Dallas, TX –
They've always been linked in Cleburne football lore, and now they're linked in a new book, Men on a Flying Trapeze, by Fort Worth artist Dennis Meals, who donated all the books and their proceeds to Cleburne's Layland Museum. He did hundreds of interviews and chronicled the lives of Bill "Bulldog" Dennis, the passer, and Don Usry, the receiver, the other man on the "flying trapeze." This refers to a dramatic, razzle-dazzle football play they used sparingly but successfully in that long-ago Cleburne football season.
Both players had prodigious athletic talents, but Don's extended to academics as well. His drive toward distinction took him to West Point and to Vietnam as a pilot with 269 combat missions. After Vietnam he was set to teach math at West Point on his way to becoming a general.
Bulldog was a home run hitter at Baylor and all-conference in football. But even great natural talent needs discipline, which he lacked. He was an only child, spoiled by doting parents. Baylor sacked him after three years of bad habits. So did the Boston Red Sox after tolerating a year or two of his carousing through the minor leagues. But he was never sacked by his multitudes of friends.
They were both driven, Don to become a lieutenant general, it is said, in order to rise high above his hard-scrabble upbringing in Midlothian and Venus. Bulldog was driven to rid the bars of every last drop of liquor by drinking it all up. Don's upright behavior made Bulldog look even worse, if that was possible. But Bulldog made Don look good on the high school football field, yet Don got most of the headlines. We were not surprised when Don made the high school All-America team and later played in the college all-star game for West Point. He was imperious and earnest, a titan, six-four, 200 pounds, blond with sculptured Aryan features. He literally looked down on us puny mortals. On the school ground once, he and two other upstanding senior athletes advised me to absent myself from their eyesight, as they were conservative about what they wasted it on.
Bulldog Dennis would never have done such a thing, especially not to a fellow wastrel. He was a jovial, fun-loving beast, a likable roving outlaw whose aim with the ball was perfect but nonexistent off the field. He was spontaneous, a compulsive, garrulous, nocturnal animal, desperate for conviviality. Finally, his raging alcoholism destroyed him. It was a genetic gift from his doting parents, whose full liquor bottles he routinely gathered up as a boy and shot with a gun.
Bulldog died on April 20th, 1969. Major Don Usry died five months later, on October 29th, after crashing his military plane short of the runway in bad weather. Bulldog's fatal crash came on a cot in the storeroom of a Berry Street bakery after a night of swilling his way through the Fort Worth bars. They were 31 years old.
Don was buried at West Point with hero's honors, including a flyover. Those attending Bulldog's funeral described it in the book as being like a "rock star's." The motley crowd included high school and college classmates, team members, city officials, lawyers, teachers, and policemen. There were ex-wives and girl friends. There were also bootleggers, drug dealers, prostitutes, bar hops, motorcycle demons, strippers, and just plain rubberneckers.
I always wondered if Don knew of Bulldog's death. And if so, in the five months left to him, did he ask himself how different his life might have been without his former partner on the flying trapeze and his strong right arm?
Tom Dodge is a writer from Midlothian.
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