Triumph and Tragedy

By Robert F. Darden

The Life of the Indominable Barton “Botchey” Koch

Few people experienced more dramatic swings of fortune and endured more than Barton “Botchey” Koch, the first Southwest Conference football All-American and one of the greatest athletes in Baylor University history.

Despite national acclaim for his prowess on the gridiron, the pain-wracked Koch died alone in an anonymous Temple hotel room in April 1964. The man once called “greatest guard in the history of the game” by a legendary football coach was just 57.

Alas, no film exists from his years with Baylor and few interviews with the man survive.

The longest biography of Barton Koch (pronounced “cook”) is a single chapter in a rare book (only 100 copies printed) co-written by Baylor President Abner McCall’s long-time assistant, Thomas Turner, titled “Baylor’s Botchey”. Turner writes that Barton was one of ten children born to “Papa George” and Olga Koch, whose parents had come from Germany. Born on April 22, 1907, Barton was the fifth of eight boys.

The origin of the nickname “Botchey” is unclear. His older brother Maxey claimed it came from his younger brother George’s mangling of “Barton.” Others say it was an anti-German slur from his schoolmates during World War I, “boche” being a derogatory term for Germans. Regardless of its origins, it stuck.

A bright and industrious young man, Botchey helped out in his father’s clothing and dry goods store, worked at night in a commercial bakery, and still managed to finish grade school two years early. Turner attributed Koch’s physical strength to nights spent wrangling and rolling massive balls of dough at the bakery.

At 5’6” and 145 pounds, Koch failed to make the Temple High School football team, but remained as a “scrub,” scrimmaging during practices with Coach Rusty Russell’s varsity. According to brother Maxey, Botchey was so small that he wasn’t given a uniform — he played in overalls and “something that passed for headgear.”

But he was so relentless on the practice field that, according to family lore, the varsity players eventually went to Russell and complained, “You better put this kid on the team before we kill him — or he kills one of us.” At Temple, Botchey was twice named to the Texas all-state football team as a guard on defense.

The Wildcats, led by Koch, were one of the few teams to play Paul Tyson’s Waco High School Tigers on relatively even terms in those days when Waco won its state championships. But Botchey suffered a severe knee injury his senior year, forcing him to painfully “pop” it back in place throughout games. The damaged knee would bedevil him his entire life.

Koch enrolled in Baylor in September 1927 — sportswriter H.H. “Jinx” Tucker estimated him to be 5’11” and about 200 pounds — and proceeded to rewrite Bear football history. The 1928 team finished with eight wins against two losses and Botchey’s relentless defense led the way. By then, his knee was so bad that he frequently crawled back to the line of scrimmage. Despite badly injuring an ankle, Koch also started every game at right tackle on offense, blocking for Baylor’s star quarterback Jake Wilson.

In 1930, as the Great Depression deepened, Coach Morley Jennings personally helped pay for the tickets so that the team could take three trains to Lafayette, Indiana to play the powerful Purdue Boilermakers. The team arrived early Saturday morning for the scheduled afternoon game. Baylor lost, 20-7 — and Botchey’s intercepted pass provided the Bears’ lone score. After the game, Purdue Head Coach Noble Kizer said, “I’ve seen many a good guard and spent my share of time at Notre Dame but I have never seen anyone in his position there or anywhere better than Botchey Koch.”

Turner notes that his teammates and classmates said that Koch was an “amiable, friendly and universally liked fellow away from the football field.”

Even Dr. Cornelia Marschall Smith, who would eventually become Baylor’s longest-tenured professor, knew Botchey in her early days: “Goodness, yes,” she once said, “he was by far the most popular student around the campus.”

Following the East-West Shrine Bowl after the season, a reporter for the “San Francisco Chronicle” wrote, “There were a lot of great linemen in the game, but Koch was simply the best. A steamroller could not get over him.”

As word of Koch’s play spread, the accolades flowed in, and he became the first Southwest Conference player named as an All-American by both the Associated Press and premiere football writer Grantland Rice in 1930.

Following his senior year, he stayed at Baylor to become an assistant coach to Frank Kimbrough. During this time, his brother Melton told Turner that Botchey fell in love with a Baylor co-ed and the two became engaged. According to his friends and family, Koch was deliriously happy. But the young lady’s family abruptly broke it off — they objected to her marrying a lowly assistant football coach. “Botchey never did get over her,” Melton said.

“She was the only girl I ever really loved,” Koch once told a friend. He never married.

After four years, Botchey left Baylor and became an assistant coach at George Washington University. When World War II erupted, he immediately tried to enlist, despite his age (35), the bum knee and ankle, an enlarged heart, and even color blindness. He was repeatedly rejected.

Finally, after a stint as a physical education instructor at the U.S. Army Air Corps base in Wichita Falls, he managed to wrangle a slot on a decrepit rust-bucket of a ship in the United States Merchant Marine. During a violent storm in the South Pacific, Botchey was badly cut when was thrown against a rusty tear in the ship’s bulkhead. Melton said the cut became infected and his brother contracted a rare tropical disease, one that caused painful rashes and even internal bleeding when he was exposed to the sun.

After the war, the disease ended his coaching career. Koch bounced around several sales jobs before eventually returning to Temple in 1964 where he assisted in his brother Otto’s book-keeping business. He lived alone in the Doric Hotel downtown.

The internal bleeding and ulcers worsened until in desperation Botchey agreed to experimental injections of massive doses of cortisone. The treatment failed and caused Koch to gain hundreds of pounds, but he still managed to limp to Otto’s office each day for work.

On the morning of April 28, 1964, when he failed to meet some friends for breakfast, Botchey was found dead in his hotel. He was buried in Temple’s Hillcrest Cemetery with a small gravestone that reads: “Barton ‘Botchey’ Koch, 1907-1964. A Real All-American.”

In the days that followed, tributes to Koch filled the local, regional and national media. Perhaps the best homage came from writer Roy Edwards of “The Dallas Morning News”:

“Haunted for years by the memory of personal tragedy and ridden by failing health, Koch died at the age of 57 Tuesday in the lonely obscurity of a hotel room in his native Temple. They buried the man there Thursday, but not the legend. The legend of Botchey Koch endures.”