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Sooner Flashback: Jakie Sandefer
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Texas-born halfback had deep-rooted passion for OU football
It’s actually a fairly small list of people who can say they changed the face and the direction of the University of Oklahoma football program.
George Cross. Bud Wilkinson, of course. Prentice Gautt. Barry Switzer. Certainly the contemporary triumvirate of David Boren, Joe Castiglione and Bob Stoops, and a few others.
But just on the periphery of virtually all the great OU icons over the last six decades, quietly doing his part — throwing a block, intercepting a pass, providing a strong shoulder or sympathetic ear, loaning his King Air, donating time and money — was Jakie Sandefer.
Sandefer died Jan. 27 at St. Luke’s Hospital in Houston, where he and his wife Melissa lived. He was admitted with pneumonia, but it quickly worsened.
“He may have been born in Texas and developed his business in Texas,” OU athletic director Joe Castiglione told the Tulsa World hours after Sandefer’s death at age 78, “but he lived for the Oklahoma Sooners with virtually every breath he took. He was all-in when it came to cheering for OU or helping someone associated with OU.
“His impact on the program will not be forgotten.”
Indeed, Sandefer didn’t just have an association with the Sooners — he was the Sooners, for 60 years. His contributions over the decades were too great to tally.
J.D. “Jakie” Sandefer III grew up living and breathing football in Breckenridge, Texas, but when it came time to pick where he wanted to play college football, having stayed briefly with family in Austin helped him decide.
“Football is a big deal down there,” Sandefer once said, “but I’m telling you, it’s everything up here. I just felt it was the best thing for me.”
He became a popular halfback on Wilkinson’s 1956 national championship team, lettering from 1956-58 and platooning on offense behind stars like College Football Hall of Famers Clendon Thomas, Tommy McDonald and Prentice Gautt. He contributed touchdowns rushing, receiving, passing and returning — and he was on Owen Field when Notre Dame ended OU’s 47-game winning streak in 1957.
But Sandefer’s real claim to fame was as Gautt’s roommate.
Gautt was OU’s first African-American scholarship football player, and in 1957, when business manager Ken Farris posted the room list for the Sooners’ season opener at Pittsburgh, Gautt was left without a roommate. Sandefer, however, stood up and said “that’s not necessary” and that he would be happy to bunk with Gautt.
For the next two seasons, Gautt and Sandefer shared a room on road trips and became lifelong friends.
“Looking back, I didn’t know it was that big of a deal,” Sandefer told SoonerSports.com in 2012. “I talked to him some about it. I asked him about what was going on, but really I was so worried about making the team and making my grades that I wasn't aware of much of anything else. And the funny thing is, when I asked Prentice about it, he said he was the same way — he just wanted to make the team and make his grades.”
Gautt was a poor black kid from Oklahoma City who originally had his OU tuition paid by some local doctors and pharmacists, while Sandefer was a white kid from the wealth and privilege of the Texas oilfields.
Gautt, who died in 2005, said in Harold Keith’s account “47 Straight — The Wilkinson Era at Oklahoma,” that he never sensed Sandefer’s inflated wealth gave him inflated importance.
“The only evidence I ever saw that he had money was the little black leather coin purse he carried,” Gautt said in the book.
“When he undressed at night, he’d take that little purse out of his pocket and put it on his dresser. It was small. Had room for only nickels, dimes and quarters. Instead of carrying a roll of bills, he carried only as much change as the average high school girl.”
When Gautt was inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, it was Sandefer who introduced him.
“I was very honored that he asked me,” Sandefer told Sooner Spectator in 2007.
“My statement there was, ‘Was Prentice different? Yeah, Prentice was different. He had more class than the rest of us, and he was a better student.’"
But helping change the face of OU football once wasn’t enough for Sandefer. When it came to the Sooners, his passion never waned.
His next major contribution was helping Switzer get whatever big-time recruits he wanted, throughout the Lone Star State and elsewhere. He accomplished that by giving Switzer access to his King Air jet whenever the coach had a prospect lined up, and it helped Switzer build a second Sooner empire.
“Coach Wilkinson said one time he made a mistake by not recruiting more nationally and not taking advantage of the jet airplane,” Sandefer once said. “I saw right then the effect that a private airplane could make on recruiting. Everyone we wanted, we got ‘em.”
Sandefer followed his late father into the Texas oil industry, and business was good. He bought his first King Air in 1974, Switzer’s second year as head coach and the first of two straight OU national titles.
“That plane used to fly everywhere,” said Switzer. “This plane brought in — on the same trip, they all came together — Victor Hicks, Darrell Hunt, Kenny King and (George Cumby). That’s four blue chips on one plane.”
But before Switzer became head coach, even before he installed and improved Texas’ wishbone offense as Chuck Fairbanks’ offensive coordinator, Sandefer would fly the coach from Norman to Abilene on Thursdays during the recruiting season of 1967-68. Switzer would land, spend the evening recruiting Jack Mildren, then stay the night at Sandefer’s home and fly back the next day.
Sandefer also owned the Learjet that flew Billy Sims to Mississippi to meet Marcus Dupree in 1981.
And that’s how you change the fortunes of a college football program.
“Jakie was certainly a fine player in his own right on some of Bud Wilkinson’s greatest teams,” Stoops said after Sandefer’s death. “But perhaps his greatest gift to the program was his ability to unite many different generations of OU players and fans in support of the Sooners. I will always value Jakie’s friendship, the countless contributions he made to the University of Oklahoma and his unwavering love of OU football.”
Sandefer had homes in Houston, Palm Springs and, during the fall, in Norman. He hosted family and friends before and after almost every home game at his Norman residence just off campus and walked to Memorial Stadium, where he owned a luxury suite.
Whether it was pregame in his living room, halftime in his luxury suite or postgame in his backyard, he could never get enough talking about the Sooners.
“Since I came up here, I don’t know how many off the team is from Texas, but I don’t know anybody that’s ever regretted it,” he once said. “One of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.”
Switzer said he flew to Houston to see Sandefer the day before he died and said Sandefer was on a respirator. Switzer said doctors told Sandefer he could remain on the respirator indefinitely, but Sandefer courageously replied, “Hell no, take me off of it.”
“He made that decision there when we were there (Jan. 26),” said Switzer. “He said, ‘Hey, let’s say our goodbyes.’
“Lost a good friend.”
Anyone who follows Oklahoma football should feel the same way.
(Note: This feature appears in Sooner Spectator's 2015 Spring Football Issue - to read more or subscribe, call 405-850-9063)