elrod before practice.
The ’72 freshmen — a class that produced eight NFL draft picks, three first-rounders, nine All-Americans, three national awards and two College Football Hall of Famers — included an undersized but fearless kid from Tulsa’s East Central High School who became the very essence of OU football in the ’70s.
“Kids from Texas and other places, they’d mess with him,” Switzer told The Franchise on Monday. “He wasn’t quite as big as them, but he’d say, ‘Watch out now!’ I remember Elrod, he’d take every one of ‘em and just pin ‘em. He’d take ‘em & throw ‘em on their back and pin ‘em. It was just comical. And he’d do it so quick. They were stunned by the fact that wrestling was that skilled a sport and gave you the dexterity and the ability to do what he did to people. And it translated over to football.
“I just marveled at him.”
Switzer and several former players gathered at his Norman home on Monday night to remember Elrod, who was killed early Monday morning in a one-car accident on the Turner Turnpike.
“Just a long, long day of reminiscing, contemplating and all that other good stuff,” said former Sooner running back Joe Washington.
Elrod, 62, was returning home to Tulsa from Oklahoma City when his 2015 Lexus left the highway about four miles west of Chandler and hit a guardrail, according to the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. Elrod, who was not wearing a seat belt, was ejected through the vehicle’s sunroof. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Elrod’s wife, Diana, was buckled in, according to the OHP, and survived. She was transported to OU Medical Center in Oklahoma City, where she is in serious condition.
“Just doesn’t make sense,” Switzer said. “Life is so precious.”
Elrod was a 1975 All-American at outside linebacker and helped the Sooners win the college football national championship in 1974 and 1975. During his four years in Norman, he was an instrumental player on an OU defense that yielded just 8.4 points per game in 1974.
Elrod became a fifth-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs, and he played four seasons in the NFL.
Switzer said the Elrods had been guests of country singer Toby Keith, and had accepted Keith’s invitation to fly them to his show in Las Vegas and back. They returned to Oklahoma City around 2 a.m., Switzer said, and Keith invited them to stay the night at his house. Instead, they left for Tulsa.
“Then I get a phone call this morning from Toby,” Switzer said. “Toby feels so bad about it. He feels guilty about it. You shouldn’t be that way. He tried to talk ‘em into staying, but they said, ‘No, we’re gonna go on back.’
“He feels guilty. He feels like he contributed to it. I said, ‘No, Toby, you can’t do that to yourself. It’s not right.’ It just, it doesn’t make sense.”
OU athletic director Joe Castiglione and coach Bob Stoops issued statements on Monday.
“We are shocked and saddened at the loss of Jimbo Elrod, a former Sooner All-American, but more importantly a friend and member of our family,” Castiglione said. “He made a point to attend countless Sooner events, bringing his ever-present enthusiasm supporting his university and its people. We are praying for Diana’s recovery and the well-being of the entire Elrod family. This is certainly a heart-breaking day.”
“This is a very sad day for the OU Football family,” Stoops said. “Jimbo was an All-American player and person, a great friend of our program who loved his Sooners. He was a true joy to be around and we will miss him dearly. We wish Diana the absolute best in her recovery and are praying for Jimbo’s entire family on this extremely difficult day.”
Dewey Selmon, one of the three famous Selmon brothers who went to OU from Eufaula, also was a freshman on that ’72 team.
“I can’t believe this just happened,” Dewey Selmon said. “Jimbo was loved by all his teammates. He really, in his play, reflected the whole attitude of the ’70s teams.
“Jimbo was just a dear friend. Every player respected Jimbo as a player and as a person. He was just so much fun to be around.”
That respect for Elrod wasn’t just in Norman. Washington said he received a phone call Monday from former Nebraska running back Tony Davis.
“He said, ‘Man, that guy used to give me nightmares,’ ” Washington said. “And he did, because that’s the kind of player he was.”
As a senior in 1975, Elrod led the Sooners with 20 tackles for loss. In 1974, he led the team with three fumble recoveries. He’s still eighth in school history with 44 career tackles for loss, and as a defensive end in the Sooners’ 5-2 Okie front (now considered an outside linebacker), Elrod’s 1975 total of 117 tackles still ranks eight in OU annals.
His success, Switzer says, was rooted in wrestling at East Central High School.
“When he played for us, he played with great balance and great foot and hand control and great leverage,” Switzer said. “He was just so great on his feet.
“He played outside linebacker, Sam, and he’d just anchor over a tight end and tight ends couldn’t block him. He’d just whip ‘em and throw ‘em away because he was so talented from his wrestling skills. That’s something I always marveled at.”
Selmon quickly found out first-hand how good a wrestler Elrod was.
“We had finished practice one day, and it was a grueling practice, and all of a sudden he asks me, ‘Dewey! Let’s go to the mat room and wrestle!’ ” Selmon said, his voice changing to mimic Elrod’s nasally tone and unbridled enthusiasm. “I didn’t feel like wrestling. But he talks me into it. We get there, and we get on the mat, and he’s all crouched down — ‘Are you ready?’ All of a sudden he jumps all over my head, all over my back and the next thing I know he has me pinned. I’m like, ‘Jimbo. Let me up.’ ”
An innate understanding of balance and leverage helped Elrod succeed on the field, but Elrod had much more than just wrestling skills.
“He was a tenacious football player,” Switzer said. “He knew how to play hard on every snap, compete hard on every snap. He didn’t take a snap off.”
“No one ever doubted his play,” Selmon said. “On every down.”
“He was relentless,” Washington said. “He didn’t quit. He was just the spirit of Oklahoma football in the ’70s.”
Washington said Elrod’s attitude about his own effort carried over when he watched contemporary players.
“The way he gauged things wasn’t by how good a kid was,” Washington said, “it was how the kid played — heart, enthusiasm, hustle. If you were a relentless machine, he loved you even more.”
Elrod also won people over with an infectious passion for life. He played with it, but he also lived it.
“He used to give you more doggone crap — and you still loved him,” Washington said. “He used to do more crazy, stupid stuff — and you still loved him. He was just one of the best guys on the planet.”
Some of Switzer’s wishbone teams could be careless with the football. Fumbles were just part of the offense. Defensive players who otherwise dominated games might be in a bad mood if they had to keep going out to defend a short field. Not Elrod.
“Jimbo was one of those guys, he didn’t care,” Washington said. “If we fumbled, it just gave him another reason to be on the field again. Guys like him, the Selmons, we would fumble, but before the official could even signal which way the ball was going, those guys are on the field. I’d come over to the sideline and they’d cross my path and these guys would say, ‘Don’t worry Wash, we got it.’ ”
When his playing days ended, Elrod just enjoyed talking about being an Oklahoma Sooner. His passion for OU football never waned.
“Jimbo kept our team, with the caliber of players we had on the field, he kept everybody loose,” Selmon said. “The only thing he loved more than practice and football games was his teammates, and being close to ‘em.”
At a recent game, Selmon and Elrod were introduced to the crowd as they walked onto Owen Field. After taking the opportunity to introduce Selmon to his daughter Chanel, who was an OU cheerleader at the time, he tried to get Selmon to join him in some on-field mirth, if only for old time’s sake.
“I was so happy to come on the field with Jimbo,” Selmon said. “We’re going out there and he goes, ‘Hey Dewey! Let’s go out there and do something silly!’ I laughed and said, ‘No Jimbo. No cartwheels.’ He said, ‘Come on! Let’ just let’ em know we love ‘em!’
“He loved Oklahoma, and he loved Oklahoma football, and he loved the people who came to fill that stadium. He loved to play for ‘em.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard on The Franchise Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. every weekday with co-host Lauren Rew and most mornings on The Franchise in Oklahoma City. Listen on fm107.9, am1270 on the 107.7 Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.