On The Outside Looking In (Conclusion)

By Richard Pennington
Updated: August 29, 2008

SWC TEXAS — In 1967, two black walk-ons were members of the University of Texas freshman team: E.A. Curry and Robinson Parsons, but neither got to the varsity.

The wise, if cynical, thing for Royal would have been to ensure that one or both of those young men made it on the Longhorn varsity, getting on the field, drawing the requisite media attention and ending the days of all-white football at Memorial Stadium.

By procrastinating, Royal had painted himself into a corner. War was raging in Vietnam, there were riots in dozens of American cities, students were smoking dope and protesting everything imaginable, and DKR’s teams had yet to integrate.

The 1969 Longhorns went undefeated, with memorable wins over Arkansas and Notre Dame, and are remembered today as the last national championship team without a black player.

As I mentioned earlier, UT track had been integrated since 1963 and basketball since 1969, and it happened in football in 1970 when Julius Whittier joined the varsity.

He was a short but explosive offensive lineman who started for the orange and white his junior and senior seasons and later got a law degree. Whittier was followed by a trickle of black athletes like Donald Ealey, Howard Shaw and Roosevelt Leaks.

Leaks, a running back, was Texas’ first black star. He had gained over 2,500 yards in 1972 and 1973 and was favored to win the Heisman Trophy in 1974, but he suffered a knee injury in spring training which some observers thought was intentionally inflicted by a teammate. Nevertheless, he had a solid 10-year pro career with the Baltimore Colts and Buffalo Bills.

A comparison between the SWC and the other two major Southern conferences, the ACC and the SEC, might be instructive. What is really notable is that both integrated in the northernmost states and worked their way south.

In the ACC, Darrell Hill transferred from the U.S. Naval Academy to Maryland in 1963 and had a did well as a receiver for the Terrapins, despite a few jeers, catcalls and and cheap shots from opponents. Robert Grant and Butch Henry played for Wake Forest from 1965 to 1967 as progress moved inexorably south to Clemson and South Carolina in 1971.

In the SEC, it went like this: Two black players (linebacker Greg Page and defensive back Nat Northington) signed with Kentucky in 1966, but misfortune befell them both. They played on the freshman football team, but on the third day of varsity practice in the spring of 1967, Page suffered a spinal injury that left him paralyzed and in a coma for 40 days before he died.

Racially motivated malfeasance from one’s teammates was not unheard of, as is known. But a thorough investigation determined that Page’s death had just been an unfortunate football accident.

That left Northington, who played a couple of games for the Wildcats before suffering a shoulder injury and quitting the team. Moving one state south, we see that receiver Lester McClain was playing varsity football at Tennessee in 1968, and he was catching passes from a black quarterback, Condredge Holloway, by his senior year.

No school’s integration process was more analyzed or agonized than Alabama, whose coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant, was alleged (like Darrell Royal) to have made defiant statements a la George Wallace in the schoolhouse door in 1963. True or not, one game is said to have changed the Bear’s views once and for all, and that was at Legion Field in Birmingham on the night of September 12, 1970.

Alabama, on the way to a desultory 6-5 record, still did not have a single black player on its varsity roster. But Southern Cal did. The Trojans were loaded with studs like Sam “Bam” Cunningham, Jimmy Jones, Clarence Davis, Al Cowlings (better known today for having driven the white Bronco in O.J. Simpson’s infamous slow chase on a Los Angeles freeway) and Charley Weaver. They whupped Bryant’s boys 42-21.

It was a landmark game, even to the most bigoted observers. Bryant had two black players on his team the next year and, coincidence or not, the Crimson Tide went 11-1. The dubious honor of being the last SEC schools to integrate goes to LSU and Georgia, which waited until 1972.

Integrating college football in Texas and throughout the South was not an easy thing, and those who were in the midst of it — the heroes and even some of the villains, in a way — deserve credit. Still, I believe there should be an honest reckoning of what has happened. If for no other reason, it is a reminder of how far we have come.