Super Bowl Coaches Owe Debt To Black Football Pioneers

By Neil Hayes
Updated: January 31, 2007

Jerry LeVias (circa 1966)

Jerry LeVias (circa 1966)

MIAMI — He held the letter his mother sent him when he was a freshman at Southern Methodist University in his hand. A 5-cent stamp was stuck to the upper right-hand corner. The postmark read April 1966.

Jerry LeVias read the long-forgotten letter his sister found before sitting down to watch the AFC and NFC championship games on January 21 and instantly was transported back to the most painful time in his life, a time when being an African-American football player often meant cheap shots, racial taunts, death threats and profound loneliness.

”I had forgotten about how low I was at the time,” LeVias said. ”My mind hid it away because there was so much pain.” It wasn’t until days later that LeVias, the first black scholarship player in the Southwest Conference, recognized the irony. He relived the painful memories of the racism and discrimination he endured a few hours before Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy became the first African-American coaches to lead their teams to a Super Bowl.

”It made a statement that was long overdue,” he said. ”On the other hand, I look forward to the day where it’s said that two brilliant coaches led their teams to the Super Bowl and skin color is a non-issue.”

A generation of football fans who grew up watching college and pro teams flush with African-American athletes have wondered why Smith’s and Dungy’s skin color is an issue at all this week, which only makes those who suffered long before them wonder why they have been forgotten.

Jackie Robinson is celebrated for breaking the color barrier in major-league baseball. In football, integration unfolded slowly, one man and one program at a time, and those who blazed the trail endured as much as, if not more than, Robinson.

”I tell kids that back when I came through, there were no blacks south of the Mason-Dixon line,” said Bobby Grier, the first African American to play in the Sugar Bowl.

”The only time you saw blacks was when they were cutting the grass. Look at teams now, and there are black quarterbacks and running backs. Back then, there were none. Kids today, they can’t visualize that.” LeVias wasn’t looking to be a pioneer. He just wanted an education when he arrived on SMU’s campus. His mother had chosen the university after concluding there was something ”godly” about coach Hayden Fry.

The parents of LeVias’ first roommate threatened to withdraw their son from school. Peer pressure prompted his second roommate to move out. A teammate spit in his face during practice.

Others abandoned the shower room when he tried to rinse off after practice. Even his old friends in segregated Beaumont, Texas, called him an ”Uncle Tom” for attending an all-white school.

”I really didn’t belong anywhere,” he said. ”The whites didn’t want me, and the blacks made fun of me.” It was during spring practice before his sophomore season that the letter from his mother arrived. ”Why haven’t I heard from you? How are you doing? Are you studying hard?”

His mother didn’t know her son was in danger of flunking out, was injured and afraid he wouldn’t make the varsity. She didn’t know he was considering giving up his dream.

Abner Haynes can relate. He and Leon King were the first African Americans to play at North Texas State in 1956. They weren’t allowed to live in the all-white dorms.

They weren’t allowed in the dining hall. When Haynes was hungry, he hitchhiked across town to scrounge a meal, then hitchhiked back to campus.

Then there was the second game of his freshman year, when fans in Corsicana, Texas, came out of the stands screaming, ”Kill that n—–!” That sent Haynes, King and their white teammates scrambling for the bus.

”As soon as they found out I had made the team, other teams started canceling games with North Texas,” Haynes said. ”People were canceling games because of me.” Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus in Montgomery, Ala., on Dec. 1, 1955. But it was Georgia Gov. Marvin Griffin who made headlines the next day when he declared: ”The South stands at Armageddon. The battle is joined. We cannot make the slightest concession to the enemy in this dark and lamentable hour of struggle.” Griffin wasn’t talking about Parks. The segregationist was referring to Pittsburgh’s two-way star Grier, who one month later would become the first African American to participate in the Sugar Bowl.

The Georgia board of regents voted 14-1 in support of the governor, and the Louisiana legislature later passed an anti-integration law for sporting events that stood until 1965.

Georgia Tech students rioted. Georgia Tech players, who would face Pittsburgh in the game, wanted to play, Grier or no Grier. The Pittsburgh administration minced no words: No Grier, no game.

Pittsburgh players chose to stay in Tulane dormitories rather than in a whites-only hotel. A controversial pass-interference call on Grier set up the only touchdown in Georgia Tech’s 7-0 victory.

”I was probably the first black to sleep on the Tulane campus,” Grier said.

LeVias was one of the most dominant players in the conference during his sophomore season, but that didn’t keep fans from holding up nooses or letting black cats loose on the field.

SMU was closing in on a conference title when the team bus pulled into the parking lot at Texas Christian. LeVias was told to get off the bus last, which he naively interpreted as a sign of his rising star status.

It was the same when bodyguards escorted him into the stadium. LeVias just smiled when he was told to warm up under the bleachers, assuming he was SMU’s ”secret weapon.” It wasn’t until right before kickoff that he was told of the death threat.

He crouched in the huddle to shield himself from snipers. The offense used a quick count on every play.

”I ran faster to the sideline than I did on the field,” he said.

LeVias was a big reason why SMU won that day, but the abuse persisted. He almost lost his vision when a Baylor linebacker intentionally punched him the next season.

When a TCU linebacker spit in his face and used a racial slur later that season, he was ready to quit in the middle of the game. He returned in time for a spectacular 89-yard punt return that provided the winning margin.

The teammate who spit in his face apologized when LeVias was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2003. An opposing player who had done the same thing didn’t go that far, but he told LeVias he has raised his own children to respect all people.

LeVias’ story is ultimately one of triumph, but scars remain, as they do for Grier and Haynes. They and others like them remember when trainers refused to tape their ankles and sideline medical personnel refused to administer them oxygen. In those days, an injured African-American player in need of medical attention might be refused transport by a local ambulance company.

Don’t tell them Smith and Dungy reaching the Super Bowl isn’t a milestone. They all agree it is, although they also long for the day when a man’s race matters not at all.

”I know Tony and Lovie and am so proud of them I don’t know what to do,” Haynes said. ”I think of what they have accomplished as a celebration of what their grandparents went through.”