It was football that brought them together. But as so many, such as David Jaynes and David Lawrence, emphasized, the evening was about a lot more than football -- make that honesty, integrity, fairness, loyalty, caring for people and devotion to family, friends and Kansas University.
The occasion was the Friday night session of the Don Fambrough Era reunion. More than 400 showed up at the Holidome.
It was a warm, nostalgic and entertaining tribute to a man who coached the Jayhawks for eight years, played here for two, assisted for another 19, a fellow with a passionate 50-year love affair for the school. The message on the program: "Don Fambrough has touched many lives ... there is a mutual feeling of affection from those who were fortunate enough to have an opportunity to call him 'Coach.'"
There were admiring 1946-47 teammates, too, such as Ray Evans, Otto Schnellbacher, Red Hogan, Jayhawk athletic legends in their own right. It was Evans who played Second Air Force ball with Fambrough in World War II and convinced Don to transfer from Texas to KU.
The ever-bubbly Bob Marcum, now athletic director at UMass, also made the scene. Marcum as KU's AD hired Fam for a second four-year stint (1979-82). Don's first head coaching tenure was 1971-74. AD Clyde Walker eased out Don in favor of Bud Moore. Then Marcum brought Don back after Moore didn't cut it. Monte Johnson replaced Fam with Mike Gottfried.
Don told the convivial group Friday: "I've had a love affair with KU for nearly 50 years (since 1946). ... She's knocked me down more than once but some way or other she's always come around and picked me up and put me back on my feet. In the company of my friends, family and all you here tonight, I think I'm up this time to stay."
There were floods of laughter throughout the anecdote-laden, slap-thigh, rub-gut session. There were tears when Don recalled: "When I was a farm boy in Texas (Longview) wearing bib overalls, before they became popular like today, I had three goals in life -- to play football, to coach football and to marry the high school beauty queen (wife Del) ... uh, I probably should have put that in a different order. Well, the first two came fairly easily but I had to come behind in the fourth quarter for the third. But we recently celebrated our 56th anniversary, and I think now I can mark that down in the 'W' column."
Fam also expressed his deep appreciation for Carole Hadl and Marge Hazlett, longtime secretaries he described as "much more than friends ... they've become family." Marge and Carole presented Don with a scrapbook of letters from players and teammates.
Jaynes, the All-American quarterback from Bonner Springs, spoke for the players of Don's 1971-74 head coaching span. He stressed how Fambrough had changed so many lives for the better, including his.
"It was a childhood dream to play for KU and Don helped me fulfill that. But what I learned from him went far beyond football -- I never realized until later that off the field, we never had a conversation about football, but about life and how the lessons of football could do you so much good," Jaynes said, with obvious emotion. "He encouraged you to be your best. He let assistants coach and players play and imparted a sense of confidence most of us never dreamed we could achieve."
Lawrence, the 1979-82 spokesman who's now a teacher-coach-broadcaster, noted that Jerry Calovich who had one year under Fambrough and finished under Bud Moore told the new recruits how lucky they would be to play for Fambrough.
"Coach made traditions and rivalries come alive before our eyes," former guard Lawrence said. "He made us a team, made us competitive and made us winners in things far beyond the football field."
Lawrence then simulated a marvelous Fambrough-type pep talk that had the huge crowd roaring with delight. He sobered everyone by pointing out that when Don was dumped the second time, he told the squad to "stay at KU, support KU and don't feel sorry for me, because I've been the luckiest guy alive."
Onetime chancellor Del Shankel, another all-everything performer for KU, noted after listening to Fambrough respond about the merits of KU: "I wish we had him out recruiting students for the school. Nobody has captured and can transmit enthusiasm about KU better than Don. He richly deserves this tribute."
There was another notable aspect of the tribute to Fambrough that has terrific import -- the large turnout of black athletes, who in the past have been reluctant, bashful, whatever, to attend such functions. The place was loaded with guys like Delvin Williams, Emmett Edwards, Kerwin Bell, Steve Nave, E.J. Jones, Marvin Foster, Richard Estell, ad infinitum. And everyone was enriched by such a presence.
Just as the O.J. Simpson fiasco created a racial divide through which you could walk a Tyrannosaurus Rex, so did Friday's reunion to honor Fambrough show what leadership, courtesy, respect, shared memories and brotherhood can do to overcome such problems.
KU athletic people have been concerned that more minority alumni have not been as active as everyone would like. The Fambrough Reunion may have turned that whole thing around to the great benefit of everyone.
That's another reason this weekend's festivities honoring one of the most devoted people KU has known was about a helluva lot more than football.