Mac Engel

Texas Wesleyan’s 50-year-old football player wants to be more than Rudy

Jason Spangler, 50, says his return to football has been worth it, broken ribs and all.
Jason Spangler, 50, says his return to football has been worth it, broken ribs and all.

The 5-foot-8 junior safety is listed on the Texas Wesleyan football roster as an “R” for “redshirt.” But it should stand for ridiculous, because we’re talking about a balding, 50-year-old man with three grown kids and his own roofing business.

Texas Wesleyan’s first football season since 1941 is going about as well as you might expect. The Rams are 0-5 and they have been outscored 190-41.

One of the best parts of this Rams season will be the stories, and there are few better than the guys who return to the game after a hiatus, like Jason Spangler, a graduate of Hurst L.D. Bell who last played football as a seventh-grader. That’s when he quit to pursue an athletic career in, wait for it ... gymnastics.

Since the team resumed its program, the player who has generated the most attention has played the least. “Dad” Spangler has yet to play a snap in a game, but has managed to sustain a few broken ribs.

Thus far, as much of a pain as this adventure has been, it’s all worth it. Busted ribs and all.

He practices, works out and runs scout team with the Rams, but a game appearance is missing.

The retired Army helicopter pilot returned to football because he wanted to, and because he figured: “I am not living my life.”

“I am not living to my potential. I had two friends die from cancer last year. I wanted to change people’s lives, and the only way to do that is to prove it.”

It may only last for a season, and portions of this have been far more difficult than he expected, but Texas Wesleyan’s “Dad” is proving to people they can do something like this.

“This has been tough. I’m pulling 100-plus-hour weeks right now,” he said.

Forget the football for a moment. Just going back to school has been hard enough.

Spangler started his college career at Oklahoma when he was a walk-on gymnast. An arm injury ended that, and he returned to Texas.

After TWU coach Joe Prud’homme invited Spangler to join the team last year, there was the small matter of college course work. Spangler had accumulated 124 credit hours between his time at Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Tarrant County College and Excelsior, a private school in Albany, N.Y.

Spangler braced to lose some of those credit hours, but not 54.

“I’m having to take math again,” he said.

Broken ribs sound better.

Spangler last took a math class in 1986.

That was before he was married. Before he had his son and two daughters. Before he joined and retired from the military. Before he became a credentialed helicopter pilot. Before he was divorced. Before he was writing for a tech company. Before he was selling for a tech company.

Before he was teaching helicopter safety to millionaires, which included actor Harrison Ford and Ross Perot. Jr.

And before Spangler started his own roofing business. Before a business partner embezzled more than $20,000 from his account.

By the time he pondered returning to school, he didn’t need a college degree. He wanted it as much as he wants to play football again.

He is taking 12 hours, and needs two more classes to complete his degree.

“This has been the easily the biggest growth period of my life,” Spangler said. “And it’s because these kids have accepted me.”

Many of his teammates call him Dad. Or Spanky, his nickname since junior high.

At 50, Spangler would not be the oldest player to play a college football game. This sort of trivia is always surrounded in uncertainty, but the oldest player to appear in an NCAA Division I game is believed to be Joe Thomas Sr., who in 2016 played for South Carolina State when he was 55.

In 2011, Vietnam vet Alan Moore of NAIA Faulkner was 61 when he kicked an extra point, thus making him the oldest person to play in a college football game. We think.

In Texas, there was 59-year-old linebacker Mike Flynt, who appeared in a game for Sul Ross University in 2007.

Spangler had no interest in joining the Rams only to be mentioned as another older guy to play in a game loaded with younger men.

He just wants to play a play or two. Or three.

He’s like Rudy Ruettiger, the most famous walk-on in college football, the former Notre Dame player made famous in the Hollywood film about his life. On the final play of his senior season at Notre Dame, he sacked the quarterback.

It was not a coincidence that Spangler’s jersey number for the first game was the same as Rudy’s: 45.

“I’d like to do something for the team,” Spangler said. “I’d like to get on the field and make something happen.”

He’s leaning on his coaches to play quarterback for a play, to think big. Maybe punt. Or be on the kickoff return. And a series at safety.

The reaction from his coaches wasn’t a no, but it was met with laughter.

“I don’t think I am going to hinder the team if they put me on the field,” he said.

Even though he has done so much already, he says he has to play in the game to fulfill this ambition.

“One play,” he said. “A play to help this team win. That would do it.”

After doing so much, it’s not ridiculous to think he can’t.

Mac Engel: @macengelprof

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