Legends from history are plentiful. Those still living are few.
E.J. Holub, who played in the first and fourth Super Bowls as a bigger-than-life linebacker and center, pauses a moment before saying how long he’s been interested in football, then answers:
It’s not such an exaggeration. One of his friends — Bobo Echols, as he became known at Texas Tech after fellow athletes stopped using his rightful name of Robert — can verify that Holub’s interest in football goes back at least to fourth grade.
Echols remembers he and some neighborhood buddies used to play baseball, football and any other sport that came to mind on a vacant lot next door to his family’s home.
Then a house was moved onto the lot.
“All the neighborhood boys thought, well that’s not good. But we knew they had a boy, and we went over there — four or five of us — and knocked on the door of this house,” Echols said.
“His mother came to the door, and we said, ‘We understand you have a son. Can he come out and play?’ ”
Rose Holub cheerfully gave her permission.
“She hollered, ‘Emil Joseph, you have company.’
“And this huge, puppy dog-looking thing came running down the hallway, just rocking the house.”
“Yeah! You want to play football?” Holub said with his opening words to his new friends.
Echols said Holub organized them into a football team at once.
“He said, ‘We’re going to play up on the school grounds — everybody be there Saturday morning.’
“Nobody argued with him, we just met him, and when we got up there, he had a dozen raw eggs. He said, ‘OK, we’ve got to get ready for football — we’re going to eat an egg,’ ” Echols remembers.
“And he broke those eggs open and made us all eat a raw egg before we could play football!”
It was a group of 11-year-olds setting out to take on the world with football.
Holub remembers he played touch football growing up, and was soon playing for the Lubbock High School Westerners.
Echols said Holub entered other sports as well. “He was great in high school, and won everything he entered in track, shot put and discus.”
Along with football at Texas Tech in 1957, Holub also was playing some intramural basketball.
Echols recalls, “We had a great basketball team, and E.J. would get under that backboard. If he wanted the rebound, you might as well get out of the way — he was going to get it.
“He’s a great athlete.”
Gene Arrington, who played basketball at the time Holub was playing football, noted his strength. “He was tall, big boned, just a big old strong boy — always has been. They say when he hit you, you knew it. They tell the story about the time when he hit one football player and it turned the helmet clear around, and the guy was looking out the ear hole.
“Stories like that are abundant with E.J.”
They contributed to the legendary status that was building.
Arrington added, “But I know a different E.J. I know an E.J. who was very kind and very thoughtful of other people. I don’t think I ever heard him say anything bad about anybody, and if you brought up something to talk about somebody else, he wouldn’t join in.”
Tommy Patterson, who ran track at Tech while Holub was playing football, remembers Holub’s strength as a center. He had been talking with fellow track athletes about the talents of Charlie Horton with whom he had played football at Waco High School, and figured he was the pinnacle of football ability. But then he saw Holub snap the ball.
“It hit Charlie Horton and knocked him over backward. I thought, now I understand the excitement about this guy.”
He became a close friend who also knew the other side of Holub:
“He is a people person. He enjoys his friends so much — the consummate football player.”
Jeannie Patterson, who was teaching at George R. Bean Elementary School, remembers Holub volunteering to come speak to her sixth-grade class because the students of the neighborhood at the time didn’t have many privileges.
“He is the most generous person in terms of his role in what football has meant to him. He came over one afternoon, got the principal’s permission, and they brought all the sixth-grade classes in.
“He just said hello to them, and then let them ask him questions. They asked everything from what kind of car he drove, to how big his muscle was. They were so fascinated by the fact that he was a Texas Tech football player.
“I will never forget his generosity.”
Holub, a 1957 graduate of Lubbock High School, returned once to visit Laurene Bussey, a veteran math teacher who was still teaching an algebra class in 1960.
He simply walked into the class while it was in session, and swept the slender teacher up in a big hug. She welcomed his visit, and turned to the class to say, “I guess each of you know, this is E.J. Holub.”
Holub said in a recent phone interview, “It was just one of those things. Every once in a while I have something spontaneous to react to, and just do it.”
But Holub has had a coexisting love in addition to football — horses. And when his mare gave birth to a colt, it occurred in the old barn at Tech with Holub in attendance.
Jack Henry, who was playing football a year or two ahead of Holub — and years later became his knee surgeon — said of his status as an upperclassman that his “little brother” and the horse were figuratively joined at the hip.
It may be the only time Holub has ever been referred to as little.
Because Holub has an abiding interest in horses and the Western life of the cowboy, the name for the colt was an easy one to decide — Cowboy.
He kept Cowboy after he was drafted by the Dallas Texans, and took him along when the team was moved to Kansas City as the Chiefs.
Holub also worked summers as a manager on a large ranch in Oklahoma, and typically would return for football season as the only player who wasn’t overweight. Henry said Holub’s own words describe his profession as “a cowboy who just happened to play football.”
Holub has an explanation, too, for why he once rode Cowboy into Mike Ditka’s Sports Page bar in Dallas:
“They kept asking me — because back then I dressed Western and it wasn’t customary back then — they always asked me where my horse was,” he said.
“Ditka kept riding me, so I just took my horse and went in there.”
Holub added, “I just loaded Cowboy in the trailer, drove up there, and unloaded him in front of the place.”
Holub then asked someone to get the doors open because he was coming in.
Once inside, he got off the horse, kept the reins in his hand, and walked to the bar.
“All of it is true. Bobo went with me. He did get to see that firsthand.”
He added, “I got back on him, walked all the way around again, then went out. I had a picture of Ditka sitting on the horse.”
Echols said the bar and restaurant was a really nice place. “Not the kind of place you expect to see a mounted horse. The local people who didn’t have any idea what the situation was, were just in shock and awe, and made a path and cleared out of there.
“All the other football players and sports-type people who were there just barely paid any attention. And E.J. just acted like, well what’s going on — there’s nothing different. I’m on my horse where I belong.”
Echols evaluates the scene this way:
“E.J. was more comfortable in the saddle than any place I ever saw, except in the helmet. He is a cowboy at heart.”
There was once when he wasn’t comfortable in the saddle, though, said Sandi Holub, his wife of 25 years.
She was referring to his ride into a club in Tulsa, Okla.
The manager had asked him to come, she said, because the Sports Page in Dallas began making money hand over fist when local customers heard of the horse coming in for a visit. E.J. gave his word that he would do it, then learned that the club was on the second floor of the building.
Holub remembers, “I had to hold him on the elevator. It was a pretty good size elevator, and he became flexible because I pushed him. His head was sticking on one side of the elevator, his butt was on the other side, and I was in the middle.”
Sandi said the main problem was in a stepped approach to the club.
“When he folded Cowboy in the freight elevator, and he got him out and got on him, it just so happened there was a big step-up, and with all the lights that were shining in the bar, Cowboy couldn’t really see very well. So, he took this big mighty leap up this step, and E.J. had to bend over.
“He said the saddle horn stuck in his stomach, and it just scraped all the skin off the back of his neck because he hit the top when Cowboy jumped so high.
“He said, ‘I will never let anybody know that it hurt me more than anything I did in football.’ ”
The pain level was likely an understatement. Holub said he has had 11 knee surgeries to repair injuries that eventually closed out his career as an active player.
He didn’t really want to quit, but a surgery to reattach a muscle that had become disconnected from the hip and rolled up in the back of his leg made it plain that he had pushed his body as far as it was going to go as a player.
Jeannie Patterson was one of the friends taking turns sitting with Holub in a hospital room while he was emerging chaotically from the anesthesia and was obstructed in movement by a cast from his ankle to his hip.
She remembers he got a phone call from a coach, apparently wishing him well.
“But I could tell that this call affected him in really a kind of emotional way.”
In what may have been the haze of emerging from anesthesia and shots for pain, Holub felt he was again in the football line, waiting to break against an opposing team.
“He was in motion, in his mind, to hit the line,” she said.
“The orderlies came in, and they started trying to calm him down — and they definitely were taking a step back. Regardless of him being incapacitated, he’s a great big guy.”
She remembers, “The only thing I was trying to do was to talk him down. I was trying to use my most feminine voice to make him realize that I wasn’t one of the opposing team, because he was about ready to go through the wall.”
The aberration quickly passed.
“It was just a moment that he wasn’t himself,” she said.
Holub has survived the loss of playing football and the loss of Cowboy, who left him after a lifetime of 30 years.
“I keep up with football every day,” he said. “Of course, I’m very proud that I’m married to my wife, Sandi. Her son is the general manager of the Miami Dolphins. His name is Jeff Ireland, and he’s really a great guy. [Sandi’s} dad played for the Philadelphia Eagles.
“So, we’ve got football all around. It’s a family thing.”
Henry, who remains a close friend, figures he has a name that could be given to the Red Raiders’ new horse. It’s one that would recall not only an exceptional horse, but an unforgettable player with the same name:
In the future, a generation or two away, someone may be walking across the parking lot of a sports restaurant at night, and see in the moonlight a rider passing by.
In the distance, it couldn’t be certain. Probably just imagination. But it looked like ... it could have been ... E.J. and Cowboy, riding in to unsettle the settled surroundings.
Legends are like that.
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