How Ty Detmer’s grandpa taught him to value and love winning
In Part 2 of a series on Ty Detmer and the game that defined him, a look at his roots explains some of his drive and competitive spirit.
Editor’s note: Second in a series on Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer.
PROVO — Of course, the crowd rushed the field amid a thunderous roar after BYU put down No. 1 Miami 28-21 the night of Sept. 8, 1990. Ty Detmer saw the mass of humanity close in on the team and coaches. That’s when the junior quarterback who’d just thrown for more than 400 yards on the nation’s No 1 defense the previous year decided to escape up the tunnel to the locker room before getting caught, crushed and detained from the team locker room celebration. And he didn’t want to miss the speech by LaVell Edwards.
Up the ramp, past security, through the door, Detmer found himself alone.
He could hear sounds of victory celebration all around and above him and the clatter of shoes against the steel steps above where aisles and seats emptied. But he was alone. He’d helped pull off a remarkable upset of the much-feared and respected Hurricanes and now he might as well have been in solitary confinement. Finally, after about five minutes, he decided he needed to go back out because he needed to celebrate.
“I don’t remember if Ty remembers it or not, but I do because no guy had ever kissed me before,” said teammate Jared Leavitt (“Calming the Storm,” by Rich Kaufusi, Gregory Klecker).
Ty Hubert Detmer is a seventh-generation Texan. To be more linked to Texas, a person would have to be of Comanche, Cherokee, Spaniard or Mexican descent. Detmer’s mother, Betty Spellman, traces her ancestry to what historians call the “Old 300,” a group of settlers who came with Stephen F. Austin in the 1820s and were given land grants by the ruling Spanish Commandant of Texas. Detmer is a direct descendant of Zadock Woods, who hosted Daniel Boone and U.S. president Zachary Taylor at Woods Fort near St. Louis.
Ty’s father Sonny was the only child of Hubert and Doris Detmer. Hubert, who worked for the Monsanto Corporation, instilled a love of competing, having fun doing it and winning in his son and grandson. He was also a calming force in the family. A World War II veteran, he grew up a figure straight out of the movie “Hoosiers,” helping lead his Rising Sun Shiners to their first Indiana sectional title back in 1930.
Doris was the disciplinarian, mover and shaker who worked at several banks, directing financial affairs in the background for several institutions. Paw Paw and Maw Maw, as they were called, were Ty Detmer’s biggest fans.
Hubert tossed Ty baseballs and footballs, and just as he did with his son Sonny, taught Ty that sports had to be fun and enjoyed, but it was also important to win. He’d often rig games so his grandkids could win, be it baseball or a card game.
“Nobody plays to lose,” he’d say.
Before cancer took his life, Hubert witnessed Ty’s record-breaking high school performances at San Antonio’s Southwest High and lived long enough to see a Heisman Trophy placed on his living room mantel. He died three months later in the spring of 1991.
Sonny credits his father for inspiring Ty’s love of football, his furor for winning and his sportsmanship.
“I had to be the parent,” said Doris. “I did the discipline. He did the playing. He was Sonny’s best friend.”
Sonny grew up loving games. He was a Sporting News All-America wide receiver at Wharton College (Texas) and later played football and basketball at Florida State. His sons Ty and Koy became major college football stars at BYU and Colorado and both started as NFL quarterbacks. Sonny became one of the most storied, productive high school coaches in Texas history. He still coaches today at 75.
When Sonny and Betty moved to San Antonio in the late ’60s, Hubert and Doris picked up and moved there too, buying a home on the same street. Hubert took early retirement and Doris became vice president of a bank in Alamo Heights. Home all day, Paw Paw’s biggest thrill was when Ty and siblings would come home from school so he could play with them.
“He was kind of a babysitter. He would hit fly balls, play catch with us, shoot baskets and spend time in the back yard. He was never too busy to do it. He would hit us ground balls and see if we could backhand them. He always made it a challenge for us,” Ty said.
It always puzzled Sonny that his father would rig competition so they would win.
“He wanted them to feel the thrill of winning,” said Sonny.
When playing cards with Sonny, Hubert would let him win and it would make him mad. Then he did it with his kids.
“But the thing is, you got used to winning,” Sonny said. “I was just the opposite. I’d beat Ty and Koy every time I could. That probably balanced things out, because he played with them a lot more than I did. The thing is, I’m not sure my way is the way to do it. They won, they won, they won. They’re used to winning. Koy turned 16 and beat me at golf. I’ve never beaten him since.”
Paw Paw battled prostate cancer the last five years of his life and he was in pain. The year BYU beat Miami, Ty would be in constant contact with his grandfather, reporting in, sharing moments.
During the most pressure-packed months of his life, Ty never forgot his grandfather, and in a sense played with a fury as if every play, every pass and touchdown would keep Paw Paw alive longer, making him hang on to see the kickoff the next weekend.
Doris said watching Ty play on television became more meaningful for her husband during the 1990 season. Paw Paw hung on that year, carefully watching the Heisman race.
Four years earlier, Ty’s grandparents were in the stands when their son Sonny’s Southwest Dragons, led by their grandson Ty, beat the Minutemen of Memorial High 47-0 on Friday, Oct. 10, 1986. That night in Southwest High Stadium, Ty shattered four city records, completing 27 of 44 passes for 435 yards and seven touchdowns.
Ty’s seven TDs set a San Antonio city record for high school career touchdown passes with 58, surpassing the old mark of 54 by Tommy Kramer (1971-72), who went on to star at Rice and then for the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL.
“He wanted them to feel the thrill of winning.” — Sonny Detmer on his father, Hubert
That same night, Ty also broke the city record for touchdown passes in a single game, a record held by Brackenridge’s Victor Castillo since 1962.
Ty’s 435 yards passing broke his own city record of 430, which he set during the playoffs the previous season against Calallen. He also set a state record for career passing yardage with 6,245, breaking the record by Gary Kubiak at Houston’s St. Pius X from 1975-78. Kubiak went on to an NFL career that included replacing John Elway in the 1991 NFL playoffs. Ty later increased his own record to a high school career mark of 8,005 passing yards.
Before that 1986 season, Sonny told Memorial Minutemen coach E.C. Lee that if Ty had a chance to get those marks against Lee’s team, he’d let him rip. He was giving him a heads up, both as a challenge and a preamble. Lee and Sonny were friends and later worked on the same staff.
Lee replied, “I hope I’m there when he gets it.”
Before kickoff against Miami, BYU’s players came off the field for 10 minutes. When they returned, the noticed something different about the home crowd. Folks in the stands were riled up like never before. “They were like in a frenzy,” said receiver Andy Boyce. “I never knew why until afterward when people told me Miami players had come over to BYU’s side and taunted people, stepped on the ‘Y’ on the field and generally got everybody upset. The energy was something else and we could feel it.”
Afterward, indeed, a fired-up crowd stormed the field in waves and it was dangerous. Coach LaVell Edwards got knocked down and had to be helped up. Players were trapped with nowhere to go. “It was just like being in a swift river and we had to go with the flow. It was dangerous, you could have been trampled,” said Boyce.
And Detmer left his place of solitude in the locker room to get a taste.
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