Jerry Thompson and the rest of the Oklahoma Sooners walked into the dimly lit Chez Paree nightclub in 1959, carved their way to a private room on the third floor of the downtown Chicago building and sat down on each side of a long table.
“They had a big spread out for us,” said Thompson, a former OU defensive and offensive lineman. “We were sitting there having the fruit cocktail before the dinner, and all of the sudden people got up from the table and going into the back of the restroom throwing up.”
Most of those players were slated to start against Northwestern two days later. But they were keeled over in the parking lot, Thompson said, and a few others who tried to hail taxis were denied because of constant vomiting.
Thus began the end of OU’s 28-game true road winning streak from 1953-1958, the longest in the post-World War II era. And with that came one of the stranger conspiracies in college football — one the currently fifth-ranked OU team can only hope to avoid when taking a 20-win road streak to UCLA this weekend (7 p.m. Saturday, FOX).
Several of the ’59 Sooners still maintain that OU’s team had been systematically poisoned that night. Some even believe what authorities never confirmed, murmurs that the mafia itself had been behind it all. The OU-Northwestern betting line had been minus-6 in the Sooners’ favor earlier in the week, but fell to minus-3 when, supposedly, a lump sum of money had come in on the Northwestern side.
OU lost 45-13, the worst defeat of coach Bud Wilkinson’s era.
The Chez Paree, located in the luxe River North neighborhood between Chicago Riverwalk and Lake Michigan, was an unlikely backdrop for the Sooners that week. Wilkinson was known to treat players to a movie before road games. If they arrived somewhere on a Thursday before a Saturday game, he’d arrange a dinner.
This was slightly different.
“We didn’t do a lot of clubs,” said Tom Cox, who at 78 years old, from his Garden Plain, Kansas home still remembers the game well. He was a sophomore who had never seen the spotlight until being asked to spell co-captain Gilmer Lewis at left tackle. It was odd, Cox remembers, how none of his friends on the second team — like Billy White, Karl Milstead, Ronny Payne — became sick.
Mostly first-string players were stricken at the Chez Paree. They were supposed to be enjoying dinner and a show inside the posh club, which booked musical titans by the dozen — the likes of Frank Sinatra, Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Jerry Lee Lewis.
“We didn’t stay for the dang show,” Thompson panned.
Quarterback Bobby Boyd, fullback Ronnie Hartline, halfbacks Jim Carpenter and Brewster Hobby, plus Lewis were among the dozen hospitalized, according to Sports Illustrated, and half of them had their stomachs pumped.
Most of the players missed Friday’s walk-through, but were available for kickoff that Saturday when rain saturated Ryan Field. They didn’t play well, though.
Wilkinson had recently added an offensive wrinkle, splitting his tight ends out wide and excluding them from the huddle, so tackles were responsible for giving them play signals by hand. Cox had never done it before in a game and could barely see whom he was signaling through the downpour.
Ara Parseghian had just begun a successful seven-year run at Northwestern, which would land him the Notre Dame head coaching job years later. The Wildcats were no fluke, beating fifth-ranked Iowa the week after downing No. 2 Oklahoma and finishing 6-3. Northwestern also beat the Sooners 19-3 the following season in Norman, as Wilkinson approached the downturn of his successes at OU.
Whether illness contributed to the loss is subjective. But some players from the ’59 team still see no coincidence that it happened. They remember federal authorities interviewing select Sooners the following summer in Norman, though no charges were ever filed.
Jay O’Neal was a graduate assistant on the staff and turned down an opportunity to travel with the team to Chicago that year. He watched game highlights afterward and believes players were disoriented on the field.
Northwestern showed no pity. Its 304 yards of offense buried OU.
“With Parseghian, that was a pretty damn good coaching staff,” Thompson said. “They took advantage of it, that’s for sure.”
There are uncontrollable elements when college teams play away from home. OU coach Lincoln Riley has experienced them, though to a far lesser degree. In 2017, quarterback Baker Mayfield developed flu-like symptoms before the Rose Bowl against Georgia. Riley was worried that Mayfield’s hoarse voice wouldn’t communicate loud enough to make calls in that environment, so he developed a backup plan.
OU’s last true road loss was Oct. 4, 2014 at TCU. A victory over 0-2 UCLA would tie Alabama for the nation’s second-longest true road win streak since World War II.
The record still belongs to Wilkinson’s Sooners, who won or tied every true road game from Nov. 29, 1952, until Sept. 26, 1959, two days after players fell mysteriously ill.
OU at UCLA
When: 7 p.m., Saturday
Place: Rose Bowl Stadium
Line: OU (-21.5)
Radio: KRXO-FM 107.7